Cliff Holden, original photograph by Bryan Long

Cliff Holden

Documents: 1958


Transmitted on the Third Programme: Monday 29/09/1958 20:50-21:05

Words are a poor medium. I am not a word-man but a painter, and David Bomberg was my master. He died last year , virtually unknown and forgotten. If one had asked Bomberg why he painted he would have replied very simply: "It is the life." This simple answer covered a very deep conviction, a conviction which I will do my best to demonstrate, but one that is impossible to present in any final form. If it were possible there would be nothing left to paint.

I first met David Bomberg when he was a teacher of drawing; he taught not at a major art school, the Slade or the Royal College, but at the City Literary Institute; there he was patiently expounding his basic principles to middle-aged ladies who in any other era would have been more content knitting socks around the fire-side. I'd been disillusioned with the curriculum of modern art schools, and dissatisfied with being taught by eclectic teachers; I mean by man who attempt the impossible task of interpreting the practice of others while involved in that merry-go-round of teacher teaching teacher, who will in turn produce teachers; I had been consciously searching for a master. In Bomberg I not only found a first-rate painter, but a man who was prepared to throw his energies into an active relationship with the students, using them as the medium for furthering the experiments which he knew would not be complete in his own lifetime... it was a marriage of vitality and experience. It was with this in mind that in 1946, under Bomberg's guidance, a few of us founded the Borough Group. In the beginning it was composed of only six students. With the exception of one who quickly dropped out in search of a commercial career, all of us were dedicated people, who had consciously, not accidentally, sought out Bomberg as the only hope of salvation in British painting at the time. The only related development, we discovered much later in 1952, was in Sweden's Evert Lundquist, and it is unfortunate that the two painters were never able to meet. One big reason for creating the Group was Bomberg's recognition that it takes more than one man both to create a new idiom and place it before the public in the space of a short lifetime. He was proved right. Fashions have changed but the idiom is still far from acceptable.

The Group worked closely and intimately as a unit, exhibiting together, stimulating each other, exchanging ideas and criticism, often working from the same model, architectural motif, or landscape, whether in London, the provinces, Scandinavia, France or Spain. On one memorable occasion Bomberg painted from the model together and on the same canvas as one of his students. The painting was signed by both parties and subsequently exhibited. We even helped each other financially when, as often happened, we had no paint and no food. We did many different kinds of jobs to get money for paint. Some of us worked as models in art schools and in this way acted as a kind of fifth-column, undermining the academic system of teaching. In this way hundreds of students passed through Bomberg's hands, and many gravitated towards the Group. Over the years some of us have gone on as painters, one or two made some reputation, few have yet to find a hearing, but far too many couldn't stand the severe criticism and the struggle and fell by the wayside.

Like Leger and Andre Lhote, Bomberg taught his practice but, unlike them, he did not teach a method, and he had no complete aesthetic system. His methods were dogmatic and contradictory. It was a question of trial and error, a sort of battle between a trinity of teacher, student and model... a fight which could not take place away from the materials. In this fight he was anything but restrictive. If the student was painting in a perpetual gloom, he would be shown means of lightening his palette, if he was tentative he would be encouraged to become more engaged with the materials and throw it on in shovelfulls, to walk on it, or attack it with the knife; any means of making the mark was permissible. If the paint was getting thick, so that the student couldn't see the wood for the trees, he would be asked to use coloured papers, or to pick up the same idea from that point on another canvas. If he was using thick lines which impeded the flowering of the form, he could then experiment with small dots of colour.

But if the student were facile, using an aesthetic line, then Bomberg would give him a great lump of charcoal, and cite Modigliani and John as examples of men who would tie the tool to the big toe, in an attempt to escape the domination of a facile hand and eye. On the other hand, he didn't allow any student to completely abandon himself to the line, to the paint, the texture, the sensuality of the brush; and he had no respect for the brute force of the blow-lamp, the bicycle, or any other medium which savoured of trickery.

So you can see that Bomberg's approach to teaching was essentially empirical. In the old apprenticeship system the student worked closely by the side of the master for some ten or twenty years, absorbing every aspect of the job from colour grinding to the articulation of the forms in the composition, and a young painter must have felt that his own youthful vitality harnessed to the experience of age would be the best form of preparation. But, once that system had broken down, there had to be a short cut to bring the student to a quick maturity. The problems to be faced were not technical. As Bomberg saw it, the difficulty lay in the fact that a student's critical faculty develops more slowly than his creative potential. The master's job was to bring him into a consciousness of what he was doing. The student, for his part, has to maintain his confidence until he himself learns to preserve the image, however curious it may appear. By image I mean, of course, the image of a concrete object, like a tree or the moon. When one is young one is apt to destroy one's vital image in favour of some academic sterile thing. It is a question of truth to consciousness; R.G. Collingwood has described it very well by saying: "First we direct our attention towards a certain feeling, or become conscious of it. Then we take fright at what we have recognised; not because the feeling, as an impression, is an alarming impression, but because the idea into which we are converting it proves an alarming idea. We cannot see our way to dominate it, and shrink from persevering in the attempt. We therefore give it up, and turn our attention to something less intimidating." That is the corruption of consciousness. Therefore what a painter has to do is not to recognise either the object or the image, but to recognise the kind of sensation that produced the image.

In this connection, Bomberg talked constantly of the mood; he always said try to remember the mood; it was only by remembering the mood of the creative act that one could be certain of working well, and progressing from one vital image to another. It had to be an almost ecstatic drunken state, in which we project ourselves into reality, into things, rather like an actor becoming identified with the character he is playing. We identified ourselves with mass, instead of like the drunk having the attention focused on a part or the clarity of detail; it was in a concern with mass that we strove to find the unique character of mass and the meaning in the reality. But the mood was merely a guide. It could not be projected on to the canvas. This, apart from problems of structure, was the main difference between Bomberg and the Expressionists. Andrew Forge said that each brushstroke of Bomberg's defines the EXPERIENCE of the form, as well as the form itself. But a brushstroke can never make experience concrete. The experience that produced the form on the canvas can never be registered. The image is its by-product… it is not the experience itself. But then I cannot agree even with the use of the word experience in the sense that Forge uses it. It sounds too much like what Santayana meant when he spoke of objects that are imbued and reverberate with the heat and the glow of past experience. I prefer the word 'sensation' which has more to do with the act of painting. The sensation only develops and defines itself during the activity in front of the object as the work goes forward; and it is by recognising the truth or falsity of the sensation that the artist knows whether or not his image is valid. If an artist is not true to his sensation, if he superimposes a concept or idea of feeling over the sensation, that in humility before God and nature he has felt, he becomes guilty of a corruption of consciousness. But as Collingwood points out: "It is a constant experience in the life of every artist, and his life is a constant and, on the whole, a successful warfare against it... But this warfare always involves a very present possibility of defeat; and then a certain corruption becomes inveterate." One of the difficulties is that there is no finality to any form ultimately… everything we see, touch, or know could always be something else. As Braque has said, "Everything changes according to circumstances." In the Tate there is Bomberg's earliest drawing, the "Sleeping Men", which he did while he was still a student at the Slade; now this was drawn not from sleeping men, but from a row of pillows. During the process of drawing the elements that have hitherto been identified as pillows reassemble and are invested with a new identity; for how the painter assesses a form shouldn't depend on the descriptive data he's got, of sleeping men or pillows... a change of scale, a shift of emphasis in the lines, and the pillows turn into mountains.

From describing Bomberg's teaching I've almost inevitably come to speak of his own work. Unlike many modern painters, Bomberg did not embellish his work with forms lifted from other civilisations. Like Chardin he was content with the things around him, with the object, and the reality of his paints and brushes. His subjects were simple… his wife, his children, the eternal self-portrait, architecture, mountains, landscape and flowers. It is probably in the series of flower paintings and portraits culminating in the magnificent "Vigilante" of 1955, which can be seen in the present exhibition, that his development can best be followed. But it was back in 1923 when he was painting in Palestine and Petra that Bomberg first became aware of the problems inherent in the contradictions of detail and mass. After having rejected Cubism, he tried for a time to work in a representational way from nature. But this recording method reduced his architecture to dolls houses and his mountains to cardboard. A way had to be found of welding together in one moment of time both the close-up and the long shot, and yet to avoid the effects of montage or, for instance, the double face of post-cubism. You can see the results of his struggle in the present exhibition; his landscapes from that period onwards are like wide-angled panoramas. In the 1924 paintings of Petra he had found that if he advanced upon the rock face only the stones remained, and if he withdrew he got only a vague silhouette. On the other hand, in the large paintings of Cyprus of 1948 reality was sensed physically in the way that gravity is sensed; and, like the Greeks in the Parthenon and the builders of Stonehenge, he began to practise many refinements to defeat the illusion of the eye. If perspective had to be used, he used it not with one single focal point but with four or five; he employed even the inverted perspectives of Uccello, which had come about in the contradiction between the idea as distinct from the sensation of perspective. Finally he rejected perspective altogether as a mere pedantry. Distant objects were given the importance of the foreground, and those which had been a smudge of paint on the horizon had their form worked out in greater detail; a strong shaft of sunlight would lift a section out of context. Everything was in continuous flux. In most painters light is used to reveal the form in one moment of time. Bomberg used it to play a role which was continuous and active, revealing facet after facet of the object, contradicting the morning's work against the evening, the summer against the winter. In working from the model he always encouraged the students to work in a variety of lights; it didn't matter if the sun came into the room, and often we worked on into the dusk and even when it was dark. In this way we gained a more complete understanding of the form. We used light to reveal those changes in the related directions of the form which are the only factors which differentiate one form from another and gives each its peculiar character. We worked towards a synthesis of the non-figurative and the figurative.

Bomberg often simplified the history of art into two main approaches: those painters who attacked the form building from the parts to the whole, and those that worked from the whole to the parts. An example of the two attitudes can be seen by comparing Michelangelo's Adam and Eve with the same subject by Massacio. He preferred Massacio's approach; but he never thought of appropriate parts which could be added, as it were, to complete the picture, but only of those parts which contributed to the structure of the image, and to the assessment of the total form, working towards what he called the "spirit in the mass". These are ambiguous words and it is almost impossible to give a further definition in words, although the meaning was always very clear to those working within the problem in paint. We can take a clue from Berkeley, who said that material objects do not exist only in mind as idealism proposes but that, on the other hand, material objects have no independent existence of their own; they depend upon mind and the senses. He goes on to say, and incidentally this is one of the reasons why we paint, that if the essential characteristics of material objects is to be perceived, the essential characteristics of ourselves, spirits, is to perceive. To feel the mass, the object had first to be divested of all the trapping and associations of everyday life. It is like staring hard at a word; if we stare long enough, the meaning of the word disappears and only the letters remain, which take on a new meaning of related forms and lines.

But certainly by mass Bomberg did not mean size, as some critics have rather naively supposed. He knew there was no more mass in a mountain than in an apple; and when he talked about the physical in painting, as he often did, he did not mean that in painting the apple it was necessary to touch it with the fingers, or simulate movement with the brush as though it were caressing the apple. It was not his idea either that before painting a mountain one should run up and down and over the other side to see how it worked. In fact, he felt that an increased knowledge of the mechanics of things was a hindrance and not a help. When we see the moon as a round saucer in the sky, it would be of no help whatever in the painting of it to travel to the moon; it would simply be another object and it wouldn't be yellow. This does not mean, of course, that the moon has to be painted yellow. That depends upon many other factors, and the kind of structure of the image into which one is converting it. Bomberg's colour never took precedence over form. In common with other Jewish artists like Soutine, Chagal, and Adler, his colour often had a brilliant, jewel-like quality, but, unlike them, he did not embroider his work with sumptuous textures and oriental colours extraneous to the form, but rather used colour to build. He also disliked any symbolic use of it. Sutherland's purple backgrounds to his crucifixions symbolising death would be meaningless in China, where the death symbol is white. So he was not a colourist and he wasn't, as I have already hinted, an Expressionist though he has so often been called that. Expressionism has associations with uncontrolled passion, distortion and so on, so that, when the word is used in connection with Bomberg, those people that dislike uncontrolled passion do not trouble to look further than the surface of his paint, which is often rough and crude. But what the paintings of Bomberg express is not to be found in the brush strokes, in the calligraphy, in the texture, or the atmosphere... for that is like searching for meaning in a poem by examining the hand-writing. He has no thought of rousing us, no urgent message to communicate, no flag waving. His paintings remain ineloquent, mute, static, reminding one more of the tradition that produced him, of Cezanne, Goya, or Piero della Francesca, than of Munch, Ensor, Nolde, or Soutine. More relevant to his work than any mention of Expressionism is Action Painting. Like them Bomberg did always emphasise the physical character of painting, the mark defining both space and form, yet he would not have agreed with the Action Painters that the sheer activity with the materials would produce an image or release subconscious impulses… art is a conscious not a subconscious activity. Space is not an abstraction; it is contained by the forms and related to the self as an active agent. But the appearance of things could not give a sense of the reality either. Bomberg regarded the eye itself as a stupid organ and given to lying. Of all the senses, touch was all-important. The contradictions between sight and touch resulted in a heightened sense of reality. R.G. Collingwood has pointed out that Cezanne was right when he said that painting can never be a visual art… a man paints with his hands and not with his eyes. What one paints is what can be painted, and what can be painted must stand in direct relation to the muscular activity of painting it.

Such an attitude to "tactile" values has nothing in common with David Sylvester's romantic idea of actually touching the materials that make up the work of art, nor with Berenson's splitting of the picture plane with illusionistic space. We see things flat. We cannot see distance and space. The canvas looks flat and it is flat; but the painter is concerned with a reality that is not flat. Every mark that goes on to the canvas splits and penetrates the surface, creating a space and form, giving meaning to something that is no longer paint and canvas.

If we reject Alberti's view as superficial, that painting is solely the representation of things seen, and rather accept Cennini's idea, that painting is the revelation of what the eye does not perceive, we immediately come closer to an understanding of the art of David Bomberg. For with Bomberg's paintings we cannot see the meaning; we must look for meaning. If we look, Bomberg will teach us to feel, and this, after all, is the highest function of the painter… he cannot give us more.

[Page last updated: 8th March 2005]

© Cliff Holden 2004-2015