In this talk I am going to briefly propose some answers to the question at hand, “What are we but meat?” which was posed by Ruth Busby in her essay on Dorothy Mead’s self-portrait of 1959, questioning what is left when physical signs of humanity are stripped away in the act of painting. To do this I am going to use ideas put forward by Donna Haraway in her 1985 Cyborg Manifesto to discuss the artwork of Dorothy Mead. Part of the beauty and continued significance of these paintings lies in their visual resonance with Haraway’s vision of polyvalent identity outside patriarchal structures, involving women, machines and animals. I therefore feel that Haraway’s terminology might be used productively to describe Mead’s contribution to feminist art history, particularly in rejecting essentialism.Read More
David Bomberg’s niece, Cecily Bomberg in conversation with Nicola Baird, PhD candidate, LSBU:
NB: I wondered if you could explain how you relate to David Bomberg?
CB: My father, John was the baby of the Bomberg family, my mother, Olive was 12 years his junior, an Irish Catholic girl. David was my uncle and he was very keen on my mother because she turned my father around and put him on the straight and narrow- he adored her. David had been 22 when his mother died, he was already launched and she’d done everything for him but my father was 7 so you can imagine and then the others were all older and grown up so you can imagine what he went through….
NB: What are your memories of David Bomberg?
CB: What are my memories? His personality and little things about him are really what I know, mostly of course because I was only 15 when I last saw him, that’s how old I was and so mostly of course it is childhood memories. My first memory of him was in a camp in Wales at the end of the war, we were sent there, I think, because of some very late bombing. My mother had us in a hotel and every day we’d go into the fields to visit my uncle and aunty Lilian and Diana who were staying in a tent there, I remember I hated going there because he might have been a bit moody, I don’t know. She loved animals, but he hated them, he thought they should all be of purpose, I had a pet dog, my first dog, Nuala and what he did was he took her into the sea with him to bathe, cleanliness was a big thing with him, he used to even wash his suits in the sea, he took her into the sea and she was the soap holder, he put carbolic soap in her mouth! I remember him in the camp there, I’ve always had a word difficulty, I was a little dyslexic, and he obviously was in a mood but he liked joking, so one day he said to me, I was about 5, go into the farm and get the letters, and of course I brought him back a head of lettuce, so every time I would go there to visit he said where’s Cecily, Cecily I need my letters, and I would come back with the head of lettuce and they would all laugh at me. The next really strong memory I have of him is that whenever he came to visit us and my parents would ask, Cecily, do you want to ask Uncle David something? And then I had something that I had wanted to ask someone, you know anyone, and they would say ask Uncle David like he was the great sayer, is that how you say it? It’s like he was the oracle or something, now that is my real strong memory of him, and I would have been about 8 or 9 maybe. To me he spoke like a foreigner, he spoke slowly and methodically and every word was weighed, he would be thinking and carefully weighing but by the time he had finished I couldn’t remember what I’d asked! He liked me as a child because I was quiet, I wasn’t a running around child and he thought, that I should be put to music, there was something sad about me and that I needed solace and that the violin would be a good thing for me. Somebody told me that he actually purchased the violin, but I don’t think he ever had that much money. I wish I had known him as an adult, I wish I had been old enough to respond as a young woman as my mother had to him, to really learn from him and to see what a fine person he was, but I’m afraid I was just a little child and I thought of him as a vagabond of sorts coming and going, sometimes he wore a dressing gown at least I can remember him in a dressing gown and bandana, I think I saw him out once in a dressing gown.
NB: Which are your favourite works by David Bomberg?
CB: I think some of the portraits are marvellous; yes I like them a lot. For some reason I love the Cyprus paintings, they do something to me, of course the Spanish paintings, how could I not? And I do love some of the Palestinian paintings, the Church of the Armenians, the beautiful blue church in Jerusalem- some beautiful works. I love the Petra and I think the Cornish, that lovely painting of Cornwall and Devon, I see them all as I’m saying them now there’s so many, I think I prefer them all to the ones my family had. I wish he had done more portraits, the one that you and I met in front of, I really thought a lot of that portrait, and then there’s this other one, of a man who’s a great friend of his, I think that’s in the Ben Uri Gallery collection [John Rodker] , Jimmy Rodker, what David used to call, ‘my blood brother’, this is all my mother telling me, they were great friends and I love that picture….but I do wish he had done more portraits, I love Kitty’s portrait. I love the Ghetto Theatre and things like that, I’ve been very impressed with the Ben Uri, very impressed with what I’ve seen there, some beautiful paintings, and one of them which strikes me as quite strange is the racing picture, the race, that was an extraordinary picture, that was done in about 1912 I think, and just to see the composition, I mean, when you keep looking at it, it does something to you, I very much go in for the Ghetto and all of his pictures.
Introduction: Nicola Baird is PhD candidate in the School of Arts and Creative Industries at London South Bank University and a member of the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image (CSNI). Hers is a collaborative project between London South Bank University’s Borough Road Gallery and the Ben Uri Gallery: Art, Identity, Migration.
A Casa with a View: Notes on a Bomberg Inspired ‘Pilgrimage’ to Ronda, August 2017-
I painted this picture from a mountain ledge three miles from Ronda across the valley, which point is the most perfect for a view of the city on its great rock. Leaving my house above, I would sometimes wind my way down the old Moorish path of the edge of the ravine and cross the cultivated valley, climbing up again through the olive groves on the slopes of the opposite ledge, on the afternoons of brilliant Andalucian spring days. Then I would forget everything but the ancient city on its glowing rock until the chill of the mountain shadow touched me- the sun had gone- Ronda was in afterglow and I was packing up to go home. This time, too dangerous to climb down the rocky sharp in the dark, I would prefer to share the roadway home with the peasants and their goats; all of us making for the warmth of the brazier fires of Ronda.
- David Bomberg
I arrived in Ronda, in the Spanish province of Malaga, on the evening of what had been a brilliant Andalusian summer day. Perched on an inland plateau riven by the 100 metre fissure of the El Tajo gorge, Ronda is Malaga province’s most spectacular city. Divided in two by the Guadalevin River it owes its name (‘surrounded’ by mountains), to the encircling Serrania de Ronda. Ronda was a favourite with the Romantics of the late 19th century and has attracted an array of international artists and writers including David Wilkie, Alexandre Dumas, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and David Bomberg. Bomberg came to Ronda via Cuenca with his wife Lilian in May 1934 and stayed until civic unrest forced them to leave Spain in November of the following year. The site of the Bombergs’ first home in Ronda is now marked with a blue plaque which was presented in 2004 to coincide with an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Museo Joaquin Peinado. Bomberg was not to return to Ronda until 1954 when he tried, and failed, to set up a school of painting at Villa Paz, the house he rented next to the medieval Palacio de Mondragon. Advertisements were printed and letters sent out to many of his former students but the owner of the house evicted them before even the first class had taken place. Though Bomberg gave up on the idea of the school he found some consolation in being consequently offered a ruinous property to rent on a pine-lined ridge commanding views in one direction of the massive Puente Nuevo and in the other of the picturesque Serrania de Ronda. La Casa de la Virgen de la Cabeza, is, it transpires, still owned by the same prominent Ronda family today. The only other house on the ridge was taken by former pupils Miles and Susanna Richmond. The plaque, the Villa Paz (as well as the Church of La Paz) and La Casa de la Virgen de la Cabeza were therefore key places to visit along with sites from which it is known Bomberg painted/drew, such as the Plaza de toros de Ronda, Spain’s oldest bullring, the Church of Santa Maria la Mayor in the Plaza Duqesa de Parcent, the Arab baths, which can be found below the city and date back to the 13th and 14th centuries and the roof of a former hospital in the new town. As the old hospital was not far from where I was staying, this was my first port of call. Obviously I was not able to get up onto the roof of the building but I was able to appreciate its height and the view from the end of the road across the old city. Next I visited the Plaza de toros, built in 1784 in the neoclassical style by the architect Jose Martin de Aldehuela, who also designed the mighty Puente Nuevo, linking the old and the new parts of the city. It is thought that Bomberg’s last work, completed one moonlit night in the company of Miles Richmond, was of the bullring’s main gate near eclipsed by the casting of a sinister black shadow. Then it was on to the Church of Santa Maria la Mayor originally built in the 14th century as a mosque and transformed into a cathedral in the years following the Christian conquest of 1485. Sadly it was demolished in an earthquake in 1580 and the church which stands in its place today is an incomplete replacement, though still very impressive inside and out. The plaque and the Villa Paz, also in the old town and being fairly close together, were next on my list. I was unable to gain entry to the Villa Paz, now a bar, when I visited but walked right up to the main door and photographed through a side gate and from the restaurant next door I was able to photograph the Villa’s front (gorge) facing façade and small garden/outside space. It was amazing to be there and I was able to really get a sense of the artist’s presence. Emerging back onto the main road in the old town I carried on down the hill towards the Arab baths which were beautifully in-tact and well maintained. From there I was able to appreciate an alternative view of Ronda one which Bomberg would have witnessed. The following day I met up with Miles and Susanna Richmond’s daughter Georgina who grew up in Ronda (and was three when Bomberg died) and for the last fourteen years has been living permanently in the beautifully bohemian feeling house her parents bought in 1960s just outside the city. We had lunch together with her husband David, who is also a painter, before driving round to La Casa de la Virgen de la Cabeza, Bomberg’s last home in Ronda and where he spent the last three years of his life. Experiencing the almost comically obstinate isolation of this slightly ramshackle, dwarfish looking house hunched beneath a large and imposing tree was a peculiarly evocative moment in which I felt I sensed something of the artist’s presence in the air. Although we were unable to enter the house we were able to view it from the top of a short driveway and to appreciate the geological drama of the landscape as well as the spectacular views of the Puente Nuevo, towering 120 metres above the canyon floor, and the El Tajo gorge which its unique position affords. Georgina told me that Bomberg and Miles would have painted at various points along the entirety of the ridge, something which would now be impossible as the owner of valley land abutting has illegally erected a metal fence preventing right of way. The fence, which jars with the timelessness of the landscape and tampers with the ridge’s at once lost and liberated quality is, according to Georgina, a sign, amongst others, that things in Ronda are changing, planning permission has been granted for a large luxury hotel in the valley and a developer has bought the 1920s folly on the rocky road between the ridge and Ronda proper from which Bomberg and Miles would also have painted. This just left the views of the Puente Nuevo which could only be authentically experienced by walking down into the gorge from steps in the corner of the Plaza Auxiladora. Later that evening, as the temperature cooled slightly, we began walking, stopping at a viewpoint, the remains of an old house, to take pictures, before taking a different path along and underneath the bridge in order to appreciate its awe-inspiring height and mass. The next day was spent walking around both the old and the new parts of the city, revisiting previous sites and admiring the incredible views of the gorge from the Puente Nuevo as well as climbing down into it from the other side via the Moorish La Minathe so-called Water Mine (accessed from the gardens of the Casa del Ray Moro). The following morning I took a bus from Ronda to Malaga where I spent my last day and night. Serendipitously there was a temporary ‘School of London’ exhibition on at the Picasso Museum which included four paintings by Bomberg, all from the Tate’s collection, but which I had never seen in the flesh as so few example of his work are ever on display at any one time. Perhaps predictably I came away both from the Picasso Museum and from Spain feeling curiously and in a perhaps predictably romantic way somehow better able to understand and to appreciate the nature of Bomberg’s experiments/achievements in Ronda, the epic transition in each case from quest to conquest, or otherwise, as well as the courage, determination and mental fortification involved in continuing to paint, to draw, to prove with each taking up of the brush his own sense of self-worth. And now when I look at the work he did in Ronda, having experienced the majesty and the drama of those vistas for myself, I am overwhelmed by a misty-eyed mirage of Bomberg the conquerer, Bomberg the great and am unable to prevent ringing in my ears the artist’s oft-quoted incantation: ‘seek the spirit in the mass’.
This trip was made possible by Queenswood School’s Ruth Moon Award for which I am very grateful.
Tate Britain’s 2018 ‘All Too Human’ exhibition, which surveys British life painting from the early 20th century to the present, brings together two unlikely female artists. Dorothy Mead and Jenny Saville, despite their stylistic disparities, together represent a minority viewpoint within a genre that has traditionally been the stronghold of men, particularly when approaching the female nude. The male gaze has delineated and defined women’s bodies throughout art history, but this process is disrupted and reimagined by the entrance of social outsiders into the art form. Judging by the work selected for the exhibition, the male artist’s struggle for enlightenment will continue to eclipse the contributions made by women to visual culture. Rather than dwell on Tate’s selection of works here, I will turn to two other paintings executed by these women that bring their practice into dialogue, involving them in a counter-discourse about the human form in art.
In Dorothy Mead’s oil painting titled Transvestite, a pale figure stands luminescent against a wash of deep blue and red, posed in the heroic silhouette of a classical sculpture. Despite their stance, the marbled subject is a site of ambiguity, where the rounded fullness of the foreground leg and the distortion that blurs the body coexist within the same figure. What is flesh and what is fabric? Is the human form cloaked in crisscrossing layers of paint, or subtly revealed in the overlapping tones? Limbs are unhinged by the hint of drapery which falls from the figure’s shoulder, and fixed-point perspective becomes precarious as shadows and tones appear anchored to their own flatness rather than the curvature of the body. Leaning back slightly, the model in the painting exudes a gentle ease. The limbs lack the rigid fixity of those in Saville’s Passage (2004), instead of resting softly and naturally in place like the folds of a curtain. Contrasting with the resultant ethereality of Mead’s figure, which might be swept up and away in the flow of a brushstroke, the effect of Saville’s painting feels more akin to looking into an airless vacuum, or a closely controlled laboratory interior.
Saville’s giant figure is posed dramatically, their genitalia pushed towards the viewer and their legs spread to extend out beyond the picture plane. Arms and legs are amputated by the composition, funnelling the eye towards the torso which dominates the central third of the painting. Unlike in Mead’s work, the model’s transsexuality, rather than being announced by the painting’s title, is distinct and overt. The title is suggestive of movement, transition, and change, or alternatively might infer a narrowness and hardship which one must move through to reach a certain destination. While Saville’s enigmatic title demands metaphorical investigation beyond the subject’s physical presence, the very surface of Mead’s painting invites an interrogation of every out of focus brushstroke.
Despite a common preference for using broad, rectangular strokes to carve out their sitters’ bodies, the two artists construct the flesh of their subjects markedly differently. In the tradition of Euan Uglow, Saville’s approach is intently and intensely measured. A mathematical precision governs the distribution of brushstrokes which themselves hold a digital clarity, owing perhaps to the artist having worked from a series of photographs rather than directly from a model. Dorothy Mead would have instead worked from life, following the standard set by David Bomberg’s classes at The Borough Polytechnic which ran from the 1940s into the 1950s. Bomberg encouraged students to renounce the traditional, formulaic techniques of painting from life in favour of a more spirited engagement with the physical subject before them, a message Mead absorbed and adapted throughout her oeuvre. Bomberg also prioritised engagement with the flow of natural forms, departing from the graphic, angular style he had employed earlier in the 20th century to depict war and its machinery. Many of Mead’s paintings, such as her Reclining Nude in acrylic (c.1950), possess an earth-like quality, their bodies resembling sun-kissed hills receding into the distance, becoming interchangeable with rolling landscapes in both colour and composition. The women in her paintings are multi-layered, imposing and potentially hostile landscapes rather than simply objects of desire. For Transvestite, Mead erected the figure at the centre of the canvas, standing boldly against their nondescript environment, a bright landmark pushing forwards instead of receding backwards. The figure derives its strength from this high contrast, both within its immediate environment and in relation to Mead’s other life paintings.
However, this is not to say that a geometrically astute style of painting cannot render an expressive and multidimensional subject. The precision of a measured, scientific observation and documentation is arguably sensitive to the contemporary treatment of the transsexual body. Access to medical intervention to reconcile body with mind via Sex Reassignment Surgery, breast augmentation and Hormone Therapy only arose in the latter half of the 20th century and were not accessible at the time Mead was painting. In conjunction, the two paintings chart the Trans body coming into focus as a visible and rational subject within modern society.
The ‘passage’ Saville refers to lies between and connects visual markers of biological sex, from the penis up towards the figure’s made-up face and silicone breasts. In an interview with Simon Schama Saville described her desire to create a “contemporary architecture of the body” and “a sort of gender landscape” which would not have been possible 30 or 40 years ago. Following her rational construction, the viewer traverses the transvestite’s newly realised body in a logical manner which functions to normalise the transsexual subject. This technique empowers the sitter with whom Saville worked, as the viewer is forced to follow the direction dictated by their enormous painted body. Marks are used by Saville to channel the gaze across the body and in doing so she knits together disparate elements on the large canvas. The longer one looks at the figure’s body, the more it makes sense as a cohesive whole.
The sheer scale of Passage communicates an ideal of larger than life pride in transsexual physical identity which is much more self-evident than the murkier display of form in Mead’s painting. However, the transvestite is described by Mead in terms of their shifting presence within the space, rather than through physiological features, arguably a representation more aligned with modern attitudes towards the mutable nature of sex and gender. While Saville’s work centres visually on a brave display of biological sex through a theatrical confrontation, Mead’s rendering is more concerned with the porous boundary between interior and exterior as expressed through the uncertain physical condition of the transvestite at the time she was painting. Paint is used in different ways by the artists to empathise with the physiological and psychological experience of transsexuality, foregrounding its presence in contexts which continue to obscure and ostracize the Trans subject themselves. Both paintings relate to the burgeoning discourse around gender identity that has evolved over the past few decades by introducing the transsexual anatomy into a common language of the human body, and at the same time questioning the inviolability of the life painting tradition.