In 1923, frustrated, under-appreciated and broke, David Bomberg travelled to Jerusalem, having, with the artist Muirhead Bone’s assistance, secured finance for his passage from the Palestine Foundation Fund in return for a number of works featuring reconstruction projects that could be used for propaganda purposes. Bomberg’s sister Kitty later recorded that he was always deeply interested in Jewish life, history and culture, and that ‘the urge was there to see something of the old biblical inheritance and to explore its possibilities as subjects for paintings’. Yet he was out of sympathy with the newly-formed Zionist Association, and quickly became disenchanted with the possibilities of using the pioneers as subjects. Although he produced some work on this subject, this relationship – deemed unsatisfactory on both sides – lasted only a few months. Despite falling out with the authorities, Bomberg remained in Palestine until 1927, attracting enthusiastic patronage from the British Military Governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs, and underwent a profound change in all aspects of his work. He made expeditions to Jericho, Petra and the Wadi Kelt, producing a series of detailed and realistic landscapes. These were initially tightly topographical, but gradually gave way to a looser handling of paint that finally evolved into a characteristically expressionistic style, heralding the painterly achievements of his final years. His travels in Palestine also culminated in a solo exhibition of his Palestine and Petra paintings at the Leicester Galleries, London, in 1928.
Bomberg was fascinated by the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding landscape. He returned repeatedly to one particular view, the dramatic panorama observed from the village of Abu Tur. In Siloam and the Mount of Olives this landscape is laid out in an impressive patchwork divided by zigzagging roads which meander to the top of the canvas where they are abruptly cut off; the dominant chalky white, suggesting both light and aridity, is punctuated at intervals with a lyrical green. A local Jewish artist, Joseph Zaritsky, recalled meeting Bomberg at this time: ‘He was very very restrained in his painting although he was a man of strong temperament.’ He noted both a strong structure and a painterly quality in Bomberg’s work, but also ‘a kind of whiteness’. For Zaritsky it represented ‘clarity’, indicative of Bomberg’s close relationship with nature and his perception of the qualities of light.
Bomberg worked exclusively en plein air, observing the landscape closely and patiently, and recording it with painstaking accuracy. Nevertheless, in contrast to the detailed representation of the houses dotting the hillside, the roads and terraces are more broadly painted using broader, more gestural strokes, indicative of the future direction of his Jerusalem work. Richard Cork suggests (see loc. cit.) that upon completion, the work was immediately purchased by the government architect Austen St. B. Harrison who lived at Abu Tur, from where he enjoyed extensive views of Siloam, and who found Bomberg at once impressive and inspiring. Cork has suggested that the enthusiasm of patrons such as Storrs and Harrison may have influenced Bomberg to see Jerusalem at least partly through their eyes, contributing to his initial focus on a topographical style.
We are very grateful to Sarah MacDougall for preparing this catalogue entry.