Young Bomberg and the Old Masters review, National Gallery: a treasure hunt with frustratingly little to find

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David Bomberg In the Hold, about 1913-14
Detail from David Bomberg In the Hold, about 1913-14 Credit: Tate

Like a cauliflower-eared boxer who turns out to be a big softie, the radical British painter David Bomberg (1890-1957)– who went to great lengths to appear shockingly avant-garde – was, at heart, a surprisingly ardent traditionalist, in thrall to Italian Renaissance art. 

That, at least, is the contention of Young Bomberg and the Old Masters, a new single-room display at the National Gallery curated by the critic Richard Cork, who oversaw the Tate’s big Bomberg retrospective in 1988. 

“I hate the Fat Man of the Renaissance,” the 23-year-old Bomberg declared defiantly in a catalogue accompanying a solo exhibition in Chelsea in 1914. Yet, as Cork reveals, Bomberg was also a regular visitor to the National Gallery, even, on one occasion, whisking a new girlfriend by bus to Trafalgar Square to show her Michelangelo’s Entombment (c. 1500-01). Now that, he told her, is a “real picture”. 

Cork begins by pairing a self-portrait in chalk from 1913-14, in which Bomberg faces the viewer combatively, as though squaring up for a scrap, with a similarly frank, frontal portrait of a young man wearing a red cap from c. 1480-85, by Sandro Botticelli. Bomberg’s sister Kitty recalled being taken by her brother to see Botticelli’s portrait, which, she said, was “one of his favourite paintings”. In his homage, Bomberg even wears a collarless shirt specially designed by his father to resemble the garment in Botticelli’s work. 

Sandro Botticelli Portrait of a Young Man probably about 1480-5  Credit: © The National Gallery, London 
 David Bomberg Self Portrait, 1913-14 Credit: National Portrait Gallery London

Bomberg’s respect for the art of the past comes as a shock to anyone acquainted with his masterpiece The Mud Bath (1914), which – neglected for decades, as his career nosedived – is now a touchstone of the Tate. In this monumental, strikingly self-assured painting, Bomberg – who taught Frank Auerbach – presents a mass of semi-abstracted figures in blue and white emerging from a blood-red rectangle, loosely evoking scenes he had witnessed at the popular vapour baths on Brick Lane in the East End, where he grew up, the fifth of a Polish immigrant leather worker’s 11 children. 

It takes a while to register the angular shapes of the painting as people, such is the modernity of an image which, to me, always resembles an exploding Union Jack. Many commentators see in the painting’s tangle of fractured forms a prophecy of the First World War, which shattered illusions about patriotic glory. 

David Bomberg The Mud Bath, 1914  Credit: Tate

In the catalogue, Cork ingeniously relates The Mud Bath’s irregular fractals to a figure in the background of Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (after 1437) and Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing in a Stream (1654), both of which can be seen at the National Gallery. It’s clever, elegant, finely observed stuff, but – as with other examples in Cork’s argument, aside from Bomberg’s attested admiration for Botticelli and Michelangelo – the evidence is primarily visual, and not always persuasive. 

Moreover, it’s a shame that this small exhibition only has space for two Old Masters, alongside five paintings and four works on paper by Bomberg: the Botticelli portrait and The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (1590s), from the studio of El Greco. A label at the end invites visitors to head out into the gallery and look for other paintings that may have influenced Bomberg. Treasure hunts can be amusing, but only if there’s lots to find.

From Nov 27 until March 1; information: 020 7747 2885 nationalgallery.org.uk