Cypriot landscape signed and dated 'BOMBERG 48' (lower right) oil on canvas 63.5 x 76 cm. (25 x 30 in.)
Provenance: Gifted by the artist to the family of the present owner, 1950
After suffering severe economic difficulties during the Second World War, David Bomberg finally obtained a teaching position at the Borough Polytechnic in South London. His classes there became legendary, and Bombergs outstanding students included Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Gustav Metzger. But teaching absorbed so much of his energy that he could only paint properly in the summer holidays. In 1946 he set off for North Devon, and several expansive canvases bear witness to the liberation it gave him. The success of the Devon trip encouraged Bomberg to travel west again the following year. The primordial landscape he found in Cornwall, on a farm near Zennor, prompted him to paint his finest British landscapes. His brushwork became broader and more insistent, paralleling in its frank declaration of mark-making and gesture the otherwise very different Abstract Expressionist handling developed by radical New York artists during the same period.
But Bomberg yearned for the heat and light of the Mediterranean, and he was quick to take up the suggestion of an architect friend to visit Cyprus in the summer of 1948. Generously funded by his son-in-law Leslie Marr, the entire family went on the expedition. The island proved an ideal location, more fiery than Spain and burnished with colours which helped Bomberg develop a more vehement palette. His Cyprus paintings are often inflammatory in their impact. They revel in a country that seems about to flare into outright conflagration, and the fifty-eight year-old artist responded with impressive vitality.
Leslie Marr believes that Trees and Sun, Cyprus, now owned by Tate, may have been the first canvas Bomberg completed on the island. It inaugurates the Cyprus sequence with conspicuous fluency and aplomb. Painted from a high position at Platres, where he set up his easel beneath a square of white canvas supported on four poles, it reveals how Bomberg relayed his tactile sensations by rubbing and prodding with his fingers as well as deploying the brush. The repertoire of exuberant marks conveys his euphoria at finding himself in the intense glare and heat of a summer sun far more potent than anything he had experienced for many years.
Despite problems caused by poor accommodation and illness among the family, Bomberg managed to sustain his painting at this exalted level of awareness throughout the expedition. The works executed at St Hilarion, where a ruined fortress on an eminence commanded exceptional views of sea and sky as well as the richly foliated earth, were very remarkable. He was capable of evoking its immensity on a modest scale in the lyrical Sunset, Mount Hilarion, a canvas alive with the heightened empathy he enjoyed when contemplating the last flaring animus of the landscape near a days end. But Bomberg was equally able to meet the challenge of the same rugged location during the hours of overwhelming heat. Castle Ruins, St Hilarion is carried out on the grand scale, allowing his brushstrokes to surge towards the fortess heights with a vigour enhanced by the almost tropical use of colour. The entire painting is caught up in a dithyrambic desire to uncover and identify with the energy raging through the landscape like a wild summer fire. The ruins of St Hilarion gave him the chance to pursue the interaction between architecture and landscape which he had explored so fruitfully during visits to Spain before the Second World War -- first in Toledo and then, more freely, during his memorable stay in Ronda.
By no means all the Cyprus canvases are as exclamatory in their response. Bomberg painted the Moorish Wall at St Hilarion in a far more subdued range of colours, investigating a deeply shadowed hillside with the avidity he had earlier bestowed on the inferno of Trees and Sun at Platres. The Monastery of Ay Chrisostomos, where the family stayed later in the expedition, likewise led to a more restrained approach. And even when a calmer mood prevailed, Bomberg lost none of his intensity. The most arresting painting he executed there is punctuated by the erect form of an ancient cypress, and its blackness has affected other areas of the composition as well. But this mood of sobriety is countered both by an affirmative blaze on the red hillside and by a terse vigour of handling, for Bomberg was fortified throughout the Cyprus trip by the exhilarating realisation that his work had become ever more attuned to the spirit in the mass which he valued so profoundly.
Just as the remote Monastery of St George at Wadi Kelt had impressed Bomberg sufficiently to produce some his finest Palestine paintings in the 1920s, so he now studied the terrain around the Cyprus monastery with immense feeling. Although brush strokes and colours alike are less excitable than they had been in the festive Castle Ruins, St Hilarion, they remain just as eloquent. Andrew Forge was justified in maintaining that Bombergs great fiery landscapes of 1948 deserve to be compared with the best of his contemporaries in Europe. In this respect, the Cyprus trip turned out to be a triumphant expedition.
Sadly, however, very few of these remarkable canvases were exhibited during Bombergs lifetime. When he displayed his work in the 1951 London Group show, John Berger singled him out in a perceptive review of the exhibition. Perhaps the most outstanding painting is a ravine landscape by David Bomberg, declared Berger, before asserting that Bombergs apparently careless and passionate use of paint has weight and guts to it, one is thrilled by a brush mark as a juicy slash of paint and as a precise statement of the angle of declivity of a gully, seen through atmosphere. But Bergers acute analysis of the complex role performed by Bombergs brushwork, emphasizing the substance of pigment and gesture while it stayed faithful to the character of the terrain he scrutinised, was not shared by other critics. They forebore to comment, and Wyndham Lewis deplored the fate suffered by his former friend since the two men had known each other as young rebels. What happened to Bomberg after 1920? wrote Lewis. Was he one of the lost generation that really got lost? Or has he an aversion to exhibition? He ought to be one of the half-dozen most prominent artists in England.
During his lifetime Bomberg himself never enjoyed any widespread acclaim. Only now, nearly half a century after his death, is this long-neglected painter at last receiving the recognition he was unjustly denied.
Richard Corks book on Bomberg was published in 1987. Four paperbacks of Corks critical writings on modern art are published by Yale, and his book on Michael Craig-Martin has just been published by Thames & Hudson.
We are very grateful to Richard Cork for writing this catalogue entry and to Mrs. Donora Davies-Rees for authenticating this work