Looking at this dramatic and visceral painting, we immediately become aware of David Bomberg's exhilarated response to the Spanish landscape. In May 1935 his daughter Diana had been born, and two months later he moved with his family to Linares, a small settlement high in the Asturias Mountains above the valley of La Hermida. Here, Bomberg grew so enthralled by his spectacular surroundings that he painted a series of uninhibited landscapes. They seem to be on fire, ignited by the power of his profound involvement with the very act of painting. When viewed close-to, they ensure that the countryside itself is indistinguishable from the vibrant and impulsive marks made with brush and pigment.
Part of Bomberg's excitement in The Slopes of Navao, Picos de Europa undoubtedly derives from his sense of relief. In 1934, he and his family had left England and settled at Ronda in Andalucia. For a while at least, he had been able to work well there. But his inability to pay the rent at Ronda forced him to move the family to northern Spain, where they found accommodation in a farmhouse at Linares. Here, high up in the region known as the Picos de Europa, he felt intoxicated by the overwhelming grandeur surrounding him. And his paintings of the region convey the strong emotions he experienced while roaming through the landscape. He described later how the 'winding road into these mountains from Santander ... glides away across the plains - it climbs the mountains as it winds through the passes, running along the precipitous ledges, up awesome gorges & over the mountain tops.' Bomberg relished the primordial solitude of this remote area, inhabited only by peasants and their cattle. 'When I searched the Picos de Europa for an entry to paint its wonder, how glad was I of this road, for it climbs in one place the outer heights of the Picos & runs through a clustering village, steeped at times in rain clouds, at times shimmering in the sun.'
With captivating intensity, The Slopes of Navao, Picos de Europa takes us on a journey through the vertiginous, ever-changing locale. When we view this painting, Bomberg seems to be at our side, urging us to explore even further. Ahead, in the distance, the solid mountains appear palpable as their grey-blue peaks rise into a sky filled with the restless energy of shifting clouds. But in the foreground, Bomberg confronts us with the turbulence of growth. Plants and trees struggle to emerge among the rugged slopes at every side, and this entire area is summarised with brushstrokes eloquently conveying Bomberg's desire to immerse himself in the natural environment. Nothing is static: everything appears to be on the move.
Alongside this sense of exhilaration, though, The Slopes of Navao expresses an awareness of fragility. One slender young tree, rising from the base of the painting right up to the sky, could easily be broken. The weather was often thunderous here, and in other paintings of the region Bomberg showed just how stormy it could become. He experienced this forcefulness at first hand, most notably during a two-week expedition on his own among the highest peaks. The journey proved so exhausting and perilous that it nearly killed the donkey carrying his provisions and equipment. Bomberg recalled afterwards that, 'although I have painted in many strange & inaccessible places', this arduous expedition was 'one of the most memorable.'
The paintings he managed to make in this immense and enthralling region are handled with a breadth and freedom Bomberg had never achieved before. If he had been able to linger in the Picos de Europa, his art would surely have blossomed even more. But the menace of civil warintervened. On their way up to the mountains in July 1935, Bomberg and his family had become aware of civil unrest: they saw how machine-gun bullets punctured the walls of the Town Hall at Oviedo. And now, during the autumn months, they realised that savage internal conflict was increasing all the time. At Linares the threat of looting made them fear the loss of all their equipment, and then they heard that the villagers were arming themselves in order to protect their families from slaughter.
Time was running out, so Bomberg made sure that his family packed up and left their mountain retreat. It was, mercifully, the right decision. After reaching Santander, they managed to find berths on a cargo boat which turned out to be the last vessel bound for England before the Spanish Civil War erupted. In November 1935 they set off home, and only arrived after an alarmingly rough voyage. Although relieved to have escaped from the escalating tragedy in Spain, Bomberg now felt haunted by his inability to continue benefiting from the stimulus of the mountain territory he loved. And he was horrified by the plight of the people he had left behind. 'Whoever has lived in the Picos de Europa, Asturias,' he wrote in an anguished memoir several months later, 'will comprehend the magnitude of the suffering in store for all those who have sought refuge in these mountain vastnesses. Even in times of peace the frugality & meagreness of life among the peasantry on these heights, born & bred here as they are in a tradition of hardship, is only just bearable.'
In June 1936 he was given a solo show, called Recent Paintings of Spain by David Bomberg, at the Cooling Galleries in London. The exhibition was warmly received by the Manchester Guardian's enlightened critic, who declared that Bomberg 'is an artist whose works cannot fail to interest anyone who is open to receive an individual inspiration and to realise the aims and ideals expressed in often revolutionary terms.' Although nothing was sold at the exhibition, we can appreciate today how well-judged the Guardian's review really was. Spain prompted Bomberg to explore the most adventurous side of his imagination, and throughout these paintings the whole landscape comes alive with what he called, in a memorable phrase, 'the spirit in the mass.'
We are very grateful to Richard Cork for providing this catalogue entry.