Irrigation, Zionist Development, Palestine oil on canvasboard 31.9 x 40.2 cm. (12 1/2 x 15 7/8 in.) Painted in 1923 (according to a label verso)
PROVENANCE: With Marlborough Fine Art, London Sale; Christie's, London, 11 June 1982, lot 60 (as Farm Irrigation, Zionist Development)
As Richard Cork states, David Bomberg's Palestinian works, painted 1923-27, are 'for him a crucial turning point ...once landscape imagery took hold of Bomberg's imagination, humanity would never regain the position it had previously occupied in his work. Only Jerusalem and its hillsides promised to provide him with the stimulus he now needed.' (Richard Cork, David Bomberg, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1987, p.149).
Bomberg, born to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents and raised in London's East End, became an integral part of the prodigal generation of students who matriculated from the Slade School of Arts in the years prior to the First World War. The Slade students (Spencer, Paul Nash, Nevinson, Roberts, Wadsworth to name but a few) came to their artistic adulthood at one of British Arts most vital moments. In November of 1910 Roger Fry opened Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries, an exhibition which in one fell swoop firmly placed new continental modernism at the forefront of British critical debate. Bomberg, like many artists of the day, quickly adapted and developed the concepts showcased. In 1913 he travelled with Jacob Epstein to Paris to view further cubist and futurist exhibitions and met among others, Picasso, Derain and Modigliani. Bomberg's subsequent semi abstract Vorticist works led to the general acknowledgment of him as one of the most adventurous artists of this progressive generation.
However, in the wake of the atrocities of the First World War the flavour for such cutting edge modernism did not quite seem as appropriate. Artists, critics and collectors were seeking a return to realism, for an artist as progressive as Bomberg this required a reassessment of approach. He felt the desired change should be found by way of a new location. At the suggestion of fellow artist Muirhead Bone, Bomberg approached the recently formed Zionist Organisation with the goal of finding employment as their official artist in Palestine. It was proposed that through travel of the region and depiction of Zionist activities Bomberg's works could be used to promote the Zionist cause. Although this proposal was not initially successful, reduced funding was secured for a trip from the closely related Palestine Foundation Fund, whose mandate was to aid Jewish settlers in establishing new construction, irrigation schemes and to increase Jewish immigration. Bomberg left for Palestine with his wife Alice in April of 1923.
The initial paintings he produced across the first two years of the trip were vast depictions of Jerusalem and Petra. These stemmed from an immediate enchantment with the exotic landscape and dazzling light. The formal compositions of his early abstractions were carried over into structural simplification, but not the dominant figural subject matter of previous works, which was almost entirely lost with most positive results. However, in these works Bomberg had moved too far from the doctrine under which he had secured funding. In May of 1924 the Zionist Executive complained in a letter to the London Organisation that his works were 'exclusively Arab' in subject and that they did not fulfill the propaganda brief initially proposed. Although Bomberg's personal opinions were not entirely in line with the Zionist cause he felt duty bound to deliver upon his agreement and in 1925 he started to address the task of painting the Zionist settlements. He painted strictly outside, in confidently applied, structured strokes, reminiscent of the earlier abstractions and pre-empting the later views of Ronda and Cyprus.
Immediately after his return in Autumn of 1927 a selection from this body of work was shown at the Leicester Galleries. This was met by rapturous applause by way of glowing reviews in The Observer, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and The Times. However, for Bomberg these years were tinged slightly with personal sadness; it was over this period that his marriage to Alice broke down, but as is so often the case personal turmoil led to artistic gain as Cork concludes; 'Palestine gave Bomberg an enduring love of landscape painting in the open air, and it also gave him a life-long partiality for the heat and brilliance of Mediterranean countries. More important still, throughout the rest of his life he rarely forsook the habit developed in Jerusalem of scrutinizing his subjects first hand ... He had learned how to look during his years of intense lonely observation ... and this ardour discipline stood him in good stead ... infusing the objective study with his own passionately subjective response' (Op.Cit, p.174).