“Possibly a great artist,” a critic said of David Bomberg. It was an apt way of summing up the British painter’s wobbling reputation. Born in Birmingham in 1890 to Polish-Jewish immigrants, Bomberg was admitted to the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in 1911, only to be expelled in 1913 for being too aesthetically radical. He developed a precise, muscular style of abstraction during the war years, only to scrap it after the Armistice of 1918. He befriended two pillars of modernism, Wyndham Lewis and Filippo Marinetti, only to lose both when they drifted toward Fascism. He died in 1957, flat broke and half forgotten. Today, he seems like a strong candidate for the greatest British painter between Turner and Bacon.
A new exhibition at London’s National Gallery suggests that Bomberg was more of a traditionalist than his teachers realized. True to its title, “Young Bomberg and the Old Masters” pairs his work from the 1910s with canvases by Botticelli, Michelangelo, and El Greco, all of which he saw in the museum and all of which left a mark on his work. To see Michelangelo’s The Entombment (circa 1500) side by side with Bomberg’s The Mud Bath (1914) is to realize how misleading descriptions like “avant-garde” and “Old Master” can be: here, in paintings completed four centuries apart, are the same thick shapes; the same dense, overpowering composition; and the same stubbornly unnatural colors.