|Preface by Miles Peter Richmond|
|BOMBERG'S TEACHING - SOME MISCONCEPTIONS|
|The Spirit in the Mass|
When I was first introduced to Bomberg, I had already completed a conventional art school course at Kingston Upon Thames and was at first very sceptical of Bomberg’s approach to teaching. His claims were so extreme that I doubted his sincerity but his earnestness and Cliff Holden’s enthusiasm persuaded me to stay. I joined the Borough Group and took part in all its exhibitions. On the other hand Cliff, who had never attended an art school, was impressed by Bomberg from the beginning, indeed from seeing his work in London Group exhibitions even before meeting him and discovering common ground in respect for the ideas of Bishop Berkeley. Cliff was, of course, the prime mover in the formation and work of the Borough Group.
When the Borough classes ended and Bomberg returned to Spain, it was the end of an era. Apart from his family, I was the only Borough Group member to renew contact with Bomberg, going to Ronda and becoming assistant in his school there, where I was the daily recipient of his thoughts. I had turned from mocker to believer. Far from rejecting tradition, Bomberg made his own contribution to it, restoring its vitality. The importance he attached to drawing came from a profound spiritual sense. The plane of Imagination, where good drawing has its being, was sacred to him. He saw it as the intermediary between divine and human where ‘the muses come to dance’ and the spirit in the mass reveals itself.
Miles Peter Richmond
The original students of David Bomberg are still working. The “New Figuration”, prophesied by critics in the early sixties, is flourishing and has now been joined by students of those students. But it is like an underground movement not open to a viewing public, because all the available exhibition spaces are occupied by installations and establishment figures. We struggle on to realize a vision working out from Cézanne, something richer and more positive than Cubism, towards what Bomberg called “the spirit in the mass”.
To understand Bomberg’s teaching, it is necessary to understand the intentions and activities of the Borough Group (1946-1951) and the nature of the discussions between Bomberg and myself, which began three years earlier in 1944 and which led to Bomberg accepting my proposal to establish a group. The original students2 of Bomberg were as follows (and I will give their names in the order in which they met Bomberg) – Cliff Holden, Dorothy Mead3, Miles Richmond, and Dennis Creffield.
It is over fifty years since the Borough Group disbanded in the spring of 1951.4 In the autumn of the same year, I exhibited with Mead, Richmond, and Creffield, at the Parson’s Gallery.5 Our work was seen by the Swedish painter/sculptor Torsten Renquist, who invited the four of us to exhibit in Stockholm. This took place at the Gummeson’s Gallery in April 1952 under the title “Four Englishmen”.6
The critics acclaimed the paintings, as having affinities with their own leading painter Evert Lundquist,7 who introduced himself to us and who became a life-long friend. Some reviews suggested that we also had affinities with a painter we had never heard of, namely, Adolphe Monticelli.8 Many years later I discovered that Monticelli was directly influenced by Delacroix. Van Gogh greatly admired Monticelli and had this to say about him in his letters: ”I sometimes think I am really continuing that man.”9
The Swedish reviews of the Gummeson’s Gallery exhibition were refreshing and encouraging. Especially as critical responses in England in the late 1940s and early 1950s were for the most part negative. Those painters and critics that took us seriously attacked us. The rest thought we were eccentric, clowning, and they treated us as a joke. Many more remained silent. But, as a result of Dorothy Mead’s influence on Andrew Forge (who was her professor at the Slade) the Borough Group began to receive more positive critical attention, both from Andrew Forge and also from his close colleague David Sylvester. In the early sixties, David Sylvester went so far as to say that, in his opinion, the Borough Group >>>
1 Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in these footnotes are from Cliff Holden in conversation with Douglas Westbury, during the preparation of this article, at Hässlås Målarskola, Sweden, in January, 2004
2 Edna Mann, Dorothy Mead, and Cliff Holden all joined Bomberg at about the same time. Holden omits Mann’s name here because she didn’t continue the activity. She was thrown out of the group in 1948. How this came about is discussed at length in a document called Work in Progress written by Holden in March 1999 and which is available from the Tate Archives. Other students are not mentioned because they were not founding members of the Borough Group.
3 Dorothy Mead, 1928-1975
4 Although Holden deals with this subject in his other writings, it should be noted here; contrary to what many have written (for example, see Charles Spencer, “Memories of Bomberg”, The London Magazine, March, 1967, p. 32: ‘The end came over some political triviality of voting rights, but this was only the surface irritant of deeper feelings against Bomberg’s parental control, his accusations of disloyalty and betrayal.”) – no student in the Borough Group ever left Bomberg because of disagreements about his ideas or teaching methods. Disagreements arose over the question of the Group’s strategy – how best to bring these ideas before the public?
5 4 Contemporary Painters: Creffield, Holden, Mead, Richmond, Parson’s Gallery, 70 Grosvenor Street, London, W.1, Tuesday, 27 November - Friday, 21 December, 1951
6 Fyra engelsmän: Dennis Creffield, Cliff Holden, Dorothy Mead, Peter Richmond, kl. 13-17, Gummesons Konstgalleri, Strandvägen 17, Stockholm, 24 April, 1952
7 Evert Lundquist, 1904-1994
8 Adolphe Monticelli, 1824-86
9 Van Gogh, Vincent, The Letters of Van Gogh, (edited and introduced by Mark Roskill, selected from a translation which was first published by Constable & Co., 1927-1929), The Fontana Library, 1963, p. 296; ”You remember, that sometimes I thought I was the continuation of Monticelli here.”
>>> was the only vital new movement to have emerged since the war.1 It is my contention that this still holds true today.
For a few years it looked as if we were going to break through. On the basis of Sylvester’s assessment, many critics began to refer to us as the “New Figuration”. But, in spite of this enthusiasm, something went wrong and we were suddenly dropped in favour of “Kitchen Sink” New Realism, the Independent Group supported by Lawrence Alloway at the ICA, and, of course, the Americans.
My explanation for this failure is that we were not understood. Critics, such as Forge, Sylvester, Berger, Lipke, Cork, and Fuller, have repeatedly shown that they did not understand Bomberg’s teaching. Perhaps even more disappointing to me has been the lack of understanding shown by those painters who had the benefit of direct contact with Bomberg and, yet, who have made a mockery of his practice.2 And if they did not understand Bomberg’s teaching, how could they understand us?
Norbert Linton, writing in Modern Painters,3 describes our colleague Creffield as one of the most powerful painters in the country and ”the chief beneficiary of the licence to recreate through activity which was Bomberg’s lesson.” There was no such thing as ”Bomberg’s lesson”. I have no idea what ”recreate” or ”licence” means in this context. And activity alone does not produce art. What kind of activity we are talking about then? Not action for the sake of knowledge. And not action for the business of living. Not survival action, which is a specialised action. What then? Bomberg and the Borough Group were engaged in ACTION USING ALL THE SENSES. ”To LOOK as against to SEE. TOUCH as against SEEING.” One can only touch through movement – and so we recognised that movement, both actual and virtual, is an essential ingredient of reality.
This is just one example of the many misconceptions, which have been published and are now part of the historical record. As a result the record is inaccurate. The individual texts in question show no understanding of Bomberg’s teaching and the proliferation of these misconceptions, through future research and cross reference within the academy, can only lead to more confusion.
It is the intention of this article to pinpoint and clarify some of the most misleading of these critical misconceptions – so that the current exhibition4 can contribute to putting the record straight.
1 Among many pronouncements of this kind, made by David Sylvester in the early sixties, here is a quote from his review of the exhibition, Seven Figurative Painters, AIA Gallery, 15 Lisle Street, Leicester Square, London, WC2, Wednesday, 1 - 21 January, 1960; “Figurative Painters”, New Statesman, 16 January, 1960: “This exhibition is merely a trailer for a new and widespread movement of which we are likely to see a great deal of in the Sixties.” [see also the reviews by Neville Wallace writing for The Observer and John Russell writing for The Times]
2 Holden is referring here to Lilian Holt, Leslie Marr, Dinora Mendelson, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof, Richard Michelmore, and, in particular, Roy Oxlade whose RCA dissertation is discussed in this article. Lack of understanding has been clearly apparent in the paintings and comments made by Leslie Marr (who was, at one time, Bomberg’s son-in-law). In a recent exhibiton catalogue (Six Decades of Painting at Piano Nobile Fine Paintings, 129 Portland Road, London, W11 4LW, June 2001) Marr writes as follows: ”Then there is Bomberg’s now famous utterance that ’...Our search is towards the SPIRIT IN THE MASS’, a statement which gave us so much trouble in the days of The Borough Group because we were constantly asked to explain it, and couldn’t, beyond saying, quite truthfully that the answer lay in the content of the painting. But we were inexperienced students in those days, and, I am quite certain, really didn’t know what we were talking about. Bomberg himself made it worse by trying to explain the whole thing in terms of ’Berkley’s New Theory of Vision’. Berkley was a dotty eighteenth century Irish Bishop who wrote a number of books including a Treatise on Tar Water.” [Both Holden and Bomberg greatly respected Berkeley (sic). Holden keeps the following publication in his library: "The Works of George Berkeley, D.D., (late Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland)", in Three Volumes, Vol. 1., London: Printed by J.F.Dove, St.John’s Square; for Richard Priestley, 143, High Holborn, 1820; which contains An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, pp. 225-316]
3 Linton, Norbert, Modern Painters, vol. 2, number 1, 1989
4 This article was written to be included in the catalogue for an exhibition called “Bomberg and the Borough Group”, at the Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art, 108A Boundary Road, St. John’s Wood, London, NW8 ORH, 14 November – 16 January, 2004
Even before the critics killed off the so-called “School of Bomberg”1 which they had created in the mid sixties,2 the rot had already set in. Now the rot is in the minds of the bureaucrats who control our public exhibition spaces, for the benefit of the gawping crowds that seek the latest novelty. It is ironic that over fifty years ago we were denied space and dealer acceptance because we were too revolutionary and today we are denied because we are not revolutionary enough. That is because the revolution has been taken over by the establishment. We have never been within the establishment - we were not then and are not now.
In the short term, decadence always wins, as that is the level of the market place. Throughout the history of Western art there have been periods of revolutionary creativity and periods of academic sterility and decadence. Now revolution and decadence exist side by side and the powers that be can’t tell the difference. I came across a word some time ago, “the death of belief”, or even better perhaps, “what is out there”, waiting to be revealed – it is something, which is constructed by people, always provisional and contingent on context and power. Today anything goes, everything is equal, one opinion is as good as another. Fashion flourishes. Everything is relative. And nothing matters.
But, in July 2001, my colleague Miles Richmond wrote that painting matters. Paul Trewhela had organised an exhibition in the crypt of St. Martins in the Fields.3 For that occasion Miles wrote these words, which we all endorsed: “Painting matters to me since I know no better means of exploring the connections between our outer and inner worlds and presenting evidence of that exploration. Painting viewed in this way will never be entirely at home in the market place since it is concerned with research rather than commodity. I therefore welcome the opportunity to exhibit in this famous church where inner and outer worlds have always been at home.”4
Bomberg did not teach drawing. What he taught was an approach, which was not a style and nothing to do with conventions or imitation of skills. This was a trap that Sylvester fell into when, having previously described Bomberg as the best painter in England for a hundred years, he nevertheless wrote, some years later, that ”stylistically, Bomberg’s late work was backward-looking, added little or nothing to the language of art that had not been there 50 years before. If it is, as I believe, the finest English painting of its time, only its intrinsic qualities make it so: in terms of the history of art it’s a footnote.”5
After reading Peter Fuller’s spirited defence of Bomberg in his 1980 book,6 which was in protest at Sylvester’s outrageous reassessment, I was led to expect an evaluation of Bomberg’s teaching in the Borough period. But, although Fuller was one of the few critics who sympathised with Bomberg’s work, he, strangely, showed little understanding of either >>>
1 A large number of young painters were influenced by Dorothy Mead during her time as a student at the Slade (1956-1959); Mario Dubsky, Patrick Procktor, Ben Levine, Ray Atkins, and many others. Dennis Creffield was also a student at the Slade at this time.
2 This movement was an artificial creation of the critics writing in the national media and it consisted mainly of people who had never met David Bomberg; The Times (John Russell), The Observer (Neville Wallace), The New Statesman (David Sylvester, John Berger, and Patrick Heron), and The Listener (reproduced broadcasts by Andrew Forge and David Sylvester).
3 Painting Matters: An Exhibition of Work, St. Martin’s Gallery, St. Martins in the Fields, London, W2N 4JJ, Monday 30 July - Saturday 4 August, 2001. [work by Miles Peter Richmond, Cliff Holden, Miranda Sullivan, Rosie Skaife d’Ingerthorpe, Paul Trewhela, Susanna Richmond, Stephen Treherne]
4 An explanatory note by Miles Peter Richmond.
5 David Sylvester quoted by Peter Fuller in Beyond the Crisis in Art, Writers and Readers Cooperative Ltd., London, 1980, pp. 42-43
>>> the work or the ideas. Perhaps this was due to his reliance on Roy Oxlade’s assessment, whose short acquaintance with Bomberg prompted him to write his well-researched, but somewhat sceptical, RCA thesis.1 Oxlade thought it odd that Bomberg taught drawing for eight years, after he had previously written that such a discipline was impossible to teach.
As far as I am aware, Fuller never mentioned the Borough Group or the Bottega in any of his writing. But he praises the commercially successful painters that came out of that period, namely Creffield, Kossof, and Auerbach. And he does not answer the questions raised by the books on Bomberg by Lipke2 and Cork3, where they use the term “legendary” classes to describe Bomberg’s teaching. None of these writers were asking, or answering, this question: “What was so extraordinary about these classes to merit the term “legendary”?” What is certain is that Bomberg’s vision and endeavours were not orientated towards the market place.
“Like all great teachers,” wrote John Gross, “Bomberg was in danger of enslaving the students whom he had come to liberate.”1 Bomberg was well aware of this danger. His main aim was to develop the student’s critical faculty (which always lags behind the student’s creative potential). Most teachers taught what they thought were other artist’s methods, skills, and ideas. Bomberg treated the classes as his own open studio where he taught his practice. Fernand Léger and Andre Lhôte did the same in Paris. The difference was that the French painters imposed their ideas on the students, who then produced imitative Légers and Lhôtes. Bomberg did not want imitators.5
It has been said that Bomberg continued to be thankful for his teachers; Sargeant, Sickert, Tonks, and Brown. But, to me, Bomberg constantly said that he hated what he had been taught and that he thought that his mission was to guide the student away from the errors of academic disciplines because, if one trod that path, it would take years of endeavour to unlearn what one had learnt. He used to give Augustus John as an example of an over talented painter who too late realised that his facile skill was a burden and that his sister Gwen was the better artist. To overcome his reliance on skill, John took to fixing the charcoal to his elbow so that while drawing in this way he had the illusion of struggle.
Writers about art are always adept at finding similarities instead of differences. This was the case of both Berger6 and Fuller. In his book Theoria7 Fuller insistes on drawing a parallel between Bomberg’s work with that of Paul Nash.8 He finds affinities between Bomberg and the pre-Raphaelites and even suggests that Bomberg’s reason for going to Palestine was similar to Holman Hunts, which was the belief that a trip to the Holy Land would solve their problems. Fuller links Bomberg to a host of painters like Piper, Sutherland, the early >>>
1 Oxlade, Roy, Bomberg’s Papers – The Spirit in the Mass (a commentary Together With Transcriptions Of Various Previously Unpublished Notes), PhD Thesis, Royal College of Art, 1980 [In 1974, Oxlade visited Holden at his home in Marstrand, Sweden, stayed for a week, and made recordings of their conversations. He used the transcripts from these recordings without referring back to Holden for confirmation and so, once again, many inaccuracies and misconceptions have been taken up and repeated by someone who has no real understanding of Bomberg’s teaching and who is exploiting the situation to further their own career.]
2 Lipke, William, David Bomberg: a critical study of his life and work, Evelyn, Adams & Mackay Ltd., London, 1967
3 Cork, Richard, David Bomberg, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1987
4 Gross, John, writing in The Sunday Times Magazine, March 22, 1964, p. 34
5 Holden has remarked, in this context, that “in the seven years I worked with Bomberg, only once did he show me one of his own paintings” and “this was to illustrate a point.”
6 Berger, John, Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing, Methuen, London, 1960, pp. 94-95 [Having quoted Andrew Forge’s introduction to the Arts Council exhibition of 1958, Berger writes: “Such idealism is so foreign to my own way of thinking that I cannot accept its validity or usefulness. But I can see that it was perhaps a partial rationalization of the very special kind of poetic awareness that Bomberg enjoyed and suffered. The image that constantly recurs to me is that of a veil, a curtain, a tent – and each of these in the Old Testament sense of a landscape being possessed by being covered.”]
7 Fuller, Peter, Theoria, Chatto & Windus, London, 1988
8 Ibid. pp. 193-195
>>> Pasmore, Boyd, Nolan, Freud, and many others, whose interests were the opposite of Bomberg’s.
In his 1988 book Seeing through Berger,1 Fuller acknowledged Bomberg as a major artist.2 But the overall effect of these essays is to bracket Bomberg together with the neo-romantic movement of the thirties, with emphasis on Constable and Samuel Palmer as major influences. Not surprisingly Turner is ignored. Why, when Turner was the precursor of the Modern movement from Delacroix to Cubism? This neo-romantic movement, which Fuller thinks produced some of the finest painting in the 1940s and 1950s, was a creation of Kenneth Clark and Herbert Read, when they elevated to a major figure that third rate painter Samuel Palmer. In my view and Bomberg’s, it was a disaster for English painting that Palmer subsequently influenced so many, e.g. Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ben Nicholson, Lucien Freud, Keith Vaughan, John Craxton, Alan Reynolds, Patrick Procktor, David Hockney, and the Coldstreamites.3 All these painters, through Palmer, were obsessed with detail. They worked from the parts to the whole, which was the opposite of Bomberg’s working method and belief.
The Berger-Fuller concern with Clark’s TV series Civilisation and the relation of art to property obscures the real values of the spirit, which is what art is all about. Berger’s asserts that: “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.”4 But this is flawed because it ignores the fact that the child begins to recognise through movement and the sense of touch. By sight alone the child will reach for the moon but through movement and touch learns to recognise that that is impossible. Movement gives a sense of space and distance. You cannot see distance – you can only measure it.
Against Clark’s series, there was much more culture in another TV series by the mathematician Jacob Bronowsky called The Ascent Of Man. Bronowsky pointed out that one aim of the physical sciences was to give an exact picture of the material world but that what they had actually achieved was to prove that this aim was unattainable. Bronowsky had a greater understanding of the creative process than most painters, critics, or art historians. He recognised that “the method of the artist has been proved by physics to be the only method to knowledge.” In describing the drawing of a face he notes that “the picture does not so much FIX the face as EXPLORE it ... that the artist is working almost as if by TOUCH and that each line that is added strengthens the picture but NEVER MAKES IT FINAL.”5
This echoes one of the ideas contained in my BBC broadcast tribute to Bomberg in September 1958,6 which was quoted by Sylvester in The Listener, one year later, in a review of that year’s London Group show.7 What I said then was “there is no finality to any form ultimately – everything we see, touch, or know, can always be something else.”
1 Fuller, Peter, Seeing Through Berger, The Claridge Press, London, 1988
2 Ibid. p. 166
3 Holden does not include Francis Bacon in this list because, “although his compositions were often contrived and the result of intellectualization, he did, nevertheless, manage to weld his forms together through feeling. Also he worked with hazard.” [In support of this assessment by Holden, see David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon 1962-1979, Thames and Hudson, London, 1985]
4 Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, first published by the British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books Ltd., London, 1972, p. 7
5 Holden has added capital letters here for emphasis.
6 Holden, Cliff, An Artist as Teacher, BBC Broadcast for the Third Programme, Monday, 29th September, 1958 (Producer: Leonie Cohn, Studio: 3B, Tape No: TLO 69006, Recording: 7.15-7.45 p.m., Transmission: 8.50-9.05 p.m.) [Nine years later, David Sylvester arranged to have this broadcast published in an edited and abridged version (Cliff Holden, “David Bomberg: an artist as teacher”, Studio International Journal of Modern Art, March, 1967, pp. 136-143) but there was no acknowledgment that it had originally been a radio broadcast and it reads as though it had been written in that year. Cork quotes from this version (Cork, David Bomberg, pp. 261, 262, 263, 268, 270), again without reference to the original.]
7 Sylvester, David, “Round the London Art Galleries”, The Listener, April, 1959, p. 30
In his television series Ways of Seeing,1 Berger argued that there is no difference of intention or function between a painting, a photograph, or a reproduction. He lumps all signs, symbols, and images together and assumes that they have the same impact and purpose.2 I strongly disagree with this. A reproduction is a distortion, in the size, scale, and colour, of the original and thus the consumer is deprived of a physical relation to the work of art, which to me is as important as the painter’s physical relation to the object.
Bernhard Berenson appeared to understand this physicality and the use of all the senses in approaching a work of art when he described what he termed “space-composition” in his book The Italian Painters of the Renaissance.3 He described it in this way: ”space-composition differs from ordinary composition in the first place most obviously in that it is not an arrangement to be judged as extending only laterally, or up and down on a flat surface, but has an extending inwards in depth as well.”4
Of course, we now know that the first mark on the canvas splits the picture plane – we immediately become involved in space relations. Berenson rightly dismisses ordinary composition as being a compound of direct optical sensations playing only on our feelings for pattern. He believed that space-composition was much more potent and producing immediate effects on our vasa-motor system. Space-composition, he believed, confirms our consciousness of being and heightens our feeling of vitality. He felt that the effect produced by space-composition was almost as powerful as that gained from music and architecture. However, the actual space enclosed by architecture should not be confused with the virtual space of a painting. A painting that REPRESENTS architecture is no more of a space-composition than any other picture. It is with this idea in mind that one should approach Creffield’s drawings of cathedrals and, in fact, any Borough Group painting.
Ruskin complained that Constable’s trees were all alike, that there was no differentiation in the rendering of one kind of leaf from another. He would, no doubt, have thought the same of Bomberg’s flower paintings. Unlike Ruskin, Bomberg did not approach his flowers as a botanist. His awareness of flowers came about only because, after a period of depression, he had nothing in front of him to paint until his wife suggested flowers and bought him a bunch. His investigation of the flower had no more significance than the investigation of the pot that contained them.
Ruskin’s obsessions with rocks and flowers were of a different kind to Bomberg’s. I recognised this difference when in my own work as a painter I struggled with ”the spirit in the mass”, rejecting detail whereas, as a designer and decorator5, I did the opposite and exploited the kind of detail which, I suspect, was the concern of both Ruskin and Morris. Detail served a practical purpose. I was able to exploit detail because design activity is a craft. In other words, in design, you know what to do, how to do it, and what the result is for. It is easy to make a judgement because the work has to function, be right for the siituation, and give pleasure to the consumer. These activities (design, craft, and handicraft) deal with beauty - one works within a set of known values. The aim is towards perfection. It is not art. There is no perfection in art. Even truth is elusive.
1 Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books Ltd., London, 1972
2 Ibid. p. 21. Berger writes: “the uniqueness of the original now lies in its being the original of the reproduction.” – see also “With the invention of the camera everything changed. We could see things which were not there in front of us.” [The Listener, Thursday, 13 January, 1972, Volume 87, No 2233, p. 1]
3 Berenson, Bernard, The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, Oxford University Press, London, 1938 (first published in one volume in January 1930), p. 197-201
4 Ibid. p. 198
5 In 1956, Holden formed a design unit with Lisa Grönwall and Maj Nilsson, which became internationally known as Marstrand Designers and which continues to function today, with the assistance of students and apprentices and his son, Thomas Holden.
I used to call my design and decorative activity my prostitution. I did not mean to diminish the activity with this label. What I meant was that this kind of by-product of art was a saleable commodity in the market, designed to give pleasure to the recipient. I used to say: ”I work to order, to give pleasure, for money”. When I work to order this means that I am working to a brief, for example, when executing murals for public places. I will always accept a brief and, in fact, I welcome this as a challenge, much in the same way as Michelangelo did.
However, a painter cannot work to a brief when he is executing an image which needs to be protected from the architectural environment by a frame. (A decorative mural needs no frame because it works out into the architectural space. It embellishes it and enlarges it. So that you get an actual space and a virtual space working together.) When a painter accepts a commission he is given a free hand by the client. For this he is grateful because what an artist thinks he sets out to do is never the same as what he actually does. What he produces is not something predictable – it is always a surprise.
Bomberg quite rightly recognised that drawing cannot be taught in a ”how to do it” way. He acted as a guide to develop the value judgement of his students. Value judgement is almost as mysterious as the creative act which it follows. I often wonder why we gravitate to and accept certain ideas and forms while rejecting others. It is more fundamental than ”what I like” and cannot be explained in terms of taste, style, or fashion. It appears to be independent of education or experience. Bomberg put it very well in this quote, which comes from the Bomberg Papers:1 ”There is inherent in the structure of moral values an integrity which performs but does not think.”2 And in the same papers, although Bomberg does not explain what he means by ”good”, he has this definition of drawing: ”Good judgement 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.”3
Oxlade and Auerbach have said that Bomberg took great pains to position the model. I cannot find any significance in this as so many other conscientious teachers did the same. What was important, however, was that he encouraged the students to forget the usual stance in front of the model; the measuring attitude, the hand and eye attitude. He insisted we engage with the model from different view points. These ranged from a wide angled panoramic view to a close-up, as though one was standing, say, at the base of a cathedral with a view encompassing all the buttresses. Contrary to the static attitude of the academics, Bomberg would ask us to walk around the model and approach from different angles without actually using any of the perspectives, i.e. of measure, geometry, or optical.4 It was recognised that nature is not static and neither is the painter static. It was in and through movement that an assessment of the form was possible – the opposite of Monet’s preoccupation before 1890.5
1 Bomberg, David, “The Bomberg Papers”, X: A Quarterly Review, volume one, number three, pp. 183-190
[see also unpublished writings by Bomberg; The Bomberg Papers: Roy Oxlade’s transcription of David Bomberg’s unpublished papers, and The Syllabus: an unpublished typescript signed and dated by Bomberg, 22 May, 1937.]
2 Ibid. p. 186
3 Ibid. p. 187 [In this passage Bomberg is using the term “design” to denote something which has to do with “dessin” (the French equivalent for “drawing”) and “space- composition” (see the discussion of Berenson above). This should not be confused with Holden’s use of the terms “design” and “decoration” in relation to function, where he is talking about design which comes about through known values. There is no disagreement here – “functional design does not just happen.”]
4 See the manuscript An Essay on Perspective written by Mead and Holden (1959) for William Coldstream, the Slade Professor of Drawing, which was submitted as an alternative after Mead had refused to attend lectures on perspective and had also refused to take the examination.
5 Up to 1890, Monet was working and exhibiting with the Impressionists. After this, he distanced himself from his early colleagues and began his series of Waterlily paintings.
Students were encouraged to engage in a few other stategies, such as, looking at the flux and change. See my response when interviewed by the magazine Illustrated 1949.1 model spotlighted by the sun, sometimes in a hard overall light, and sometimes in the dark. We applied the same strategies in the landscape as well. Thus the model and nature were viewed as in constant
Susanna Richmond has been quoted as saying that Bomberg advocated turning a landscape painting into a figure painting, and vice versa.2 I do not recollect Bomberg saying that, but it is possible. What is more important is the strategy of regarding the actual landscape as if it were a figure and the actual figure as if it were a landscape (or perhaps a rock or some architecture). This echoes Courbet’s response when, while he was painting, a passer-by asked him: ”Are you painting that tree?” He replied: ”Oh is that what it is?”, meaning that he had not recognised the object that he was painting. The point of this story is that Courbet was in the process of finding out something. Most objects are defined by the word. If you name an object, you never really see or feel the object. You recognise it by the word. So language comes in between your sensations and their relation to nature and to art.
Another discipline, which Bomberg took from the Cubists, was to place a mediocre or banal painting on its side or upside down, and then to change the colour of every paint stroke. By turning the painting you changed the gravitational pull and obliterated the subject, so that you could then work towards a new identification of subject, revitalised by the changed colour and a new sense of gravity.
Oxlade thought it odd that, although Bomberg refused membership of any group throughout his career, nevertheless, he founded two groups of his own. Part of this observation is not true because the first group, the Borough Group, was my idea and my creation, hatched after intense discussions with Bomberg during 1944 and 1945. It was, however, an idea which Bomberg accepted and participated in with enthusiasm. Lilian Holt, Bomberg’s wife, hated his students because she thought they took up Bomberg’s time and energy, so that they interfered with his own painting. But the truth was just the opposite. The students revitalised Bomberg. He worked with them and through them.
Oxlade has raised the question of whether this was a master and student relationship or a collaboration. In my experience of Bomberg, it was both. It was a combination, or marriage, of student innocence and vitality with the experience of the master. Bomberg always hoped that what he put into the student would give a feedback. There is evidence that this happened in his last Ronda drawings, which echo images made earlier by some members of the Borough Group and which are quite different to anything he had previously made himself.
Both Oxlade and Michelmore were puzzled when Bomberg worked on their paintings – and afterwards they had difficulty in continuing. A truly authentic image is not easily recognised by the person who created it. It is obvious that if you cannot recognise what you have made it is impossible to continue. Therefore Bomberg stressed that one should try to remember the mood, how one felt while doing it, and to try to get back into that mood. Sometimes this cannot be done. If you break for a cup of tea, it is often wise not to continue, for you are then in a different mood and you must consider the last image as finished and begin a new one. If you continue you invariably change the first image and it becomes a new one. Very often the new one is banal and no longer vital – and so you stop at that point, feeling pleased because you think you have created a meaningful authentic image. But you can be sure it is no good because you can recognise it – and it is recognisable only because it is a repetition of either yourself or somebody else. Images so >>>
1 “Six Ways of Seeing Her” (photographs by Russell Sedgwick), Illustrated, Wednesday, June 4, 1949, pp. 24-25
[This article establishes 1946 as the correct date for the formation of the Borough Group: “For three years this group has been hammering out a working philosophy, issuing manifestos and entering into fierce controversy.”]
2 Susanna Richmond in conversation with Justyn Tandy, quoted by Tandy in his dissertation, Bomberg’s Approach to teaching drawing and painting: An evaluation, Northampton University, 2003
>>> easily evaluated are contrived rather than created. We turn to the security of something we recognize. This is the ”corruption of consciousness” which I discussed, with reference to R. G. Collingwood in my broadcast of 1958.1
When Bomberg worked on a student’s painting it was because he saw an emerging idea which the student alone could not recognise or bring to a conclusion. But of course there had to be an idea. If there was none, only an academic exercise, Bomberg would push the student until he became engaged in a struggle to find something. Often this process produced anger and even tears. By ”idea” I do not mean imposing a ready-made idea in the head on to the canvas, which would be merely an illustration of an intellectualised vision. THE IDEA HAS TO BE FOUND THROUGH ACTIVITY.
I think it was René Huyghe, in his writing about Delacroix, who said: ”The painter’s task is NOT to conceive an image and then illustrate it with an image recognisable by its realism. This is the trap into which it is easy to fall.”2 He went on to say that Delacroix ”now keeps the eye away from the temptation to analyze, and tries to create a complete spell in which the sensibility, as though hypnotized, will let itself be dominated by a ’silent power’ that ’seizes all the faculties of the soul.’ Painting must no longer be an addition of parts, but a single whole.”3 It was Delacroix’s dream that one day people would discover that Rembrandt was a better painter than Raphael. He observed that in Rembrandt the background and the figures are one. It was the ”Raphael, Ingres, Messonier lineage” that dominated English teaching of art for so long, and still does. Let us turn instead, as Bomberg did, to Giotto, Massacio, Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca, Chardin, Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, Delacroix, and Cézanne!
The major problem in painting is to know when to stop and to evaluate the work. Is it finished? Is it art or not? Is it good or not? If good, how good? Good in terms of better, but better than what? This was what Bomberg taught but, as Oxlade rightly pointed out, although he was able to prepare students for academic examinations, if he was successful in working with them on his own terms, then they would be bound to fail! The way Dorothy Mead was treated at the Slade was a perfect example of this.4
1 Holden, Cliff, An Artist as Teacher, BBC Broadcast for the Third Programme, Monday, 29th September, 1958
[see Collingwood, R.G., Principles of Art, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, Oxford Paperbacks, Oxford University Press, Amen House, London, E.C.4, 1963, (First Edition 1938), p. 224; see also “Art is not contemplation, it is action.” p. 332]
2 Huyghe, René, (translated by Jonathan Griffin), Delacroix, Thames and Hudson, London, 1963, p. 387
3 Ibid. p. 192
4 In 1959, Professor William Coldstream would not allow Mead to submit her essay on perspective and, as a result, she was not awarded the diploma and, despite winning a prize for Figure Painting and the Steer Medal for Landscape Painting, she was forced to leave the school. Two years later the Perspective Examination was dropped from the Slade curriculum.
In Richard Cork’s book on Bomberg,1 he quotes Oxlade who takes me to task concerning the mood in painting. Oxlade misunderstands me regarding the mood. He thinks of the mood as being something that motivates the painter to paint, instead of the feeling that develops while you paint. ”It is, I think, somewhat misleading for Holden to say that the kind of involvement we have been talking about had to be in an almost drunken ecstatic state.”2 Well, I am not alone in making such statements. Delacroix, even in old age, constantly spoke of his FRENZY.3 Baudelaire went so far as to say: ”It is essential to be always intoxicated. Everything lies in that. It is the one and only thing”;4 meaning that one should go to the utmost limits of oneself – and Delacroix added: ”Happy are those who, like Voltaire and other great men, have been able to reach this inspired condition while drinking water and eating moderately.”5
I have known only one painter, Viking Svensson, who worked while actually drunk and no doubt his painting would have improved without the drink. My only experience of drinking while painting ended in disaster. I had been working on a large painting for some months and could not bring it to a conclusion. I was desperate. It covered the whole wall of a room and I had to stand on a couple of boxes to reach the top. I drank some strong Yorkshire Stingo, a strong Barley Wine, and a bottle of Brandy. I became drunk immediately, took up brushes and loaded palette, mounted the box ... but I never touched the painting. I was found in the middle of the night lying unconscious on the palette, covered in paint. I suppose today they, the establishment, would call that ”a happening” imbued with meaning.
THE SPIRIT IN THE MASS
Bomberg’s key phrase ”the spirit in the mass” has been misunderstood by Oxlade, in his flawed 1980 RCA thesis, as being an alternative term for authenticity. Every work of art should be authentic. Is Oxlade saying that only Bomberg’s students were capable of producing authentic work? Or does he mean that it was just Bomberg’s idiosyncratic term for the word? In that case he means that Bomberg was not teaching any differently from any other academic teacher, except that he used charcoal and the loaded brush. But every charcoal drawing or thick impasto painting, even if it is authentic, does not come about through a comittment to ”the spirit in the mass” – witness Oxlade’s own paintings, as well as those of Kossof and Auerbach, and all those painters in the middle sixties who were called, erroneously, ”The School of Bomberg” by the critics of that time. By that date Bomberg’s teaching had come to an end.
Some people wonder why Bomberg did not use Wilhelm Worringer’s term ”empathy” instead of ”the spirit in the mass”.6 I think it is because spirit has more to do with >>>
1 Cork, David Bomberg. [On page 280, Cork quotes a passage written by Holden and mistakenly attributes it to Bomberg: “In the catalogue preface Bomberg tried to summarize their beliefs, declaring that ‘we have said that our search is towards the spirit in the mass. Many people have asked us for a further definition. Words cannot give it; the answer lies in the content of the painting. That is our purpose. Our interest lies more in the mass than in the parts; more in the movement than in the static; more in the plastic than in the decorative. Identical objects no longer yield the same experience. Our awareness is both of sensation and direction.’” A comparison of the style of this passage with that of Bomberg’s writing in the Bomberg Papers and elsewhere should clearly indicate to the reader which man was the author. In fact, Holden still keeps the original drafts, which show how amendments were made during discussions within the Group.]
2 Ibid. p. 290
3 Huyghe, René, Delacroix, p. 244
5 Ibid. p. 244, p. 247 [also on page 247 Delacroix quotes Baudelaire: “the complete man keeps the gift of childhood – which experiences things intently, ‘sees everything as new … is always drunk’ – and so remains in touch with the gifts of inspiration, yet is able to add to these the virtues of maturity, its possession of ‘virile senses and an analytical mind’.”]
6 Worringer, Wilhelm, (translated by Michael Bullock), Abstraction and Empathy, International University Press, New York, 1953, (first published as Abstraktion und Einfuhlung: ein Beitrag zur Stilpyschologie, R.Piper, 1908)
>>> the assessment of mass than a mere imaginative emotional projection on to ”what is out there”.1 Prof. Anthony O’Hear reviewing a Bomberg exhibition in Modern Painters (Winter 1991),2 falls into the same trap when he writes about Bomberg only being able to paint when he could ”project a certain type of feeling on a scene”3 and that landscape has ”always been used as a vehicle or a metaphor for feeling.”4
Even worse he makes play with Bomberg’s word ”spirit” in the following passage: ”If Bomberg sought the spirit in the physical world, his paintings are themselves examples of spirit in mass. And, in contrast to the work of some of his successors, there are few cases in Bomberg’s own work where the spirit is submerged in the massy corporeality of the paint.”5 Could he be referring to Kossof and Auerbach? For a philosopher it is a pathetic use of words. One wonders if he is joking, making fun of Bomberg through faint praise, or whether he is naive and lacking understanding of the words he uses and the paintings he addresses.
I have always been critical of philosophers who ”did’ philosophy and, having thought about it, then thought about other things, of money, publication lists, academic advancements, university intrigues, love affairs and so on. They thought of these things in a manner which showed, even more clearly than the products of their thought, that they had philosophized with much less than their whole person. Here is a quote from Nietzsche, which I cannot fault: “I have at all times thought with my whole body and my whole life. I do not know what purely intellectual problems are. You know these things by way of thinking yet, your thought is not your experience but the reverberation of the experience of others; as your room trembles when a carriage passes. I am sitting in that carriage and often am that carriage itself.”6 This confirms what I have always said and believed; you cannot paint an experience – you experience while you paint.
I have found many parallels between the philosphical problems of art and those of science. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr7 said that science couldn’t tell anything about the world AS IT IS IN ITSELF. We cannot ask the question in the form of ”WHAT IS IT ... ?” – but we can show how we INTERACT with the world, how we interact with things. I think this is what Christopher Neve meant when he described Bomberg’s interaction with landscape; ”David Bomberg did not only respond to landscape: there is a fervent sense in which he became it.” He did not observe the motif and try to remake it as some kind of equivalent. He became it. Alan Watts has said something similar, to the effect that you do not have a sensation of the sky; you ARE that sensation.9 There is no YOU apart from what you sense, feel, and know. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining Cézanne’s phrase, ”my little sensation”, and Bomberg’s phrase, ”the spirit in the mass”.
1 [This remark is prompted by a dissertation called Bomberg’s Approach to teaching drawing and painting: An evaluation, written by Justyn Tandy who, unfortunately, based much of his research on Roy Oxlade’s 1980 RCA thesis. Tandy communicated with Holden by telephone and email during August 2003, prior to submitting his dissertation, but he did not keep his promise to send Holden the manuscript for correction. However, Holden acknowledges that “Tandy was right to point up Bomberg’s connection with continental philosophy and Wilhelm Worringer, through a lecture given by T.E. Hulme in Kensington Town Hall, 22 January, 1914, which we think Bomberg attended.” (ee Cork, David Bomberg, p. 72)]
2 O’Hear, Anthony, “David Bomberg”, Modern Painters, Volume 3, Number 4, Winter, 1990/91, p. 95 [reviewing the following exhibitions; David Bomberg, 1 December-2 January, 1991, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London; ‘David Bomberg 1890-1957: Centenary Exhibition, Works on Paper’, 21 November-20 December, Gillian Jason Gallery, London]
6 Holden is unable to give the reference for this quote from Nietzsche.
7 Niels Bohr, 1885-1962
8 Neve, Christopher, The Unquiet Landscape, Faber and Faber, London, 1990, p. 150
9 Watts, Alan W.; The Wisdom of Insecurity, Rider and Company Ltd. (an imprint of the Hutchinson Publishing Group), London, 1974 (first published 1954); This is it, Vintage Books (a division of Random House), New York, April, 1973, (first published 1958)
© Cliff Holden
|[Page last updated: 20th May 2005]||[Home] [Documents Index] [Top of Page]|