Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

Curving Round: David Sylvester and the ‘Rediscovery’ of David Bomberg

Lee Hallman considers how David Sylvester’s role in the rehabilitation of David Bomberg’s reputation in the 1950s and 1960s illuminates as much about the critic and his cultural and historical milieu as about the painter’s then-neglected work.

For David Sylvester, among many others in the British art world, the 1958 Arts Council memorial exhibition of the paintings of David Bomberg was both a revelation and an occasion for sober reflection. In a discussion organised by the Arts Council and broadcast on the BBC that year, Sylvester reflected:

We tend to flatter ourselves that we, unlike our grandfathers and great grandfathers, don’t let genius go neglected. We fondly imagine that we are so open minded, so responsive to new ideas, that we couldn’t possibly let a Van Gogh or a Seurat live among us and die unsung and unknown. Well, most of us, and that includes myself, waited until Bomberg died before we woke up to his importance. The most shameful thing about it all is that Bomberg was not an unknown artist, but a forgotten artist.1

The institutional neglect and posthumous ‘rediscovery’ of Bomberg is a notorious chapter in the annals of twentieth-century British art. Born in 1890 in Birmingham to Polish-Jewish immigrants and raised in the East End of London, Bomberg was among the extraordinary generation of students at the Slade School of Art (which included Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Christopher Nevinson and Dora Carrington), whose talent the formative teacher Henry Tonks described as the school’s ‘second and last crisis of brilliance’.2 The initial public showings of Bomberg’s work received enthusiastic, if measured reviews from major critics. In 1914, for instance, Roger Fry claimed Bomberg’s boldly experimental canvases such as In the Hold c. 1913-14 (fig.1) and The Mud Bath 1914, influenced by the futurist movement founded in 1909 in Italy, indicated ‘new plastic possibilities, and a new kind of orchestration of color’, and the critic T.E. Hulme conceded in the same year that Bomberg was ‘undoubtedly an artist of remarkable ability’.3

David Bomberg
In the Hold (c.1913–14)

This bright start was curtailed, however, by Bomberg’s enlistment in the Royal Engineers in November 1915. Bomberg lived through his harrowing service on the Western Front in the First World War, but the experience shattered his faith in machine-driven progress. His art underwent a corresponding reversal as he abandoned the geometric scaffolding of the pre-war years. This wholesale turn was fully effected in the meticulous representational landscapes of a sprawling and heat-scorched Holy Land, such as Jerusalem, Looking to Mount Scopus 1925 (fig.2), that Bomberg produced from 1923–7 on an artistic pilgrimage initially supported by the Palestine Foundation Fund. In the 1930s extended periods spent abroad in Spain – in Toledo, Cuenca and Ronda – further stoked the dramatic evolution of his immersive painterly approach to nature, which he famously summarised as a search for ‘the spirit in the mass’.4 The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1937 necessitated Bomberg’s return to England, where his critical misfortunes resumed as he struggled to obtain commissions and was repeatedly denied official patronage from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee during the Second World War. Eventually securing a post at the Borough Polytechnic Institute in south London in 1945, Bomberg became a celebrated and influential teacher, but his career never recovered the recognition of its early years. By the end of his life, Bomberg’s paintings were almost unsellable, he had received no London career survey exhibition, he was ignored by critics in their appraisals of contemporary British art, and the Tate Gallery repeatedly rejected potential acquisitions – none of which was helped by Bomberg’s stubborn and uncompromising personality.5 He died virtually destitute in 1957 at the age of sixty-six.

David Bomberg
Jerusalem, Looking to Mount Scopus (1925)

The Arts Council memorial exhibition that opened a year later – largely due to the efforts of the artist’s widow, Lilian Holt, Joanna Drew of the Arts Council and the critic Andrew Forge – commenced the reappraisal of Bomberg’s work, although the show was an uneven account of his career, entirely omitting the monumental early works such as In the Hold and The Mud Bath. Not until the 1979 Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition David Bomberg: The Later Years, curated by Nicholas Serota, Richard Cork’s compendious 1987 monograph, and the survey exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1988, was the artist’s oeuvre comprehensively addressed and his reputation fully cemented.6 David Sylvester’s critical and personal involvement in the posthumous rehabilitation of Bomberg’s work between 1958 and the 1970s, as this article explores, is a largely untold piece of the puzzle, and a fascinating episode in mid-twentieth century British art history on its own terms.

In the opening sentence of his first critical notice of Bomberg, a review of the memorial exhibition published in the Listener on 18 September 1958, Sylvester rhapsodically declares his enthusiasm for the artist: ‘I doubt if we have seen paintings by a British artist of this century finer than the finest of those … in the David Bomberg memorial exhibition at the Arts Council Gallery, except for some by Sickert, perhaps, and some by Bomberg himself’.7 It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find that Sylvester spends the majority of the rest of the article comparing Bomberg to Paul Cézanne, the French post-impressionist painter. Halfway down the first column of the review, Sylvester calls upon the British author D.H. Lawrence’s essay on Cézanne, ‘Introduction to his Paintings’ (first published in 1929 and issued in a reprinted edition in 1950), which had become a cult text among Sylvester and his peers in London, as the art historian Martin Hammer has noted.8 Lawrence’s essay, which countered critic Roger Fry’s predominantly formalist interpretation of Cézanne from the 1920s, proposed a reading of the French artist focusing on painting as a vessel of bodily sensation, with the potential to summon ‘the reality hidden beneath the veil of appearance’. When Cézanne painted an apple, Lawrence claimed, he was aware of the apple ‘all round’.9 Explicitly positing this roundly gazing Cézanne as an entrée to the lush, painterly late landscapes of Bomberg, Sylvester cites the following section of Lawrence’s analysis:

He wanted to touch the world of substance once more with the intuitive touch, to be aware of it with the intuitive awareness, and to express it in intuitive terms. That is, he wished to displace our present mode of mental-visual consciousness, the consciousness of mental concepts, and substitute a mode of consciousness that was predominantly intuitive, the awareness of touch … The eye sees only fronts, and the mind, on the whole, is satisfied with fronts. But intuition needs all-roundedness, and instinct needs insideness. The true imagination is forever curving round to the other side, to the back of presented appearance.10

Forty years later, in a description echoing Lawrence’s vision of an imagination ‘forever curving round to the other side’, Sylvester began his autobiographical essay ‘Curriculum Vitae’ by identifying his original artistic epiphany: as a young man, he encountered a black and white reproduction of Henri Matisse’s La Danse (two versions of which exist, completed in 1909–10, although Sylvester does not specify the exact work in his essay), in which the work’s ‘rhythm and sustained tension of the series of curves’ made him aware of ‘the music of form’.11 If there is an overarching thread to Sylvester’s writings, it is his emphasis on the direct, physical experience of looking – to the ‘curving’ of the subjective imagination in response to works of art. ‘Curving round’, with its implication of turning from one place or condition to another, offers a vivid rhetorical frame through which one can discuss Sylvester’s aesthetic – indeed, in many ways, his kinaesthetic – approach to Bomberg’s art, as well as assess the trajectory of his enthusiasm for Bomberg, as it shifted and evolved over his critical career.

Although Sylvester’s published writings on Bomberg range from the 1950s to the 1970s, he only wrote a small number of original pieces about the artist: the previously cited 1958 memorial exhibition review in the Listener, a 1960 exhibition review in the New Statesman, the introduction to a catalogue accompanying a Bomberg exhibition at the Marlborough New London Gallery in 1964, and the introduction to the Bomberg Arts Council retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1967.12 The 1967 catalogue text is in fact a revised and hybridised version of the earlier journal reviews combined with sections from the 1964 Marlborough essay. Titled ‘The Discovering of a Structure’, the 1967 essay recycles, among other material, the D.H. Lawrence passage cited above. It is clear in reading through this small body of texts that Sylvester’s critical opinion about Bomberg evolved little beyond his first responses in the 1950s, as the author himself later acknowledged.13 Considered as a cohesive group, however, the texts stand as significant and transitional pieces, both within the history of Bomberg’s reception and in Sylvester’s critical oeuvre. Close examination of Sylvester’s writings on Bomberg reveals as much about the shifting map of aesthetic and political opinion in Britain, and the critic’s position within this climate, as about the belated redemption of Bomberg’s status in the history of modern British painting.

From Bomberg’s student years at the Slade – when he was one of the first artists to enthusiastically embrace the introduction to Britain of European modernist styles – to the year of his death in 1957, the British art world, and the nation beyond, transformed almost beyond recognition.14 To trace the five-decade arc of Bomberg’s anguished career is to confront a timeline of British history encompassing economic depression in the 1930s, two world wars (including the Blitz), post-war reconstruction, the rapid expansion of the welfare state, rising consumerism, the omnipresent nuclear threat of the Cold War, the decline of the Empire, and the transposition of global commercial and cultural capital to the United States.15 How art should coexist with politics, and function within this fraught climate, was at the heart of debates in the mid-1950s London art world – a milieu in which Sylvester’s career rapidly ascended and Bomberg’s abruptly ended. For Sylvester, who became a key player in these disputes, it was the realm of individual human experience that art could properly and legitimately strive to express in the post-war age. Outlining the formal terms of this ‘new realism’ in the 1955 essay ‘End of the Streamlined Era’, Sylvester interpreted the gestural, rough, evocative surface handling of Francis Bacon’s paintings and Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures from the post-war period as ‘the symptom and symbol of a revolt against the anti-humanism of the streamlined surface, an assertion of the artist’s humanity and of the value of the creative act, considered as an act’.16

The origins of Sylvester’s criteria for a modern realism with a strong formalist and humanist grounding were integrally bound to his formative experience as a young critic in Paris, as the art historian James Hyman has carefully detailed.17 With the re-opening of European borders after 1945, Sylvester enthusiastically crossed the channel along with British artistic peers including William Turnbull, William Gear, Eduardo Paolozzi and Lucian Freud to soak up the aesthetic and philosophical ideals of Paris. In Parisian post-war painting abstraction was ‘de rigueur’, as Sylvester later reflected in ‘Curriculum Vitae’. Although he continued to promote abstract work produced in Britain and throughout Europe, Sylvester believed at this time that figurative art ‘was capable of going further … that [it] could be more complex, more specific, richer in human content’.18 By 1958, however, Sylvester had undergone what he later described as a ‘Damascene conversion’ to the profound achievements of recent American abstraction. Having initially resisted the rising tide of American abstract expressionism – due to what he subsequently admitted was ‘old fashioned anti-Americanism’ – his conversion took place upon seeing the Museum of Modern Art’s travelling exhibition Modern Art in the United States at the Tate Gallery in 1956.19   Yet even after this sharp critical swerve, Sylvester never lost his interest in the sort of figurative realism that first captured his voracious eye. The work that appealed to Sylvester’s aesthetic sensibility was not merely ‘realistic’ in its display of recognisable subject matter, but reached out viscerally to the viewer with a vital spark generated through its formal impact. In France Giacometti’s work had epitomised these qualities for Sylvester, while in Britain it was Bacon who answered the critic’s call most resoundingly and signalled the emergence of London as the new centre of contemporary realist art.20 Sylvester published, he later reckoned, ‘at least a dozen eulogies’ of Bacon’s work between 1950 and 1957, and Bacon was at the centre of the manifesto-like lecture, ‘Towards a New Realism’, that Sylvester presented at the Royal College of Art in 1951. By 1958, however, as Sylvester later confessed, he found Bacon’s most recent work to be so inferior that he felt ‘totally disillusioned about him’.21 The sudden and edifying appearance of Bomberg on the critic’s artistic radar that same year was, therefore, surely bound up with this contemporaneous crisis of confidence.

The later work of Bomberg that Sylvester saw in the 1958 memorial exhibition not only embodied the qualities of the figuratively rooted modern realism that Sylvester had thrown his critical energies so fervently behind, but also displayed something of the formal ambition of the abstract art to which the critic had been so dramatically converted. His critical support for Bomberg was about more than the rescue of one artist’s reputation: Sylvester saw Bomberg as a forgotten link within a continuing history of British figurative art that ran alternate, or at least parallel, to the ‘establishment’ British modernism of Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and the younger painters in St. Ives promoted by the British Council. Bomberg’s work, for Sylvester, was also distinct from the anti-formalist, mass culture-informed projects of the London-based Independent Group, and the Marxist-inflected ‘social realist’ painting espoused by Sylvester’s colleague, and sometime-critical rival, John Berger – a movement that Sylvester derogatorily dubbed ‘Kitchen Sink’ art.22

Reiterating his effusive rhetoric from 1958, Sylvester wrote of Bomberg on the occasion of an exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry in 1960: ‘I feel no other modern British painter is in the same class as Bomberg’.23 This judgment, Sylvester later acknowledged, still referred exclusively to Bomberg’s late work. Not until 1964 did Sylvester ‘curve round’ to the importance of Bomberg’s early, architectonic, vorticist-era paintings, which had languished in storage for half a century since remaining unsold from the artist’s 1914 solo show at the Chenil Gallery in London.24 Presented with another chance to opine on Bomberg in the introduction to the 1964 Marlborough Gallery exhibition, Sylvester elaborated: ‘There are two reasons for believing that David Bomberg was the finest English painter of this century: his early work and his late work’.25 ‘Paintings such as the Ju-Jitsu [a work from c.1913, now in the Tate collection], The Mud Bath, In the Hold stand out a mile from everything else done in England under the first impact of the Cubist revolution and Futurist firework display’, Sylvester claimed with characteristic conviction.26

Clearly absent from this assessment is any mention of Bomberg’s topographical landscapes from Palestine and Toledo from the 1920s. A cursory awareness of Sylvester’s aesthetic outlook in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as described above, is enough to infer that the highly representational and consciously anti-modernist images of Bomberg’s so-called ‘middle period’ did not fit into the critic’s conception of a progressive pictorial realism. In fact, the Palestine landscapes had divided critics from their first showing at the Leicester Galleries in London in 1928. Perceived as a retreat from the avant-garde extremity of his pre-war paintings, their sharp focus and conventional, painstakingly topographical idiom appealed to the conservative writers who had disparaged Bomberg’s earlier work while frustrating his former supporters.27 The expressive limitations of these government-sanctioned productions, which Bomberg quickly came to regret, impelled his renewed desire to establish a more vigorous and direct painterly communion with nature.28 For Sylvester – who also overlooked the artist’s Spanish canvases of the late 1930s, and his stark and moving cityscapes of bomb-damaged London in the 1940s – the youthful near-abstractions and the elemental late pictures remained the basis of his later estimation of Bomberg as the ‘forgotten man of British painting’.29

To justify his published panegyric, Sylvester, from the earliest 1958 review, carefully and strategically positioned Bomberg as an inheritor of the great legacy of European realist painting, linking him most directly to the figure considered by many twentieth-century artists, including Bomberg himself, to bridge the old masters and their modern successors: Cézanne. As Sylvester noted, Bomberg ‘saw Cézanne as Michelangelo’s heir and at the same time as a pioneer of a new approach to form, more direct, more physical and more profound than anything that had gone before’.30 Sylvester was not the first writer, however, to suggest that Bomberg’s work owed something to Cézanne. The critic Andrew Forge invoked Cézanne as the British painter’s aesthetic primogenitor in his introduction to the 1958 memorial exhibition catalogue. Specifically, Forge saw Bomberg’s work as participating in the same mould as the Cézanne described by the British philosopher R. G. Collingwood: ‘Then came Cézanne, and began to paint like a blind man’, Collingwood wrote. ‘His still-life studies … are like groups of things that have been groped over with the hands; he uses colour not to reproduce what he sees in looking at them but to express almost in a kind of algebraic notation what in this groping he has felt’.31 This ‘feeling’ Cézanne accords strongly with D.H. Lawrence’s ‘intuitive’ Cézanne, who used paint to describe a form so as to encourage the imagination to wrap around to the other side of presented appearance. Sylvester’s selection of Lawrence’s prose, then, reveals how deeply the critic’s interpretive terrain was grounded in a shared cultural dialogue.

It was a conversation, moreover, whose philosophical underpinnings reached beyond British borders. As Hyman and others have noted, Sylvester’s emphasis on the coexistence of visual and tactile sensation evolved closely alongside contemporary philosophical developments in existentialism and perception, particularly as they gained aesthetic currency through the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in France. Although it is not known exactly when Sylvester encountered the writings of Merleau-Ponty, whose influential Phenomenology of Perception was published in Paris in 1945, a concern for the haptic dimensions of vision is evident from the critic’s essay on Paul Klee published in 1948.32 ‘A late Klee is the face of a cliff. To “feel-into” it is to clamber over it’, Sylvester wrote.33 The metaphors of feeling and seeing that suffuse Sylvester’s prose were also encouraged by the words of the living artists he most admired. In an essay on Giacometti originally published in 1955, Sylvester included a written statement by the artist: ‘A blind man is feeling his way in the night. The days pass, and I delude myself that I am trapping, holding back, what’s fleeting’.34

As it happened, Sylvester’s emphasis on haptic sensation dovetailed with Bomberg’s own conviction that the sense of touch is integral to three-dimensional perception. The desire to convey a subjective experience of nature, encapsulated in Bomberg’s maxim of seeking ‘the spirit in the mass’, was stimulated in part by the proto-phenomenological theories of the eighteenth-century Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley, whose ‘An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision’ (1709) enjoyed a resurgence of interest within British art circles in the early twentieth century.35

By taking up the rhetoric and contents of Bomberg’s own aesthetic – in other words, Berkeley’s theories as bolstered by the continental example of Cézanne – and travelling via D.H. Lawrence, Sylvester, it can be argued, came the closest of any critic to accounting in words for the visual experience of Bomberg’s artworks. Again, it was Bomberg’s late, boldly colourful images of Ronda, Cyprus and Cornwall – such as Trendrine, Cornwall 1947(fig.3) – that for Sylvester most fully embodied the aim of ‘seeing through touch’, and it was these pictures the critic had in mind when he drew a parallel between Bomberg’s late landscapes and Lawrence’s description of Cézanne’s images of Mont Sainte-Victoire:

In the best landscapes, we are fascinated by the mysterious shiftiness of the scene under our eyes; it shifts about as we watch it. And we realize, with a sort of transport, how intuitively true this is of landscape. It is not still. It has its own weird anima, and to our wide-eyed perception it changes like a living animal under our gaze.36

David Bomberg Trendrine, Cornwall 1947

David Bomberg
Trendrine, Cornwall 1947
Arts Council Collection
© The Estate of David Bomberg. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2011

Sylvester was the first to admit how much he relied upon the work of other writers, including pieces he himself had previously written. Yet, he achieves something quite singular when he reflects upon Bomberg’s paintings in his own words. It is worth dwelling at length upon one striking passage about Bomberg’s late landscapes, which Sylvester evidently valued, as he republished it, with slight variations, in the 1960 New Statesman review, the 1964 Marlborough Gallery catalogue introduction and his 1967 Arts Council catalogue essay.

Building on Lawrence’s notion of how a Cézanne landscape ‘shifts’ as we watch it, and Collingwood’s image of Cézanne groping over the subject with the hands – while borrowing the explicit metaphor of the cliff-face from his own writing on Klee – Sylvester offers the following reckoning of Bomberg’s late works:

In Bomberg’s late paintings and drawings of landscape, where massive forms and skies pulsate as if they breathed, the firm, dense structure is not conceived as some immutable essence fixed once and for all. The structure is not presented pat; it unravels as the spectator looks at the painting, and he re-lives the process of discovering it. For the painting is not a painting of a structure, but a painting of the discovering of a structure. The discovering process seems to have relied on empathy more than on vision. It is as if the painter, in contemplating the landscape out there, had felt he was feeling his way over it with hands and feet and knees – here climbing laboriously up a steep rock face, there zooming into a valley with the slope in control of his limbs. It is as if the contact were so close and so sustained that the painter had gone beyond being in the landscape and become the landscape. Looking at his picture, I scarcely know if I am facing the scene or facing outwards from it.37

The passage enfolds phenomenology into pure ekphrasis – the ancient Greek rhetorical practice of invoking a work of art through description to enliven the feeling of immediate experience in the mind of the reader. As if to mimic the shifting, moving phenomenon that Lawrence ascribed to Cézanne’s landscapes, Sylvester’s prose itself seems propelled by an inner dynamism. Words gather energy, turn and spiral in upon themselves. When he writes, ‘the painting is not a painting of a structure but a painting of the discovering of a structure’, it is as if the sentence dramatises the unraveling of its own meaning, along with the experience of visual discovery. Harnessing the kinetic energy of the phrases ‘[f]eeling its way over’, ‘climbing laboriously up’ and ‘zooming into a valley’, and the suggestion of turning toward the scene and facing outward from it, Sylvester summons a form of writing that metaphorically ‘curves round’ the paintings in question. As Bomberg attempted to ‘become the landscape’, Sylvester approaches the paintings so closely as to ‘become’ the painting, penetrating their surfaces as if to write from inside their fluid, arrested material.

As vivid and compelling as Sylvester’s descriptions of the work were, his arguments for Bomberg’s historical significance, on the other hand, never quite escape the uneasy trappings of identity as they negotiate Bomberg’s complex relationship to British art. Apart from the superficial qualitative comparison to the achievement of Bomberg’s early teacher Walter Sickert in the 1958 review (cited above), and a passing reference to the landscapes of Turner, Sylvester looks beyond the shores of England in his effort to position Bomberg. In addition to Cézanne, Sylvester proposed the Russian-born French-Jewish painter Chaim Soutine – another artist Sylvester’s writing helped to introduce to British audiences – as a historic and stylistic ally to Bomberg owing to their shared emphasis on non-mimetic representation, boldly energetic brushwork and luxuriant colour, as the art historian Martin Hammer has discussed.38 In fact, before Sylvester had cited Lawrence’s Cézanne essay in connection to Bomberg, he invoked the same passage about the ‘shiftiness’ of Cézanne’s landscapes in relation to Soutine’s landscapes of Céret in southern France (completed c.1920) in his essay for the Arts Council’s 1963 Soutine retrospective.39 This recycled citation reveals, once again, just how deeply Sylvester’s aesthetic ideals were ingrained.

The Soutine-Bomberg connection, however, also carried implications beyond aesthetics, pointing unavoidably towards the artists’ shared Jewish background. On this matter, Sylvester’s writing stands on shakier ground. In his 1958 review of Bomberg’s work Sylvester had taken pains to downplay Bomberg’s relationship with the European expressionist tradition, claiming that only his active brushwork linked him to Soutine.40 In the 1967 Tate essay Sylvester notes that Bomberg himself had referred to Soutine in a letter as ‘our colleague’ and admits that Soutine ‘provides a point in reference’, but goes on to warn against the easy temptation of bracketing Bomberg with a ‘fellow-Jew’.41 He then suggests the early work of Matisse as a closer comparison, as if to steer away from describing Bomberg as a specifically ‘Jewish’ artist – a problematic label in any context, and one that perhaps came too close to the anti-Semitism Bomberg encountered during his lifetime, which arguably contributed to his neglect.42

Bomberg’s ethnicity, as well as his working-class background, certainly informed his artistic path: the Jewish Education Aid Society subsidised his studies at the Slade, and in 1914 he was charged with organising the ‘Jewish section’ of the 1914 survey exhibition Twentieth-Century Art at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, in which he included work by the British painters Mark Gertler and Bernard Meninsky, and the Parisians Jules Pascin and Amedeo Modigliani, among others. Although Britain had long been a place of refuge for victims of religious and political persecution, anti-Semitic prejudice nevertheless pervaded aspects of British social and cultural life well into the post-Second World War era.43 The abundance of anti-German sentiment in Britain that developed as National Socialism gained momentum during the 1920s and 1930s extended to attitudes about art, with German expressionism – and any painting that seemed to embody its qualities of emotional intensity – finding few supporters.44 Although Bomberg’s heritage was integral to his artistic imagination, and he painted numerous subjects related to Judaism – including Vision of Ezekiel 1912 (which draws upon the Old Testament), secular scenes of Jewish East End life, and extensive landscapes of Palestine and Jerusalem – content was above all a springboard for formal invention. British audiences and institutions, however, remained unconvinced by the substance and bravura style of his pictures, to the artist’s abiding distress. In his monograph on Bomberg, Richard Cork suggests that ‘at a time when fashionable innovation centred either on Surrealism or Abstraction at its most cool and refined, Bomberg’s Jewish fervency seemed anomalous and even irrelevant’.45 Sylvester’s concerted and somewhat inconsistent attempt to situate Bomberg’s work in a specifically European legacy, then, was not only motivated by formal and art historical considerations, but also freighted with political significance.

Was there something in Bomberg’s art that was different, foreign or ‘other’ in comparison with the art presented in Britain up to that time? To what extent did Sylvester’s own Jewish heritage inform his reaction to Bomberg in the 1950s, when social attitudes and immigration patterns were rapidly shifting, and the idea of ‘Britishness’ itself was undergoing radical redefinition? Sylvester later wrote in Memoirs of a Pet Lamb, an account of his childhood posthumously published in 2002, of the discrimination he had endured as a schoolboy.46 As a critic he did pay attention to other modern artists of Jewish background, most notably Soutine, but also the lesser-known Jankel Adler; and in the mid-1950s he was one of the first to look closely at the young painters Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, all artists from a European Jewish background. In a letter from 1989 Sylvester suggests that the Jewish contribution to modern art was more significant in Britain than anywhere else.47 This shared background may have been one contextual factor contributing to his interest in Bomberg, but it was never a matter Sylvester identified in print. To explain or justify an artist’s work by their religious or ethnic identity would have betrayed Sylvester’s own aesthetic conviction in the communion between artwork and viewer which exists independent of theory, biography or circumstance. Ultimately, it was Bomberg’s art that attracted Sylvester’s attention; the way Bomberg deployed colour and a painterly brushstroke that, to his credit and detriment, distanced him from any prescribed avant-garde movement, and made his work stand apart from any other art produced in England in the early to mid-twentieth century. Sylvester, having earned recognition as a cultural authority during this transformational era, found himself in a position from which his reassessment of the outcast, misunderstood, irascible figure of Bomberg reached a broad and receptive audience for the first time.

Documents in the Tate Archive reveal that Sylvester’s connection to the Bomberg ‘rediscovery’ ran deeper still. It was Sylvester who first drew Marlborough dealer Harry Fischer’s attention to Bomberg and encouraged the gallery to take a gamble on the then still undervalued painter. For the gallery’s first Bomberg exhibition in 1964, Sylvester contributed the catalogue introduction that formed the basis of his text for the 1967 Arts Council retrospective.48 Moreover, in the later 1960s and 1970s, Sylvester had an arrangement with the Marlborough Gallery, and later Fischer Fine Art, wherein he received a percentage of the profit on sales of Bomberg’s work.49 Documents in the Tate Archive offer no details about Sylvester’s involvement in specific transactions, but it is known that Sylvester supplemented his limited art critic’s salary for a time by acting as an agent for various picture sales – partly, no doubt, to support his gambling habit, as he later admitted in an interview.50 The close friendship he developed with the artist Lilian Holt through these collaborations is evidenced in a letter from her to Sylvester, also in the archive.51 These insights need not compromise the validity of Sylvester’s response to the work, however. He formulated his initial responses to Bomberg well before any personal or commercial relationship with the artist’s estate flourished. If Sylvester had any appreciable effect on the rehabilitation of Bomberg’s reputation, it was manifest primarily through the boldness and strength of his written articulations of Bomberg’s work. Where he did make a public impact on the placement of Bomberg’s pictures was through his involvement in the Tate Gallery’s acquisition in the 1960s of several notable works, including In the Hold and The Mud Bath – two of the neglected early pictures now widely considered to be among the most remarkable achievements of British modernism.52

Sylvester’s commitment to Bomberg’s legacy did not wane after his critical gaze drifted beyond London towards American abstraction, pop art and eventually the René Magritte catalogue raisonné project that was to occupy the majority of his energy for over twenty-five years. In 1973 Harry Fischer asked Sylvester to contribute an essay for Fischer Fine Art’s upcoming Bomberg exhibition, but Sylvester replied in a letter, now in the Tate Archive, that he had nothing new to say. Instead, he offered to compile and annotate a selection of earlier writings on Bomberg from other critics including Fry, Hulme, Herbert Read and Wyndham Lewis.53 The revealing and somewhat haunting study of artistic reception that Sylvester produced very clearly charts Bomberg’s critical decline through the 1920s, which only reversed course after the painter’s death. In his preface Sylvester reflects on his own experience as ‘one of the most fervent of the new converts’ after the 1958 memorial show, and the compilation clearly situates Sylvester’s own voice as the most prominent in contemporary critical opinion of Bomberg.

Finally, it is worth considering how Sylvester’s role in helping to clear the way for a reassessment of Bomberg’s work had implications beyond Bomberg’s individual legacy. There is no doubt that the belated attention Sylvester bestowed upon Bomberg’s art was bound up with his simultaneous alertness to Bomberg’s students – primarily, Frank Auerbach, and later, Leon Kossoff. Auerbach and Kossoff, who attended Bomberg’s evening classes at the Borough Polytechnic Institute, were Sylvester’s true contemporaries.54 Bomberg’s expressive brushwork and tightly controlled structure found new purchase in the densely painted post-war portraits and city scenes of Auerbach and Kossoff, who shared their teacher’s commitment to a direct encounter with an artistic motif and the dogged search for pictorial vitality.55 Of greater importance than any formal inspiration he provided, however, Bomberg was for them a model of a courageous, uncompromising artist. Auerbach later described him as ‘probably the most original, stubborn, radical intelligence that was to be found in art schools’.56 Kossoff stated in 1981, ‘Although I had painted most of my life, it was through my contact with Bomberg that I felt I might actually function as a painter. Coming to Bomberg’s class was like coming home’.57

Sylvester’s early reviews of Auerbach in particular suggest that the current of attention ran both ways: the highly impressive achievements of the younger artist may have encouraged new scrutiny of the neglected work of his teacher, while Bomberg’s gradual reinstatement as a major figure in modern British art lent a proximate historical grounding to Auerbach’s burgeoning career.58 As he implied in the BBC and Arts Council broadcast of 1958, Sylvester felt a sense of purpose that the most talented contemporary British artists should not be ignored or left to suffer the same fate as Bomberg. Without overstating his impact on Auerbach’s public reception, Sylvester was arguably the artist’s major critical champion in his early career, when most other critics could not get past the thick surfaces of paint he created. Sylvester singled out Auerbach for favourable notice as early as 1954, and in 1956 – just over a year before the Bomberg memorial exhibition – Sylvester hailed Auerbach’s debut solo exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery as ‘the most exciting and impressive first one-man show by an English painter since Francis Bacon’s in 1949’. It comes as no surprise that Sylvester likens the act of looking at Auerbach’s pictures to ‘feeling’ with the eyes, emphasising painting’s capacity to suggest something tactile and alive. In the same piece Sylvester writes of works such as Head of E.O.W. VIII 1956 (fig.4), ‘Re-made thus in paint, a head becomes an object which, as we look at it, gives a sensation curiously like that of running our fingertips over the contours of a head near us in the dark, reassured by its presence, disturbed by its other-ness, doubting what it is and then whether it is’.59

Frank Auerbach Head of E.O.W. VIII 1956

Frank Auerbach
Head of E.O.W. VIII 1956
Arts Council Collection
© Frank Auerbach

Many years later, in his ‘Curriculum Vitae’ essay, Sylvester claimed that all the British art he promoted during this period was ‘marginal’ compared to his eventual turn to abstract expressionism.60  This statement echoes his reflection in the 1967 Tate catalogue essay that Bomberg’s work ‘added little or nothing to the language of art that had not been there fifty years before. If it is, as I believe, the finest English painting of its time, only its intrinsic qualities make it so: in terms of the history of art, it’s a footnote’.61  This candid assessment of Bomberg openly acknowledges how far Sylvester’s interests had veered from his initial 1958 review. At the same time, however, by recycling and affirming in 1967 his own words from nearly a decade earlier, Sylvester suggests that we can celebrate Bomberg for his genuine accomplishments as a painter and teacher while frankly acknowledging his important, if limited impact in the history of modern art – an impact which is still being assessed today.

As critic and curator Richard Cork has pointed out, ‘Each generation has focused on the aspects of Bomberg’s work which accords most closely with its own interests’.62 In the years following Sylvester’s own subjective accounts of Bomberg’s work, the artist’s early paintings received renewed attention in the 1970s within a broader reassessment of vorticism and British pre-war avant-garde movements, while his work of the 1940s and 1950s reclaimed the spotlight in the 1979 Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition David Bomberg: The Later Years.63 Additionally, a number of exhibitions promoting the idea of a ‘School of London’ in the late 1970s and 1980s – an era in which a larger international notion of a ‘return to painting’ gained currency through exhibitions such as A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy in 1981 – further implicated Bomberg in an alternate story of modern British painting sustained by a realist impulse.64 Since the mid-1980s several exhibitions have shed new light on the middle period of his career, interpreting the landscapes of the Holy Land as transitional images consistent with Bomberg’s enduring concern with architectonic form and mass, and as catalysts toward Bomberg’s discovery of an expressive language by which to bridge his inner spirit with outer nature.65 With hindsight, it is possible to trace a continuity among the dramatic stylistic shifts in Bomberg’s oeuvre, but it is one that Sylvester, bound to the polemics of his age and his subjective tastes, either neglected or simply elected not to see.

Impassioned and ever partisan, Sylvester was nothing if not honest about his mercurial eyes and monumental shifts of opinion. As authoritatively as he made pronouncements, he also was willing to admit when perhaps he had not given an artist a fair chance. In fact, Sylvester dramatically ‘curved round’ to Kossoff, who he only belatedly registered as a painter of equal importance to Auerbach. Unlike his critical colleague John Berger, Sylvester overlooked for decades what he judged to be Kossoff’s comparatively less rigorous compositions, but was given an opportunity to redress this neglect in the introduction he wrote for Kossoff’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1995.66 Sylvester’s treatment of Kossoff in the essay approaches the immoderate celebration and vast art historical reach of his earlier Bomberg writings, linking Kossoff to Constable, Rembrandt, Cézanne and Giacometti. ‘Kossoff’s paintings are luminous’, Sylvester writes. ‘It is perhaps [the] act of transformation above all … that makes these paintings compelling and exhilarating.’67

As it turned out, a paragraph in the Biennale essay devoted to Bomberg’s influence on Kossoff and Auerbach offered a final opportunity for Sylvester to assess the ‘forgotten man’. Nearly four decades after his stunning discovery of Bomberg’s work in 1958, Sylvester concluded that the students, in the end, surpassed the teacher:

As painters they are both more extreme, more abstract, than Bomberg. Bomberg’s painting is beautifully free with the brush, shows that the paint on the canvas has to have a life of its own if it is to convey life. But Kossoff and Auerbach have fulfilled that demand with more assertiveness than their mentor did, and with more daring. The time was ripe for them – Bacon, de Staël, de Kooning had led the way – to give the paint an extreme degree of autonomy. For them, this turned out to involve an extreme degree of thickness. Their daring lay above all, perhaps, in the risk that their piled-up paint, with all its associations, could induce revulsion – but one of the supreme purposes of art is to confront what is felt to be revolting and redeem it.68

In daring to confront Bomberg’s work and assist in its redemption for posterity, Sylvester, it seems, had faithfully followed his own courageous standard.

See also