BOMBERG DISCOVERS JERUSALEM
By the time David Bomberg addressed himself to painting on-the-spot views of Jerusalem, his outlook had been transformed by gruelling military experiences in the First World War. After marrying the dancer Alice Mayes in 1916, he went off to fight in France with the Royal Engineers. Then, following an ominous transfer to the King’s Royal Rifles, Bomberg suffered harrowing ordeals in the trenches. Once he had emerged from this trauma, his work underwent a profound change. Bomberg’s radical pre-war art had been bound up with the machine age, and he shared the Vorticists’ determination to push his painting towards abstraction. But now, having witnessed the overwhelming slaughter caused by new mechanical weaponry, he sought an alternative to this unprecedented devastation. When Ben Nicholson invited him to visit Lugano in Switzerland, Bomberg realised that it was possible for him to paint outdoors. Although he hated working with Nicholson in such a cold, snow-laden landscape, this short-lived Swiss expedition in 1922 helped Bomberg to appreciate just how compelling the world of nature really was.
Hence his positive response to a surprising idea proposed by fellow-artist Muirhead Bone. He suggested that the recently formed Zionist Organisation, created by the British government after it established support for a Jewish nation in 1917, could employ Bomberg as its official artist in Palestine. Even though he disagreed with the Zionist cause, Bomberg reacted favourably to the idea of visiting Jerusalem. After protracted negotiations, he set off with Alice in April 1923. They arrived in Jerusalem to be greeted by Clifford Holliday, the city’s Chief Architect and Town Planner who was restoring its historic areas and ensuring that their architectural integrity was protected. Alice recalled how Holliday 'took us up some steps on top of the Jaffa Gate and showed us the view all over the City'. It was a revelatory moment, as Bomberg later emphasised: 'You must remember I was a poor boy from the East End and I’d never seen the sunlight before'. Its overwhelming intensity was, he added, 'something quite unbelievable for me.'
Bomberg did not make friends with the sceptical Zionist Executive in the city, but he found plenty of encouragement when introduced to Sir Ronald Storrs, the Military Governor of Jerusalem. He was passionately committed to preserving the distinctive structure of a city where, as he wrote, the interplay between 'flat roofs, vaults, domes, street arches, abutments and buttresses' nourished his eyes at every turn. Soon enough, Bomberg grew to share this fascination. Before travelling to Jerusalem, he had been dominated in his art by an involvement with human figures -- exercising their angular limbs in a Whitechapel bath, working in the hold of a ship, and tunnelling dangerously underground towards the German army’s defences in France. Now, however, most of his Jerusalem paintings focused on the architecture and surrounding countryside rather than people. He even worked outside in the strong light of the moon, which helped him retain the structural rigour of his pre-war work and produce canvases as limpid as Mount Zion with the Church of the Dormition: Moonlight.
One man, the government architect Austen St B. Harrison, was astonished to find Bomberg painting in the moonlight. Harrison lived in a house outside the city commanding an extensive view of the Church of the Dormition, the Temple area and Siloam. Bomberg happened to live nearby, and the two men soon became close. 'I learned so much from him', Harrison remembered; 'certainly much more than from anyone else in Palestine. He was so patient with ignorance & innocence'. Harrison bought Bomberg’s painting Siloam and the Mount of Olives, doubtless admiring its intricate grasp of architectural form. And Bomberg, engrossed in the act of painting this seductive locale, soon embarked on a larger, more panoramic and ambitious canvas in 1923 simply called Mount of Olives. It was an extraordinary achievement, and Sir Ronald Storrs was so impressed by its 'powerfully cosmic stare' that he purchased this painting. Tragically, it was destroyed in 1930 when Storrs’s residence in Cyprus burned down. But the surviving photograph shows that Bomberg must have lavished an extraordinary amount of virtuosity and insight on Mount of Olives. When exhibited in 1928 at Bomberg’s Leicester Galleries exhibition in London, P.G. Konody wrote in The Observer: 'Technically this picture is a tour-de-force, the buildings and the landscape figures being, as it were, modelled in gesso-like white impasto of almost imperceptible variations of tone'. As for the Daily Mail’s critic, he declared that 'the picture seems to vibrate with light and colour' and described it as 'an astonishing performance'.
Storrs quickly became Bomberg’s principal patron in Jerusalem. The enthusiastic Governor suggested that the ancient red-rock city of Petra should now be a goal, and Bomberg’s restless imagination was roused by the prospect of such an adventurous journey in 1924. Storrs insisted that the artist and his wife must be accompanied on this hazardous expedition by a full military escort, even though Bomberg claimed that Alice was brave enough to 'do the work of ten soldiers'. When they reached Petra, he veered between two extremes: either adopting a very tight, naturalistic approach or experimenting with a far looser, free alternative in lyrical paintings like Steps to a ‘High Place’ on al Khubha, Petra; early morning. Bright moonlight once again brought out the most audacious side of Bomberg’s approach when he tackled the Temple of Isis. But he also confessed how, 'at every step in stumbling along among the boulders in the moonlit river bed, I would go alternately hot and cold with fear at the tremendous forms that crept out of the darkness as if to terrify me and bar my way'.
Even so, Jerusalem itself remained his greatest subject. During the course of 1925 he painted it time and again. Storrs, who described Jerusalem as 'a City of invincible and unutterable attraction', delighted in the fact that it was 'fast emerging from the primitive conditions in which we had found it'. And Bomberg adopted vantages as high as possible above the city. A fascinating photograph shows him seated on the roof of the Banco di Roma, clutching a brush and paint-smeared palette while protecting himself from the heat by wearing a very capacious sun-hat. Judging by his smile, the 35-year-old artist found satisfaction in the challenge of defining Jerusalem. More government officials were excited by the results, too. The Attorney-General, Norman Bentwich, purchased one of the finest paintings, now in the Tate collection: Jerusalem, looking to Mount Scopus. Here the city’s angular architecture is juxtaposed with the rounded hillside beyond, and everything surmounted by an ample expanse of sky.
But in another outstanding work, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Bomberg concentrates most of his avid attention on the buildings themselves. No figures can be glimpsed in this peaceful scene. So we can imagine what the city would have been like in ancient times. A sense of quiet elation is transmitted, too, as Bomberg gazes over the rooftops and rejoices in their luminosity. Although he remains faithful to the layout of the city, close inspection of this painting reveals the remarkably loose brushwork deployed in the foreground. Thick impasto adds to the feeling that we could almost reach out and touch these buildings. And Bomberg’s consummate grasp of their overall structure shows how much his earlier experiments with abstraction still enrich the Jerusalem work. A preparatory ink drawing for this painting concentrates solely on essential outlines. Such a severely simplified approach helped Bomberg to grasp the fundamental composition, with thrusting diagonals in the foreground leading our eyes up towards the more curvilinear, plump forms of the domes beyond. Considerable delicacy is deployed in his delineation of the church, and Bomberg carries this over from the drawing to the painting itself.
To our surprise, we then discover that the most sharply focused area of this canvas can be found in the distance, where he defines a whole cluster of buildings on the far right. Lit strongly by the sun, they have an almost sculptural impact. And their relative precision makes us appreciate just how fluid and expressive his broader handling of the foreground really is. Bomberg here conveys his eager exploration of Jerusalem with immense conviction. This painting is filled with sensuous warmth as well, indicating that an artist who had once been afflicted by the horrors of war now found therapeutic redemption as he stared down from his rooftop perch and brought the scene to pictorial life. We are a long way, now, from the mechanised urban clamour of the metropolis where Bomberg had grown up. For the moment, at least, he must have felt elated.
The finished painting was acquired, very soon after completion, by the Assistant Governor of Jerusalem Sir Harry Luke. It stayed in his family’s possession, by descent, for several decades. And after it was eventually bought by its present owner, Lucian Freud decided that he particularly liked this picture. It was Freud’s favourite in the collection: he felt especially impressed by Bomberg’s decision to paint the far distance in relatively sharp detail compared with the broad treatment of the foreground. Freud recognised that Bomberg had thereby been able to capture the brightness of the light in a unique and highly innovative way.
Bomberg’s final departure from Jerusalem was hastened in the most alarming manner imaginable. On a day of extreme heat in 1927, a sudden earthquake convulsed the area where he was painting on the rooftop of a house near the Wailing Wall. He was lucky to survive. Alice later described how, 'the next day, when we walked past the old home where he had been working on the roof, we saw it was a heap of rubble and then he got the shock -- that if he had not left when he did he would have been in that heap of rubble too'. It was, for Bomberg, a dramatic warning: 'He got the horror of it, and said he would rather go through ten bombardments than... another earthquake. And so he got the idea that he must get away from Jerusalem as he could not paint any more among the ruins'.
We are grateful to Richard Cork for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.