During his intense four-year period in Palestine, from 1923 to 1927, David Bomberg ensured that his art underwent an extraordinary metamorphosis. Before the First World War he had been the most radical young painter in Britain, creating images as audaciously dynamic, simplified and near-abstract as In the Hold and The Mud Bath. But after undergoing traumatic experiences at the front of line of war, where he was driven to edge of destruction, Bomberg searched for an alternative vision of the world. Rather than continuing to focus on the machine age, he began exploring the countryside and working in the open air.
It was a redemptive transformation, and explains why Bomberg reacted with enthusiasm and hope when he journeyed to Jerusalem in April 1923. There was a possibility that he could become the Zionist Organisation’s official artist, and Bomberg felt hungry for the manifold visual revelations which strong sunlight might provide. He was not disappointed. Responding eagerly to subjects as diverse as a group of camels and the luminous view outside the Damascus Gate, Bomberg realised that he could stay here and feel nourished at every turn.
He was not the first British artist to be inspired by such scenes. Back in 1854 William Holman Hunt and Thomas Seddon had travelled to the Middle East with the photographer James Graham. Looking down at Nazareth, Holman Hunt painted an astonishingly prismatic watercolour celebrating his response to the scene. But Seddon became so obsessed with painting Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehoshaphat from the Hill of Evil Counsel that he camped on the hill in a tent for 120 days carefully transcribing the scene. His painting, now in the Tate collection, testifies to a fanatical commitment. Possibly worn out by this endeavour, he died only a year later. Yet Bomberg became fascinated by Seddon’s painting, and regarded it as a precedent for his own work in ‘the Holy Land.’ In 1928 he wrote that, although Seddon’s work ‘is rather “tight” in execution, it is a remarkably luminous record and interests me tremendously ... Jerusalem today is exactly as it was then.’
Encouraged by patrons as well-informed and generous as Sir Ronald Storrs, the Military Governor of Jerusalem, Bomberg set about scrutinising the scenes around him. They nourished his curiosity, and he felt very lucky when, as his wife Alice recalled, ‘we were introduced to a merchant who had half a house to let away up from the city – in the hills.’ They went to look at it, and the view was inspirational: it enabled Bomberg to gaze out eagerly at ‘the Walls of the Old City of Jerusalem as well as the fields that sloped and stretched over the Mount of Olives right away to Bethany and beyond to the Road to Jericho. Of course we moved in right away.’
This prodigious and irresistible panorama must have encouraged Bomberg to think hard about how he could best explore it through art. His unfulfilled involvement with the Zionists had led him to produce works like Quarrying – Jewish Pioneer Labour which echoed his pre-war involvement with dynamic figures at work. But the 1925 painting Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives testifies to his fascination with the interplay between the city’s architecture and the landscape stretching far beyond. It is an untroubled scene, and no people are visible to disrupt the sense of tranquillity. Even so, the longer we look at this canvas, the more we become aware of the dramatic contrasts which Bomberg explores here.
The freely handled trees, painted in the foreground with an almost abstract vitality, anticipate his later work. They seem to be forcing their way upwards, as if asserting a defiant right to exist among the urban development surrounding them. As he grew older, Bomberg become more and more convinced about the crucial importance of respecting, nurturing and sustaining the natural world. He further emphasises the trees’ power by giving them plenty of pigment, and yet he also wants to emphasise the solidity and strength of the buildings clustered here so tightly. Bomberg stresses the structure of these architectural elements, and uses his impasto to lend them a feeling of toughness. He even gives the shadows cast by chimneys a potent substance, as well as delighting in the stain left behind on a wall, probably by someone who often poured liquid out of the prominent window above.
A subtle hint of a dome can be glimpsed in the painting’s lower left corner, and Bomberg includes elegant towers rising upwards elsewhere in the city. Yet he finds immense pictorial interest even in the most ordinary rooftops, blazing so vividly in the strong sunshine. The dialogue between their bright intensity, and the mysterious darkness enveloping so many walls, is conveyed wherever we look in the lower half of this painting. It adds to the feeling of heat which Bomberg must have taught himself to endure while working day after day from his vantage-point on the Mount of Olives.
The ultimate contrast, stressing the opposition between this historic city and the ancient landscape beyond, is even more rewarding to contemplate. Bomberg’s love of sweeping brushmarks, which would develop so dramatically in later works like The Moor’s Bridge, Ronda (lot 29), can be detected here on the distant hillside. Towards the left, a remarkably fiery blend of orange and red erupts on this slope. The countryside made Bomberg feel liberated as a painter, and he celebrates its freedom from the geometric structure of the buildings below. At the same time, though, we become aware of the surprising amount of detail lavished on some tiny architectural elements at the top of the hill. They may be very far away, but that does not stop him bestowing a remarkably sharp-focused precision on their minuscule forms.
By far the most peaceful area in Bomberg’s picture is the sky. Compared with the busy foreground, it proclaims blue emptiness with an air of simplified satisfaction. We notice the horizontal brushmarks travelling across the canvas, from one side over to the other, and respond to their fundamental calm. Here, more than anywhere else in this painting, Bomberg communicates the redemptive emotion he discovered in Palestine, which helped him to recover from the daunting nightmare of war.