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Opening up and reaching out, my hopes for the future of modernist studies: the case of David Bomberg, the Ben Uri Gallery, and the Sarah Rose Collections

5 August 2022
Nicola Baird

What follows is an excerpt, or rather the opening set of paragraphs, from a paper given at the BAMS 2022 Hopeful Modernisms conference entitled ‘Opening up and reaching out, my hopes for the future of modernist studies: the case of David Bomberg, the Ben Uri Gallery, and the Sarah Rose Collections’.

David Bomberg (1890-1957) was a painter and draughtsman born to Polish-Jewish parents in Birmingham and raised in Whitechapel, in London’s East End. Initially apprenticed as a chromolithographer, Bomberg attended classes at City and Guilds, Westminster Technical School, and the Slade School of Fine Art, from which he was expelled in 1913. Studies of his life and work, generally chronological, biographical, and formalist, consider his work characterised by three distinct phases—Vorticist-inspired geometrical abstraction, topographical landscape painting, looser, expressionistic landscapes and searching self-portraits. Such accounts also consider his legacy as a teacher at the Borough Polytechnic (now London South Bank University) whose idiosyncratic pedagogical approach proved influential, resulting in 1946 in the formation of the Borough Group and subsequently, in 1953, the Borough Bottega. Bomberg’s early, experimental work is undoubtedly canonised and placed neatly within the context of pre-war native avant-gardism, while his mid-career and late work is seen as an apparent disavowal of the modern. It is arguably apparent, however, that such logic has been exhausted, and that it is in fact a project of the modern to judge Bomberg’s work in such terms, as having run counter to the modernist trajectory, for the moderns ‘consider everything that does not march in step with progress archaic, irrational or conservative’.[i] Established art historical approaches to Bomberg then have not only proved fragmentary, but also endlessly repetitive, resulting in unreflexive practice, the reproduction of which acts as a barrier to change, growth and understanding.

Bomberg’s work is key to the history and collections of both the Ben Uri Gallery and the Borough Road Gallery. The former, founded in Whitechapel in 1915 as a Jewish exhibiting society has, over the course of its 100-year history, continued to augment its permanent collection now consisting of more than 1200 works by émigré artists of primarily Jewish descent. London South Bank University’s Borough Road Gallery houses a collection of over 150 paintings and drawings by Bomberg and selected pupils bequeathed by independent collector Sarah Rose in 2012. Both are deeply troubled by modernism, reconstructing alternative art historical timelines which seem at once to embrace and to bypass modernism. Furthermore, the story of British modernism becomes problematised by attempts to place these collections—both of which might be seen as marginal, peripheral and/or other—within the canon. It is necessary, then, to consider a broader, more capacious understanding of modernism.

This paper seeks to critique notions of art history as tracking continual progress and the positing of modernity as an unquestionably progressive destination as well as to interrogate the modernist project—the modernist co-optation of the modern—by questioning modernism’s agency within art history. Modernism is generally presented as hypostatic—beyond time and space—untouchable, non-negotiable, and yet as hybrids, Bomberg, the Ben Uri and the Sarah Rose collections challenge aesthetic modernism’s singular historic logic, its teleological intransigence and encourage thinking about the extent to which modernism has proven an exclusive and exclusionary category.[1] Such hegemonic definitions promote the idea that modernism is about a common national inheritance, lineage and set of innate values; that it concerns a singular past, and that it derives from a universal aesthetics of taste and value. Indeed, many of the gestures towards multiculturalism and minority history in museums today still leave unaltered the terms upon which modernism is defined, allotting subaltern groups a place in the authorised discourse, but not allowing alternative conceptions of what constitutes modernism to take hold. As Susan Stanford Friedman writes:

‘We need to let go of the familiar laundry list of aesthetic properties drawn from the Western culture capitals of the early 20th century as the definitional core of modernism’ for ‘high’ or ‘avant-garde’ modernism is [just] ‘one articulation of a particularly situated modernism’ and ‘not the measure by which all others are judged and to which all others must be compared’.[ii]

Using assemblage theory as a theoretical and conceptual vehicle, and Actor-Network-Theory as a toolkit for the enabling of new insights and understanding it is possible to open up and operate beyond disciplinary boundaries, in order to tackle the problem of modernism not only in relation to the perceived incommensurability of Bomberg and the two collections, but also in relation to the hybrid reality of the twenty-first century world of which they are a part. The paper from which this excerpt is taken functions then, as an intervention into certain kinds of mid-twentieth-century British art history emblematised, in this case by Bomberg’s biographer Richard Cork, examining the conservatism characteristic of traditional approaches and highlighting the inadequacy of a conventional, chronological, and modernist account. Implementing an alternative mode of practice derived from philosophy (assemblage theory) and studies of the sociology of science and technology (Actor-Network-Theory), increases the discipline’s purview with regard to what can be encompassed in such research and actively encourages interdisciplinarity. The result, therefore, is the possibility of different, and better art histories as well as, more specifically, different, and better modernist studies.

Cork’s David Bomberg was published more than thirty years ago and yet the intervening years have seen critical enquiry serve only to bolster what has become Bomberg studies’ definitive text. Cork is biographical and entirely linear in his approach, establishing an unequivocal narrative which relies heavily on Bomberg’s second wife, Lilian Holt’s version of events, aligning his own project with Holt’s desire to recover, to rehabilitate and to elevate Bomberg’s reputation.[iii] Trained as an art historian before becoming Art Critic of the Evening Standard and subsequently Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge University and Henry Moore Senior Fellow at the Courtauld Institute, Cork constructs his knowledge of Bomberg by way of interviews conducted with family, friends, and former pupils. In the Afterword he lists the private collectors, art dealers and museum officials who also assisted him in his research, and, more specifically, in his search for works by Bomberg to add to the artist’s known oeuvre, their roles, like those of the other players he enlists, neither acknowledged nor analysed in any theoretical capacity.

The narrative which Cork’s biography, and subsequent writings, have served to cement is invaluable. Yet its influence has, up until this point, proved stifling; it has perpetuated the now ubiquitous myth of the artist as an outsider, a solitary stoic whose intransigence and indefatigable single mindedness left him marooned and islanded, his story only partially knitted into British art history. After three decades of relative silence Bomberg remains an ill fit, ill at ease and ill explained by existing narratives. The labour undertaken by Ben Uri and the Borough Road Gallery in the construction, performance, and maintenance of the artist (or rather their recent and continued efforts to restitute the artist), however, provide opportunities to analyse the ways in which this insider-outsider is appropriated and laid claim to through the mobilisation of both select narratives and objects. It is only in acknowledging Bomberg as an assemblage—a fundamentally ‘living’ arrangement of humans and non-humans, material and expressive components including people, objects and the two institutions—that we are afforded the opportunity to exceed the limits of the ways in which he has previously been accounted for, most influentially by Richard Cork.

Image credit: David Bomberg, Portrait, 1954, oil on board, The Sarah Rose Collection, London South Bank University.


[1] This assertion is explored more fully both in my Hopeful Modernisms paper and in my PhD thesis.

[i] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 73.

[ii] Susan Stanford Friedman, ‘Planetarity: Musing Modernist Studies’, Modernism/modernity, 17, 3 (2010), 471- 499.

[iii] Richard Cork, David Bomberg (Yale, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), p. vii.


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