Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: firstname.lastname@example.org
Around the dawn of the 20th century, paintings could suddenly be anything they wanted to be. Freed from the onus of being fundamentally representational by the then widespread use of photography, canvases began to speak new languages, taking heed from their unstable, technological age.
Many, both artists & otherwise, decried the implications that new developments of the era could have on their lives. Whilst others, such as David Bomberg, positively embraced such changes. Indeed, prior to his own experiences within World War I, the artist was unapologetically enthusiastic about such growth, stating he felt that: ‘the new life should find expression in a new art, which has been stimulated by new perceptions’ – Bomberg would later radically change his painting style to a leisurely landscape approach upon witnessing the mechanised slaughter of the trenches.
Perhaps with these new forms of perception Bomberg was equally striving to develop new forms of appreciation. Exploring not only how to represent and imagine a thing, but how such a thing makes a viewer feel when it is looked at.
When I first started writing Poetry at around 14, I rallied against the rules. Whilst the books and their teachers urged me to stick to an Iambic plod and to organise my ideas within ancient, rehearsed shapes, I fought back, writing my verse as free as I quite liked. I soon found however that what I had at first judged as obstruction was, in fact, quite liberating. It seemed taking my past attempts and housing them in the aforementioned prescribed rhythms & shapes actually improved them in terms of engagement & coherence rather than bogging them down. The art of them then seemingly coming from the tension between the mad abandon of my (in retrospect, truly terrible) verse and the structure enforced upon their misplaced wisdom.
A tension equally evident within ‘Jujitsu’, a wild, Futurist-Cubist combo that attacks the viewer from the off by presenting two levels of perception. On the top layer we have a strict, regimented surface grid of diamonds. Not necessarily ordered in the sense that every split square side by side is the exact same size of width, but compare them to the splintered, fractious chaos beneath and they feel militaristic in comparison.
After noticing such unhinged disorder beneath the systematic pattern, the brain fights for order as it rallies between the two viewpoints. At times it feels as if Bomberg has created sharpened edges to the squares, limits that cut off certain subterranean moments at their point of realisation, shattering and casting them as glass. Up close, ‘Jujitsu’ is a thing enthralling and unreal. A place bordering on logic, only for such reasoning to crumble upon further exploration. There’s a primarily orange left for example and a deep, gentle blue right, yet flecks of the other seem to pop up teasingly within the other. The blue also feels more a part of a crumbling black and grey than a thing all of its own, a black which in turn appears confusingly at the top left of the image.
Through this odd disjunction at its heart, the painting positively pulsates. The patterning beneath seeming sometimes to slot perfectly into its own contained square, only for in other areas of the work the lower designs to splay out obnoxiously beneath the systematic sectioning on top.
At times pondering the piece I thought I saw figures within the painting. The title of the work feeling very literal to me as two orange clumps on the left emerged as men fighting, their feet in the lower grey portion a good starting point to trace upwards to fighting figures. Then, recalling the dialectic to and fro inherent within the thing, I took the idea of Jujitsu as a fighting style as metaphorical along with the painting ‘Jujitsu’ itself. Both artwork & combat-approach products of inherently skilled disciplines that appear wild in action but are, in fact, incredibly well executed.
The Mud Bath (1917)
A far more vibrant, urgent painting, ‘The Mud Bath’ strips away the accompanying template of ‘Jujitsu’ to reveal the base fundamentals of human form beneath. In spite of the abstract figures and artificial palette, there is a distinct sense of jubilation, of celebration and worship. The pole at the centre seemingly no centrepoint for the figures, rather one they are passing across in their rush off the canvas.
Through a simple mix of five colours, Bomberg creates an uncharacteristically uncluttered work that allows the viewer to focus directly on the brittle, sensationally defined figures. At times some seem to rise up as revellers, their legs and arms in mania, others, such as those at the further right, appear to have folded into suggestion of numbers and shapes rather than fellow celebrants.
The inspiration for the work supposedly came from Schewzik Russian Vapour Baths in Brick Lane Whiechapel, near Bomberg’s home in London. A place used by the local Jewish population for cleanliness and religious observances. In his hands however the place becomes an amalgam of 3d shapes that seem to hinge on a pin yet somehow possess both verve and character.
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