Ben Uri collection

Ghetto Theatre

Artist information

Name David Bomberg (1890-1957)

Born Birmingham, England

Died London, England

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David Bomberg was born to Polish-Jewish parents in Birmingham, England, in 1890. The family moved to Whitechapel in 1895, where he became prominent among the ‘Whitechapel Boys’ - a group of young, Jewish, mainly émigré artists who were either born, raised or worked in the East End in the first two decades of the 20th century, and who, both collectively, and individually, made an important contribution to British Modernism. Initially apprenticed as a chromolithographer, he attended night classes under Walter Sickert and also worked as an artist’s model before studying at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he was seen as a ‘disturbing influence’. In 1913 Bomberg visited Paris with Jacob Epstein, making contact with artists including Modigliani and Picasso. Bomberg’s harrowing service in the trenches during the First World War was compounded by a disastrous experience as a commissioned war artist, explored in a series of related drawings. His postwar disillusionment is most powerfully expressed in the masterly Ghetto Theatre (1920, Ben Uri Collection). Afterwards Bomberg made a series of peopled landscapes before travelling in 1923 to Jerusalem, where he began to work en plein air for the first time. Following expeditions to Jericho, Petra and Wadi Kelt, he produced a series of detailed, realistic landscapes, which evolved from tightly topographical treatments into a looser, characteristically expressionistic style, heralding the painterly achievements of his final years. After a series of disappointments in the 1930s and 1940s Bomberg concentrated on portraits of friends and family, as well as a series of searching self-portraits. Although only reluctantly granted a Second World War commission to paint a bomb store in 1942, Bomberg produced many drawings and paintings on the subject, among them an impressive, large-scale study for a projected (but unrealised) mural. Following his visit to Spain in 1929, a renewed vigour resulted in a series of works based on the cathedral at Toledo, flowering on his second visit in 1934–35, into dramatic landscapes of the gorge at Ronda and flickering night-time processions during Holy Week. These experiments were curtailed by the onset of the Spanish Civil War, but over a decade later picked up and progressed in the west country, where his loosened handling verged on the abstract, and in Cyprus in 1948, eventually reaching a magnificent fulfillment of his early promise in his maturity on his final return to Spain.

Object Details

Date 1920

Object type painting

Medium oil on canvas

Materials and techniques oil (medium) canvas (support)

Unframed 74.4 x 62 cm

Framed 92.8 x 80 cm

Signed signed and dated, bottom left: Bomberg 1920

Acquisition purchased for Ben Uri 1920

Accession number 1987-46

Display status not on display

By the time he left the Slade in 1913, Bomberg had established a reputation as a leading member of the avant-garde. His work was admired by the Vorticist leader Percy Wyndham Lewis and he was among the non-members invited in 1915 to show work in the first Vorticist exhibition (although he was always careful to retain his independence). The previous year, in 1914, Bomberg had exhibited five works at The London Group (of which he was a founder member) and also held his first solo show at the Chenil Gallery, Chelsea. However his enlistment in the Royal Engineers (he later transferred to the 18th King’s Royal Rifles) in November 1915 brought this audacious progress temporarily to a halt. In March 1916 he married his first wife, Alice Mayes, and shortly afterwards was sent to the Front. His harrowing experiences including the death of his brother eventually resulted in him shooting himself in the foot. Escaping court martial and temporarily invalided out, he was soon returned to active service. In 1918 Bomberg was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to produce a painting of Sappers at Work. His first, severely abstracted version was woundingly rejected and although the second, more naturalistic version was accepted, the experience left Bomberg severely demoralized.

In Ghetto Theatre, set in Whitechapel’s lively Pavilion Theatre, where the classics were performed in Yiddish, Bomberg returned to the subject matter and setting of a number of his earlier sketches. Possibly, he hoped to recapture something of his earlier exuberance. In contrast to his animated prewar theatre-goers however, these drably-dressed spectators with their mask-like faces and closed body language are indicative of his dismal, postwar vision. The hunched male figure (in the upper foreground) leaning wearily on a stick embodies his own personal disenchantment and the compressed space, cleaved by a bold and imposing balcony rail, echoes the claustrophobic tunnels of his wartime sappers. Only the bold sweep of red adds richness to an otherwise sombre palette. Painted on the eve of his departure from the East End, it reveals that for Bomberg, it was no longer a place of excitement and vitality. Yet elsewhere in a series of related Ghetto Theatre sketches, the artist’s looser handling once again liberates his audience from their constraints.

In 1923, to escape poverty and neglect in England, Bomberg accepted a post with the Palestine Foundation Fund, who paid for his voyage in return for a number of works featuring Zionist reconstruction work. He remained in Palestine until 1927, travelling widely in the 1930s with the painter Lilian Holt, who became his second wife. Ghetto Theatre was one of Ben Uri’s earliest purchases, acquired immediately after its showing at The London Group exhibition in 1920. Bomberg remained deeply involved with Ben Uri from this time onwards, including lecturing on ‘Palestine Through the Eyes of an Artist’ after his return to England in 1928. Among Bomberg’s 14 works in the Ben Uri Collection are two pencil studies and one oil and pencil study for Ghetto Theatre, the latter gifted by his widow, Lilian, in 1959.

Selected exhibition history

1925 Official Opening at Great Russell Street

1935 Israel Zangwill Memorial Exhibition

1945 Exhibition of Paintings by A.A Wolmark (Konstam Collection), Dobrinsky Paris, and a selection of work from the Ben Uri Collection

1946 Ben Uri Collection of Paintings, Sculpture & Drawings

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© Ben Uri Collection, courtesy of David Bomberg estate

Related works

Ghetto Theatre, Study
by David Bomberg