I‘ve been sent to interview the artist David Bomberg for Studio, the Art Magazine, about his picture, The Mudbath. Our 3 o’clock appointment is at 86a, Brick Lane, Spitalfields. I turn up punctually – but there’s some mistake – Number 86a isn’t Bomberg’s studio, it’s Benjy Schevzik’s Russian Vapour Baths. I start to walk away but a bearded young man in a Homburg and a white pullover steps forward, bath towel over his arm. “Studio?” he says and puts out his hand to shake mine, “Bomberg. Follow me!”
We push through a grey plastic curtain into a tiled room, filled with belching steam. It’s so hot! “Take off your clothes. Stretch out over there,” he says. Stark naked, wet towels wrapped round our heads, we lie down to be vigorously massaged, pummeled and whacked by fellow mudbath customers armed with huge soapy raffia brushes. “Schmeissing besoms,” says Bomberg, “‘whipping’ in Yiddish.” We plunge into icy cold water then dry ourselves, stretched across white towels, cooking like hot toast. We dress and emerge into the cold: cleansed, disoriented, and invigorated. Phew!
“It’s totally jam packed here Friday evenings when the faithful pour in after work to start Shabbat with a mikvah before going to the Brick Lane Synagogue,” Bomberg explains. He doesn’t live in Schevzik’s. His home is in a tenement near Alie Street in Aldgate. He’s proud to be one of the “Whitechapel Boys,” but doesn’t explain what that means. He whisks me down Brick Lane, talking about his Jewish East End, his pictures on Jewish themes: Ghetto Theatre, Vision of Ezekiel and of his mum, Lilian Bomberg. He speaks too of his lithographs, his expulsion from the Slade – his work was considered “too radical”. Now we’re in the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Bomberg has helped to organise the controversial exhibition: 20th Century Art, a Review of Modern Movements with Jacob Epstein. In its centre is his extraordinary Vorticist painting – The Mud Bath, an almost abstract work in red, blue, black and white, his figures stripped down to their very core, in jagged, geometric shapes.
“Wow – that’s really shocking,” I say. “Yup. It’s Schevzik’s all right. See how the bathers have been schmeissed!” says Bomberg, “ But I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. There’s a war on. Today my brother and I are enlisting in the Royal Engineers. Bye and good luck with the article!”
The journalist in this tale is imaginary, the rest is true. Bomberg was a friend of my Mum. He painted a powerful portrait of her. After the War he changed to more lyrical Cubist landscapes of Spain and the Middle East and images of War. He died in poverty, little appreciated in his lifetime. Now his work is highly valued selling for large amounts. The Mudpath has pride of place today and hangs in the National Gallery.
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