Now we turn to Question 1.8: Was Bomberg's death an event which deeply affected you? Yes, indeed. It affected me as deeply as the death of my father. My relationship with Bomberg was like that of father to a son and, in both cases, I was left with the feeling that the dialogue had not come to an end. Bomberg's death deprived me of continued dialogue and it deprived me of a Master that I would like to have continued to be apprenticed to.
We were all left wondering in what direction Bomberg would have developed. It was never Bomberg's intention to breed a brood of imitators. But in the work by some of the painters that belonged to the Borough Group and the Borough Bottega and even many people working outside these groups (but owing some kind of allegiance to Bomberg) we can see weak imitations both of Bomberg's brushwork and his forms. It is a sad fact that he rejected his most vital students and the ones that later proceeded to contribute something of their own directly arising out of his teaching, whereas he sustained relationships with the kind of person - the 'lady fish-faces' - that he had hated all his life. A major problem of Bomberg's was the difficulty he had in his relationships with people and his apparent inability to assess character. This is confirmed by the stories printed in the New Yorker magazine (November, 1990, p.53).
There was a sense, of course, in which the whole tragic story defied rational understanding ... Yet within the tale of what was done to Bomberg lies embedded the smaller tale of what he did to other people, which, it turns out, was often rather disagreeable. Cork's narrative contains a long train of snarling, Hollywood-style metamorphoses, in which our hero's darker self blackens a fellow-student's eye; brains a certain Professor Brown with a palette; organizes a revolt within the Omega Workshops; tries to provoke a fistfight between his brother, who was a professional boxer, and Wyndam Lewis; earns the enduring hatred of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; so infuriates Ben Nicholson on a painting trip to Lugano that Nicholson buys him a ticket home to England; falls afoul of the very Zionist cultural institutions on whose patronage he subsists; antagonizes a detachment of Bedouin guards; alienates his friend Muirhead Bone; obliges his family to live in a tent; and, in a particularly absurd incident, throws a pile of baby clothes out the window. As spectators, we may find all this quite rollicking, but nothing suggests that either of his two wives found it especially entertaining.
Although he had very difficult relations both with his wife and his step-daughter, nevertheless he gave precedence to his family against the need of making group activity. In many instances he sacrificed his art and his ideas to his family, even though he had urged his students to do without family and sex and any kind of domestication as this was a hindrance to the creative act. He used to say, for example, you should trample over the dead body of your grandmother in order to paint. He would cite his friend and colleague Jacob Kramer as an excellent example of how to behave, who, when his father died rushed up to his dying father's bedside, not specifically to be with his father but, rather, to paint his dead body.
There is no doubt in my mind that Bomberg was a most extraordinary teacher as well as painter, but everybody agrees, including his step-daughter Dinora and his wife Lilian, that he was a very difficult man to get along with.
I can add to these stories several more, including the one about Edna Mann and Bomberg's attitude to her pregnancy, plus the occasion when I physically prevented Bomberg from killing one of the park-keepers with a hammer in order to stop the man removing our paintings during our open-air exhibition on the Thames embankment. I stopped Bomberg's arm which held the hammer and which was about to crash on to the man's head. This incident resulted in Bomberg losing his voice and being confined to bed for a week. Richard Cork writes that: "He seems to have suffered from a deep seated emotional insecurity which impelled him to cloak it in arrogance." I think Cork takes the easy solution. In my view nearly every artist, painter, writer, musician and dancer seems to suffer from the same kind of emotional insecurity so that this assessment becomes meaningless.
Peter Fuller, in his book Beyond the Crisis in Art (Readers and Writers , London, 1980, p.147), asks the question "why was Bomberg so neglected, especially as, within a year of his death a gaggle of critics were momentarily to be heard proclaiming him as among the finest British painter of the century?" The reason why Bomberg received this praise after his death was because I had been involved in discussions with the critics John Russell, Neville Wallace, Andrew Forge and David Sylvester. My contact with Forge and Sylvester came about through Andrew Forge's relationship with Dorothy Mead. It was this contact with the critics, sustained by Dorothy and myself for several years, which brought Bomberg to the attention of the critics. Both Dorothy and I had long discussions with Coldstream's right-hand man, Andrew Forge, who was in constant telephone contact with his colleague David Sylvester, and it was mainly these two critics which began to formulate the rehabilitation of Bomberg.
However, in spite of David Sylvester's enthusiasm and in spite of the fact that he believed it the finest English painting of its time, he nevertheless was stuck in the bog of style. He evaluated everything in terms of style, which is quite absurd because that is like talking in terms of fashion. Even when I introduced Lunquist to him he failed to see the difference between the thick paint of Lunquist and the thick paint of Auerbach. His attitude to art was governed by his stylistic interpretation of history and so he relegated Bomberg's work to no more than a footnote in the history of art. Sylvester always preferred Auerbach to Bomberg or ourselves. This might be one of the reasons why Bomberg, some thirty years later, is still not included in the history books of art. Comparison is rarely made with his contemporaries or with people coming later. In reference to Sylvester's assessment of Bomberg, Peter Fuller had this to say (on the page following the quote above): "It may be that many of the footnotes belong to the text, and that much of the existing text can be safely relegated to the footnotes."
Legend has it, of course, that Bomberg's rehabilitation was brought about by Lilian Bomberg and Dinora through their untiring efforts in promoting him, whereas, in fact, all they did at that time was to coordinate an exhibition with the Arts Council (which, in any case, Andrew Forge was instrumental in promoting, together with Joanna Drew). It has also been said that Lilian his wife, sacrificed her painting life to Bomberg's art, but nobody has tried to explain why she never came to prominence as a painter when she became free from both domestic and financial problems. After Bomberg's death she continued to live and work for some twenty-five years and was able to travel widely round the world without any outside financial help other than the proceeds from Bomberg's paintings, which were now selling for very high sums.
Another fiction which has been perpetuated by Lilian's account of her life with Bomberg is that his energies were drained by his students and that his teaching left no time for painting. But it is clear from the letters which Bomberg asked Peter Richmond to write in May 1957 that Bomberg cherished the memory of his relationships with his students and he was longing for a reunion. The students provided him with a kind of stimulation which Lilian did not understand. In any case, before he was ever involved with teaching students, there were long periods of depression in Bomberg's life during which he was unable to paint.
Since Bomberg's death my relationship and meetings with Lilian Bomberg, Dinora Mendelson and Leslie Marr have been very sporadic, mainly because every meeting ended with argument as to dates and times. These were documented at the time they happened but, since Bomberg's death, through these three, all dates and times relating to me and my relationship with Bomberg have either been false or left out altogether in all the catalogues and books on Bomberg. I had no confidence in Lilian because she lacked judgment and had no understanding of what Bomberg was all about. During the hanging of a Borough Group exhibition which Bomberg and I were hanging, Lilian suddenly swept in, pointed to one of my paintings without knowing that it was mine and said (because she could never distinguish between the paintings of various members of the Group): "What is that dreadful thing? Is it a dead rabbit?" This painting happened to be one that Bomberg had singled out as the best painting by any member of the Group that year. In 1962 in the exhibition at the Crane Kalman Gallery, Joseph Darracott bought it for the Rutherston Collection.
Another incident concerning Lilian was rather more serious. In 1947, I sold about eight paintings to the antique dealer Mendelson, who had a shop in the Kings Road. I did not see these paintings again until 1965. They then belonged to a man called James Crabtree and he proudly showed them to me as paintings by Bomberg. These paintings had certificates stuck on the back, signed by Lilian Bomberg, to the effect that they were genuine Bombergs. One of the paintings, a portrait head, was claimed by Lilian Bomberg to be a portrait of herself painted by Bomberg in 1937. In fact it was a portrait of Dorothy Mead, painted by me in the latter part of 1946 or early 1947. Crabtree asked me to sign a paper to the effect that the paintings were painted by Cliff Holden. I agreed, and signed in the presence of Hallstrom and Dorothy Mead.
In June 1968 I had a telephone call from Mr. Barry Stewart-Penrose, the art correspondent for The Observer. Somehow he had found out about this curious question. He was going to write an article for The Observer and he wanted all the details. I wrote him a long letter and we corresponded and talked on the telephone for some time but, finally, for reasons unexplained to me, the article was dropped. I think this was probably because Lilian Bomberg took back her authentication of these pictures which Crabtree had bought from Mendelson. Mendelson, of course, was the father of Dinora; a fact that I discovered several years after I sold the paintings to Mendelson.
Leslie Marr, in all his references and catalogues and in his interviews with the press, always claimed to be a founder member of the Borough Group. This is false. He was only a founder member of the Bomberg re-organized Borough Group in 1948. The Borough Group had been operative for two years before that and had been under discussion as early as 1944. It was out of these discussions that I founded the Borough Group and I was given the task of president by Bomberg himself. These questions of dates might be considered as splitting hairs, but when one considers the evolution of movements which are very important in the history of art, a year or two can have a profound effect on the evolution of ideas - take, for example, the history of the Cubists and the Fauvists.
Dorothy Mead had an enormous influence during her time as student at the Slade and as President of the Young Contemporaries exhibitions and then, later, through her involvement with the London Group. Our close collaboration lasted until her death in 1975. She also continued to work closely with Dennis Creffield and they often used to go painting on the same landscape, both in London and Brighton. It should be noted that although Dorothy had such a success at the Slade, gaining all prizes except the Tonks prize, she was never offered a one-man show in London. While she was exhibiting with the Borough Group she also exhibited with the London Group. Later she became a member and then she became Vice-President and finally she was the President. This position she held with success until she was forced to resign due to her last sickness. She never had a one-man show in London, but she did exhibit with the four of us - Holden, Creffield, Mead and Richmond - in Stockholm and in 1956/7 together with myself in Sweden. It was a tragedy that Dorothy Mead was cut off at her most creative point by sickness and death.
Peter Richmond met Nora Richmond and they subsequently married. They came to stay with me when I was with Dorothy in Spain, but then they moved to Ronda where they worked together in the school that Bomberg founded and after that we lost contact for many years.
I had a more sporadic contact with Edna Mann. We used to correspond occasionally and meet whenever we could. Finally she sent her daughter, Diana, as a student to me for one year. This contact lasted until Edna Mann's death in 1985.
Dennis Creffield came to me when he was 16 years old and at 17 I introduced him to some Jesuits and to Bomberg. These two events completely changed his life to such an extent that he, even today, refers to me as his father. Creffield introduced Anthony Hatwell and Roy Oxlade to Bomberg. I have had an intermittent contact with Oxlade - never a very happy one. He came down to Spain to Torrox to visit me for some weeks; we met again in Wales and, in 1975, he wrote begging me to receive him to help him with some writing about Bomberg.
The last words I received from Dorothy before she died were: "Beware of Oxlade." She proved right. Oxlade spent a week with me in which he tape-recorded many interviews from which, together with interviews with various other people and access to Bomberg's papers, he wrote a thesis for an MA qualification from the Royal College of Art in 1976. This thesis is wholly academic and betrays no understanding whatever of Bomberg's teaching or of his painting. Several of his quotations from me were out of context and gave a wholly distorted view of Bomberg and my relations with him. I was astonished that, in spite of these misunderstandings, he was able to write a thesis which made him a 'Master of Arts.'
In Cork's book David Bomberg (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1987, p.263) I am quoted as follows: "It had to be in an almost ecstatic drunken state, in which we project ourselves into reality state." This quotation comes from the broadcast which I made for the BBC called 'An Artist as Teacher' which was a tribute to David Bomberg one year after his death. (It was transmitted on the Third Programme at 8.50 - 9.05 pm, Monday, 29th September 1958.) Oxlade has taken similar remarks of mine and suggested that I was meaning that one must be literally drunk. Perhaps intoxication would have been a better word for me to have used than the word "drunken." Certainly other people in the past have used it effectively. For example, Baudelaire has been quoted as saying, that he "experiences things intensely, sees everything as new, is always drunk," and so he remains in touch with the gifts of inspiration. Delacroix often spoke of the frenzy, and to quote Baudelaire again: "It is essential to be always intoxicated, everything lies in that, it is the one and only thing." His meaning is that one must be prepared to go to the utmost limits of oneself. This is surely what Delacroix meant to point out when asked himself: "How comes it that, in a half-intoxicated state, certain men - and I am
one of them - acquire a lucidity of vision far greater, in many cases, than they have when they are calm?" So that we should be in no doubt as to what he means here by intoxication, he adds: "Happy are those who, like Wolff and other great men, have been able to reach this inspired condition while drinking water and eating moderately."
If Cork had continued to quote me, he would have seen that I was distinguishing between this ecstatic drunken state and the state of someone who was actually drunk and who would then tend to focus attention on a part or the clarity of a detail. And so a man who is drunk behaves in a way which is quite opposite to the way in which we approached the act of painting. Our intentions were to embrace the whole.
In Oxlade's writing there is some confusion as to how we were using the word 'mood'. Bomberg and I meant it, on the one hand, in terms of the meaning or content of paintings and, on the other hand, as a way of remembering the feelings we had experienced during the act of creation. We would try to observe and then remember how it had felt working creatively in front of the canvas, as against those other times when we were working mechanically (by means of an intellectualization). Observing this was a way of knowing for oneself whether the activity had created something or not. We recognized that it was not possible to make an immediate judgment merely by looking at the created image.
There is also confusion in Cork's, Oxlade's and Michelmore's mind regarding the intervention Bomberg undertook with the students by taking part to the extent of working on the actual painting, so that it was a complete collaboration of student and teacher. I cannot understand their astonishment for, if one looks back in history, from Henry Moore to Rembrandt, Rubens, Michelangelo and Leonardo (to name only a few), it is well known that many artists could never have had such a tremendous production without the help and collaboration of the students. Oxlade, of course, as he had so little understanding, found the intervention on the teacher's part had an inhibiting effect and he was unable to continued the image once Bomberg had put his mark on it. Many students were unable to recognize the idea. They were continually confusing individualism with the unique image. So even though it was pointed out by the master, they were incapable, as were Oxlade and Michelmore, of continuing the activity. It therefore remained Bomberg's idea and his image, even though the student had executed it and even though it was produced with their activity. He had sought to extract and preserve the image which the student was trying to create but which only the master was able to recognize. This demonstrated that the seeking of the unique image could be a collaborative effort engaging the minds and feelings of the participants if their minds and feelings were in tune. Instead of writing about Bomberg and about the Group as one who was committed and involved and with some understanding, Oxlade wrote not as an artist but as a person once removed. In a way he was writing like a critic.
I had a sporadic contact with Kossoff and Auerbach for many years but we did not have a close collaboration, partly because they never joined the Borough Group and partly because there was such a divergence in our views about painting. Auerbach was pretentious and eclectic in taste. He looked at everything and finally settled for Sickert. When he is quoted it is most often to stress his sense of his own honesty and this always makes me very suspicious. Anyone who talks about honesty is usually very dishonest. One does not have to talk about honesty. One can say that art itself is a distinctive way in which truth comes into being. Nietzsche is even inclined to draw the conclusion that there could be no such thing as truth. This is closer to my position where I consider that we are all searching for the truth. Although we strive for truth, it is an impossible task, for we are always fooling ourselves that this is what we are doing. An element of falseness is there and to deny this evades the issue.
Auerbach is on record as having said that he is a great admirer of Sickert. This is rather surprising when all the critics point out the connection between Auerbach and Bomberg. Bomberg himself hated Sickert and all his ideas. Andrew Forge says: "Bomberg had studied for several years in evening classes under Sickert. And then he had gone to the Slade. There is no evidence that anything of Sickert's powerful teaching rubbed off on him. He seems to have had an inborn sense of the monumental. The earliest surviving drawings testify to it. This put him in a different world from Sickert, for whom the visual impression was everything. For Bomberg the eye was a stupid organ, almost helpless when unsupported by other senses. He was a natural anti-Impressionist - it is hard to imagine him even considering the possibility that a drawing could be to do with fleeting impressions, or that design could have anything to do with accident." Of course, at this time it is quite likely that Andrew Forge had not read anything of the Bomberg papers for we find that Bomberg is also concerned with the phenomena through which design happens. To quote Bomberg: "Good judgment is through good drawing - from the nervous system to the sensory of the brain - it is the combination of eurythmics, euphony and poetry, and when the good draughtsman draws, the muses come to dance. Then the imagination is given full play, and design happens. They then become muses."
Bomberg was a member of the avant-garde during the First World War. It was these paintings which were seized upon by Andrew Forge as a great discovery and this made Bomberg's reputation after his death. But, yet again, there was a distortion of the truth by the critics and the art historians. No one saw the significance of Bomberg's development in his later years and no critic has tried to explain why they should think that the paintings of Kossof and Auerbach were a development of Bomberg's ideas. Critics say, "ah, they were students of Bomberg, therefore they were influenced by Bomberg," but they do not bother to really look at the paintings and compare them with Bomberg's paintings. They are totally different and the difference resulted from the fact that both these painters, Kossof and Auerbach, were not influenced by Bomberg but by the ideas generated collectively by the Borough Group. What they gained from the Borough Group was, through lack of understanding, not a stimulus from the idea but a stimulus from the activity. What they took was a gimmick - their forms are academic and the gimmick of thick paint merely results in a curious combination of caricature and decorative brush strokes.
Auerbach's relation to the Borough Group is equivalent to Munnings' relation to French Impressionism. His early paintings were imitations of Paul Klee and Braque and his later daubs disguise an academic image which would have been anathema to Bomberg. In the early days, as I have said, we all threw paint around and waded in it and Auerbach has taken this up as a gimmick. A visit to his studio in the 50's showed that all the dropping of paint onto the floor had resulted in a thickness of paint of several inches. One presumes that he has failed to understand that it is the image and the idea that matters, not the materials and their manipulation. I think it was Kant that said that all perception involves the formation of a judgment. If we say that to perceive is an act of judgment then we can say it is also a moral act. It was judgment that Bomberg tried to teach and it was precisely this attitude to art that Kossoff and Auerbach have never taken up in their work.
I would like here to quote Peter Fuller (from an article entitled 'Auerbach versus Clemente' in Art Monthly, February, 1983, p.11) who said of Auerbach that "one could emphasize here Auerbach's consummate mastery of drawing, his relatively recent flowering as a colourist capable of playing the full emotional range, the increasing surety of his touch, which has enabled him to shift from mere accretion of pigment to a vividly lyrical handling which loses nothing in sensuousity, his evocation of the great tradition of Rembrandt's humanistic painting, which he called up to redeem his expressionism from solipsistic subjectivity."
Such nonsense use of words in relation to Auerbach, and even the idea that he was a superb draughtsman, was attacked by Ian Biggs (in a letter published in the next issue of Art Monthly, March, 1983, p.24): "His drawing is based on crude use of a traditional structuring approach filled out with quirky mannerisms and rhetorical flourishes which, for all their superficial appearance of search and discovery, are expressive of nothing more than a generalized emotion." Biggs continued to say that Auerbach's paintings differ only in that the processes of composition of a structure and in-filling are repeated again and again with slight modifications. What may once have been a fresh, if simplistic, use of a formal device found in Rembrandt (and learnt no doubt from Bomberg) has become an end in itself, a mechanical and empty repetition of certain well rehearsed acts.
In respect to Kossof's painting I would like to quote from a review by Brian Sewell which appeared in the Evening Standard during August of 1996. Kossof was having a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery and in 1995 he had been chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. But despite so much public acclaim Sewell was unable to find any merit in his work.
As for Leon Kossof, no crueller deed was ever done in art than to expose this wretched painter to the rigours of a retrospective exhibition. He has had the impertinence to claim a place as Bomberg's pupil, but of that considerable man he understood even less than Auerbach, his drawing child-like, his mud-pie palette lifeless, his paint opaque and dense. Few painters professing to be professional have in a working life of 50 years begun so badly and advanced so little. A retrospective exposed Ron Kitaj's inflated reputation to irreperable damage and the Tate should have learned from that exhibition that the so-called School of London may stand together in mutual support and variety, but show them singly and the honest critical eye must tumble them like ninepins. Poor Kossof: decent man, rotten painter - this exposure will undo him.
Certainly the road taken by Kossoff and Auerbach would not have been in the least interesting for Bomberg. It is significant that while Bomberg continued to be rejected and failed to get exhibitions even with Helen Lessore, nevertheless, it was this academic wing of Kossoff and Auerbach which did achieve exhibitions along with the Kitchen Sink school at the Beaux Arts Gallery. Against the success of Kossof and Auerbach, Bomberg himself, during his lifetime, was ignored by critics, dealers, art historians and the general public and praised by critics for the wrong reasons after his death.
Here is a part of an article from the New Statesman magazine (3rd April, 1964, p.534) in which Andrew Forge makes an appraisal of my work, as well as Mead's and Creffield's. The question of Bomberg's influence on Kossof and Auerbach is quickly dismissed and he has understood that, by contrast, the three of us were working out of a common philosophy of art which we had become committed to during our time as students of Bomberg. He has recognized that we valued the authentic idea more than "a searched-for originality."
I offer a brief run-down on some of the Bomberg painters in the hope that one day it will be possible for them to be looked at in terms of their individual qualities. Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossof are the two ex-Bomberg pupils who have become best known, but his teaching has so little evident bearing on their work that it is not important to discuss them here.
Cliff Holden, who was probably closer to Bomberg than any, has painted certain subjects for years, seated figures, double standing figures, treating each picture as a new exploration of a narrow obsessive field. Everything he does has a quality which is both primitivistic and sumptuous. He is a powerful and erotic colourist and the crisis of solid and void which was one of the basic subjects of Bomberg's teaching is with him a continually renewed experience.
Dorothy Mead also has a certain primitivism, but with her it is less a matter of mood than of monumental intention. Her work is often cold, both in colour and in structure, pared down, and worked over with an often brutal indifference to felicities of handling and surface. She is both hard and refined, classical in the sense that she seems to be distanced from her work and insistent that its authority must come wholly from its outward forms and not from any more intimate exchanges of mood. If mural-painting existed in an ideal England, she would be busy.
Dennis Creffield is the most like Bomberg in style. His work has a flowing lyricism and great elegance which sometimes extend into sweetness.
The fact that all of them, and the post-Coldstream painters too, whom I hope to discuss at a later date, work out of a common philosophy of art which they value more highly than a searched-for originality does not mean that they lack individuality: rather the reverse. What emerges from their work is a deeply founded, unbidden distinction that entirely vindicates their position. They are at cross-purposes with much that is acceptable at the moment, and none has so far received more than token recognition, although they are in mid-career.
The critics Lawrence Alloway, David Sylvester and Andrew Forge, amongst others, were writing in the early 1960's about the emergence of a new figuration in Britain. At that time it largely referred to the remnants of the Borough Group but the emphasis and direction was obscured by a third generation of young painters and the Young Contemporaries who were influenced by Mead and Creffield. Dubsky met Dorothy Mead at the Slade where they were studying together and she introduced him to me. We encouraged him to carry on with his painting but we had no influence on his work. One could say that he was reacting against what we were doing. Dorothy's influence on students like Dubsky was undermined by her status as a fellow student, whereby she was not able to exercise any authority over them as a teacher. Unlike Dubsky, many of them were attracted to what we might call the 'Bomberg ethos' and, later on, I believe that a number of them gravitated towards Auerbach and some of them even became his students. But as they had no direct contact with Dorothy's work as an artist and understood little of the intentions of Bomberg, what resulted was a dark mess of paint which had little relation to the ideas of the Borough Group or Bomberg. By the middle 1960's there were enough painters working with these mannerisms for the critics to refer to them as the 'Bomberg School.' This was an example of a movement created by critics and killed by critics. As someone said once, the chief reason why artists suspect critics is that they have arbitrary powers which they use in an arbitrary manner.
To give some indication of how the critics were writing about the Borough Group in the early 60's I would like to quote from an article 'Against the Rimless Men' by Bryan Robertson (London Magazine, June 1963, p.61). In this article he reviews an exhibition by Patrick
Procktor who had shortly before been at the Slade and his work was directly influenced by Dorothy Mead in a way which was typical of many students who were there at that time.
The paintings and drawings accompanying this text are by a young artist, Patrick Procktor, exhibiting his work for the first time at the Redfern Gallery, and whose youthful exuberance and panache may help to provide an answer from English painting. He is part of an exceptionally gifted and lively generation at present finding its feet as artists in this country; but his own painting has a breath of life, an expansiveness, and a willingness to risk everything at all points of the compass which combine to make his work one of the most tonic events in a decade. Procktor has only just found the self confidence to realize these qualities.
As a student at the Slade he found, glancingly, a temporary solution for his problems of commitment in the cautious expressionism of the Bomberg-inspired painters, with their insistence on tonal domination (almost as a moral doctrine) and a parallel avoidance of colour - in that context, a frivolous irrelevance. Bomberg's Jewish expressionism was an unconscious extension of pre-war Euston Road aesthetic beliefs, so that it was hardly surprising to find his disciples working at the Slade. A dominating factor in Procktor's work, however, is an incessant concern for movement, either explicit, or implied in the arrested or potential thrust or swirl of a static figure.
These painters influenced by Bomberg tended to equate form and even volume with weight, and space with density. Their earth-bound, earth-coloured canvases are immovably still and locked. A more helpful mentor for Procktor at the Slade was Keith Vaughan, whose unassailable belief in the reality, dignity and pathos of the human figure does not always rest upon a rock of static monumentality but also strives, continually, to point the inflections of movement by abstract means which can distort a figure with classical logic, and recently within the handling of the paint itself. At all events, Procktor was conscious of the Bomberg ethos, resisted the tyranny of its narrow orthodoxy, and doubtless found its conception too retrogressive and academic.
Robertson refers to "Bomberg-inspired painters with their insistence on tonal domination" but, of course, in the Borough Group we never insisted on any such thing. I cannot defend the work produced by our imitators but, in our case, there was never an "avoidance of colour." As I have said before, we used earth colours because they were all we could afford - it had nothing whatever to do with Euston Road aesthetic beliefs. We avoided both the tonality of the Euston Road Group and the visual mathematical precision of the Coldstream type of painting. In design and painting we always rejected the fallacy of realism which aims at the illusionistic rendering of appearances. We strove for figuration, not realism, through abstraction - abstraction in figuration. The abstract design is therefore always the paramount reality. I think it was Patrick Heron who once said in the 50's that non-figurative painters release rhythm without waiting to match it with an exterior configuration. Heron thought that they were evading something and that one should try to equate an inner impulse to form, that is the felt rhythm, with an outer reality. According to him this reality can be observed but I prefer to substitute 'observed' with 'felt,' by which I mean to suggest that the reality is not the object seen but our physical relation with the object through movement.
Although by the middle 60's the so-called 'School of Bomberg' and the growing reputations of Kossof and Auerbach had done much to obscure the genuine connection which our work had with Bomberg, nevertheless this connection had been acknowledged by at least one critic some years before, in 1959. In that year Mead, Creffield and I contributed to an exhibition entitled 'Figure Variations.' This exhibition was organised by Miss E. Damaglou in her own house which she called 'The Paris Gallery.' I had met her in 1956 when I made a poster for a mixed exhibition which she organised at the Parsons Gallery, entitled 'Aspects of Contemporary English Painting' (2nd - 27th January, 1956). In this review of the 'Figure Variations' exhibition by Keith Sutton which appeared in the Art News and Review (Saturday, 21st November, 1959) it interesting to note that we are described as 'Bombergian' and that our work is equated with action painting. It is also interesting that, at this stage, Mario Dubsky is still grouped together with us.
Appel and Atlan, le Brocquy and the Bratby are as distinct from one another as any four artists could be. What brings them together in this exhibition is that each has left the human image sufficiently distinct in their paintings for one to assume that the human image is their subject matter. But all such assumptions must be treated with suspicion otherwise the viewer will go round comparing the images just to see which looks most "real" and will forget how very different chalk is from cheese.
The one group in this lively exhibition where comparisons are of value is the row of 'Bombergians' - Creffield, Mead, Dubsky and Holden. They are not of equal maturity and effect but they show a common concern with the figure in front of the artist as a potent object for the artist to be concerned about. Not in the nineteenth century way of figure (Mankind) in his environment but in the twentieth century way of artist painting a picture - the artist discovering for himself an equivalent in paint for the situation which is visually recognisable. This quality of self-consciousness about the act of painting connects them with the energetic displays of action painting on the one hand while the degree of figuration and the mood of their colour schemes relates them to the social consciousness of the German expressionists. Were they in an exhibition where the social dialectic was stressed they might be seen to be rather ponderous in the manner of youthful lawmakers but, strangely, surrounded by more extrovert types, bright and sometimes flippant, they do stand up to them by force of integrity and, in the case of Mead, by artistic sensibility.
This has been something of a digression but I wanted to indicate some of the reasons why I have been so disappointed with many of the students who have not fulfilled their early promise. This has been due to a complete lack of understanding of the kind of direction that could be undertaken from Bomberg's teaching. Too many of them merely made a pastiche, a continuation of what David Sylvester refers to as 'style', an imitation of the gestures and brush strokes. I was especially disappointed that Michelmore has appeared to have made nothing of his architecture through Bomberg's teaching and, in fact, did not really make any contribution in painting either. I had a close collaboration for several years with Gus and Max Metzger, both in the mediums of painting and sculpture, but Max gave up painting in favour of studying agriculture in Paris, and Gus eventually became known as an auto-destructive artist.
There can be no proof that what Bomberg tried to communicate was what he really meant. All one can say is that all verbal ideas act only as a stimulus to activity and out of the activity ideas come about. However, I think that, by separating and differentiating between the different activities, I have managed to steer clear of the kind of painting that Bomberg loathed; the pseudo-scientific attitudes of the Impressionists, the wild romantic brush strokes of the German Expressionists, the concern with romantic detail of much of English landscape in the form of Sutherland and Piper stemming, of course, from Samuel Palmer. It is interesting to compare our loyalty and gratitude to Bomberg, the painter, and Bomberg, the master, to Bomberg's own background, where he repeatedly stressed his hatred of his teachers like Brown, Tonks, Sergeant, and especially Sickert.
Bomberg showed us the way - a path which started one might say with Giotto and contimues from Massaccio through to Rembrandt (not forgetting Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Goya and Velasquez) until, in modern times, we can trace the path from our own Turner, through Delacroix and Van Gogh, to Cezanne. But, in showing us the path and the direction, he could not and would not indicate where the path led to.
I think, in many respects, we have gone further than the Cubists in extending the ideas from Cezanne and we were concerned with similar ideas to those of the Tachiste and Action Painters and Abstract Expressionists several years before they appeared in England. But it seemed to us that these movements only handled a very small element of the creative act, whereas what we have tried to do is to combine all those ideas and methods into some coherent direction. We know more or less the direction but what we don't know is what we will find when we get there - that is the exciting part. That is the mystery.
Thinking of the term 'a new figuration,' I am often reminded of a quotation from Van Gogh's letters (Van Gogh, A Self-Portrait, Thames and Hudson, London, 1961, p.289):
Who will be in figure painting in the way that Monet is in landscape? However, you must feel, as I do, that such a one will come. Rodin? He does not work in color, he's not the one. But the painter of the future will be a colorist such as has never existed. Manet was working towards it, but as you know the impressionists have already got a stronger color than Manet. But this painter who is to come - I can't imagine him living in little cafes, working away with a lot of false teeth, and going to Zouaves' brothel, as I do.
But I think that I am right when I feel that in a later generation it will come, and that as for us we must work as we can toward that end, without doubting and without wavering.
How do I view Bomberg's position in twentieth century art? I find this rather an odd question because my view of Bomberg's position in the history of art is probably totally different to that of every other art historian and critic.
It is common knowledge that the attitude of many British critics is governed by the international art market and, at the time when they could have helped us, both Forge and Sylvester looked towards America. It should be remembered that Herbert Read and Lawrence Alloway had introduced Tachism and Action Painting to London in the middle 50's and that it was during this time that the Kitchen Sink Painters and Kossof and Auerbach had stolen our rightful voice and our potential gallery, the Beaux Arts Gallery, where Helen Lessore was the
director. I say that the Beaux Arts Gallery was our potential gallery because we considered that Helen Lessore could have completed her stable by including myself, Creffield, Mead, Richmond and Bomberg when she already had the Kossoff, Auerbach and Lundquist. I think the reason why she did not take us stems from my days on the Community Farm in Worcestershire where I met Nommie Durell. In 1948 she shared a house in Frognal, Hampstead, with Helen Lessore and, for a time, Dorothy and I rented rooms from Nommie in the same house. Nommie and Helen were very anti-Bomberg. They both made drawings in the style of Gaudier Brzeska and I am quite sure that Dorothy and I made derogatory remarks about their efforts, so that Helen Lessore was not inclined to help us when she had a gallery of her own and was in a position to do so. However in spite of this she still gave Lundquist a show which was a great success. But this only came about after I had spent more than nine years promoting Lundquist to her and to others with slides, films and articles about his work.
I think it was that Appolinaire of the New York Renaissance, Harold Rosenberg, that first coined the phrase 'action painting.' He meant that painters began to consider the canvas as an area in which to act rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or express an actual or imagined object. Thus, the canvas was no longer the medium for a picture so much as the record of an event. Pollock, for example, (and also Tapies from Spain) used time as a perpetual motion dominated by the need to repeat itself endlessly without pause. To interrupt the movement would mean breaking the space-time continuum. According to Pollock, only death could be the ultimate liberation which would break the cycle of repetition to which we are all condemned for life.
Years before these American artists made their appearance in England, Bomberg and myself and the members of the Borough Group were developing the same strategies in painting towards what has been called 'the new figuration.' This parallel even extends to the kind of terms by which they labeled their activity, that is the Tache (the emphasis on 'the mark') and Action Painting (with its emphasis on action, on movement in time and the physical, the design over the whole canvas, the turning around of the canvas, working upside down, using the tricks of Matisse and Derain, turning your back on the object, projecting yourself into the object and, thereby, into an imagined or virtual space through actual space). So what I am saying is that Bomberg and the Borough Group were either precursors or, at least, working parallel with the Americans.
© Cliff Holden
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