‘I Hate the Fat Man of the Renaissance’: Young Bomberg and the Old Masters Review

An exhibition at London’s National Gallery shows a rebellious painter’s ambivalent relationship with the Western canon

David Bomberg, Study for Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi, c.1918–19, oil on canvas, 3 x 2.4 m. Courtesy: © Tate, London

Nobody understands Hegel, but we all pretty much live by his ideas. Like most good philosophy, his dialectic gave expression to something everybody intuitively knew, recognizing the fundamental truth that contradiction is present in all things, and all things only exist because of their inherent contradictions.

David Bomberg knew this, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the radical, working-class painter, who, in the catalogue to his first solo show in 1914, wrote, ‘I hate the Fat Man of the Renaissance’, also spent hours in front of Michelangelo’s Entombment (c.1500) and Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man (c.1480–85).

The latter appears next to a chalk self-portrait Bomberg made in 1913–14 in ‘Young Bomberg and the Old Masters’, an exhibition at London’s National Gallery. While the shirt Bomberg wears is a direct copy of that worn by the young man in Botticelli’s painting, his use of angular, Euclidean lines drives straight through the Renaissance master’s smoky sfumato. Bomberg both dismantles Botticelli’s painting and makes it live again; advances beyond it into the future, but also confirms its immortality.

David Bomberg, Ju-Jitsu, c.1913, oil on board, 62 x 62 cm. Courtesy: © Tate, London

In Ju-Jitsu (1913), two sparring fighters are suspended in a pixelated superposition. Each figure is a jumble of pointy triangles, creating an aggressive, confrontational feel, which is enhanced by the blocks of red and blue paint that distinguish them. But on an abstract level, their geometric interlocking gives an overarching sense of active harmony. Without losing their individual assertion, the figures are involved in a collective expression, an overall pictorial eloquence that includes the viewer in its reach.

A preparatory sketch for Ju Jitsu (1912) is shown alongside the finished painting. With more meat and muscle, the figures appear more human but don’t interlock quite as well, making their geometric language less convincing. In the final work, the reduction of the figures into block shapes both highlights and undoes their conflict.

Besides the Botticelli portrait and a painting attributed to the Studio of El Greco, the ‘Old Masters’ in this exhibition are strangely absent. By foregrounding Bomberg, the show highlights the young artist’s great achievement. Through the medium of paint, he was able to close the rhetorical gap between ‘vs.’ and ‘us’. 

'Young Bomberg and the Old Masters' continues at the National Gallery, London, UK, until 1 March 2020.

Adam Heardman is a poet and writer based in London, UK. His work has appeared in PN Review, Art Monthly, eyot, and more. 

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