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Aug 2007 Journal

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Art notes

On the 50th anniversary of the death of David Bomberg, the Boundary Gallery is showing 32 paintings and works on paper from their own and private collections. Recognised today as one of the greatest Jewish Expressionists, Bomberg, born in 1890 to an immigrant family, gained little recognition in his own lifetime, although his students at the Borough Polytechnic continue to cherish his legacy.

A graduate of the Slade School of Art, Bomberg became a Cubist but his Palestine paintings, in the early 1920s, reveal an incipient Expressionism and show the contrast between the Palestine of his time and that of today. His views of Jerusalem and Siloam, or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are of places of calm geometry: he, like most painters, fails to capture the elusive light of Jerusalem, but this geometric formalism offers a view of solidity and neatness, of things in their rightful place.

Bomberg, who was a pupil of Sickert, remains close to his Cubist origins. Mothers and children share this solid connectedness - linear, static, slanted shapes into which he injects character, tenderness and movement. Whether he paints a family group or captures a furtive embrace, figures become virtual abstractions, lending humanity to formal perspectives. In one self-portrait, he sports an arty shirt and waistcoat and peers out cynically from under a brimmed hat. Other charcoal self-portraits reflect Bomberg’s gift for reductionism, in which hands, legs, plinths are all linear objects playing for attention.

I really liked his pen and inkwash, The Actress, in which the subject retains a solid, planted stance, staring insouciantly into the distance.

It is always a joy to visit the National Portrait Gallery, in which four portraits will be chosen in the BP Portrait Award 2007. The Gallery still celebrates its love affair with photo-realism, as can be seen in most of the winning entries. Tamara, by Johan Andersson, is a soft-focus study of a shy blonde who had to be persuaded to pose nude for no perceptible reason. Paul Ensley’s portrait of fellow artist Michael Simpson is a super-realistic portrait in which the gridwork of facial lines down to the papery pink eyelids is so picture-perfect that you can’t see the brushstrokes. Super-Realism, which briefly emerged in California in the 1960s, of which Stephen Hopkin, Oscar Z. Acosta and Nicola Wood were the chief exponents, often featured the perfect rendition of meaningless objects such as cars, in which the chrome finish and colour shone more brightly than the original. Many of those artists later retreated into Surrealism, having decided that optical realism, in which the subject was seen through a lens rather than through the human eye, rendered the work style-less and chilling, lacking the life and vigour of, for example an Expressionist portrait.

Thomas Leverett’s portrait of A. C. Grayling, the philosopher, is more surreal, placing the subject in a spotted coat which disperses into a great swath of loud spots in a gaudy nod to pointillism. Swirling hills are formed of words and a keyboard appears at his feet.

Gloria Tessler

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