Of all the places visited by Bomberg during his turbulent life, Spain quickly became the country he adored. After discovering it in 1929, when his work grew more free and eloquent while he explored Toledo, Bomberg could not wait to return. So in 1934 he set off for Spain again, and this time discovered Cuenca. Enthralled by its dizzying location perched on a high rock ridge, Bomberg eagerly painted a series of expressive canvases there. Rivers flowed on either side of the ridge, adding to the sense of primordial energy which he aimed at conveying through his impulsive brushmarks. A remote and ancient town, Cuenca drove Bomberg to define the fundamental dynamism of its relationship with the natural world. He and his future wife Lilian lived in a dilapidated house overlooking the Jucar Valley, and the finest paintings executed at Cuenca capture its astonishing sense of drama.
In the present work, the cathedral proudly occupies a lofty position. Set against a sweeping sky vigorously summarised by Bomberg’s confident strokes, this prominent religious edifice towers above its neighbours. They all testify to the fact that Cuenca has occupied its historic site for hundreds of years, and Bomberg’s mark-making emphasises the very close relationship which these buildings have with each other. He conveys his urgent feeling that they depend on their neighbours’ structural strength.
Although this painting gains a great deal of conviction from his insistence on prolonged gazing at the chosen subject, he has no desire to become mired in an excessive amount of detail. On the contrary: Bomberg deftly summarises the architecture of Cuenca, and makes his brushwork give the buildings an arresting vibrancy. Some of the roofs almost seem to be floating on the walls below them, and their sensuous colours transmit the combination of heat and light which excited him so much in Spain.
Bomberg’s emotional intensity had become even more pronounced when Lilian, after suffering what she described as ‘severe morning sickness’, discovered that she was pregnant. He had never experienced a baby’s advent, and the prospect of paternity in his mid-forties filled him with a mixture of trepidation and wonder. He had very little money, and Lilian even kept chickens at the top of their house in Cuenca. So Bomberg must have wondered about his ability to support a child as comfortably as he wished. At the same time, though, his imaginative boldness was quickened by the thought of a baby’s arrival, and both these emotional extremes can be found in Cathedral Group, Cuenca.
The heartening mood conveyed throughout the celebratory upper half of this painting is countered, in the other half, by an equally forceful sense of vulnerability. For Bomberg reveals that this town stretches out to the very edge of the ridge, and he makes sure that our eyes are confronted by the full, plunging reality of the emptiness below. His brushmarks become even more impulsive here, handled with an expressive freedom bordering on the abstract. And the sense of danger is arrestingly explored, thereby making us all the more aware of the defiant strength embodied in the buildings so bravely erected on top of these mighty Spanish rocks.
We are very grateful to Richard Cork for preparing this catalogue entry.