In May 1914, David Bomberg exhibited this extraordinary chalk-and-wash drawing among his five exhibits in the ‘Jewish Section’ of the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s exhibition Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements, which he co-curated with Jacob Epstein. Simultaneously, his friend John Rodker (a racing enthusiast) reproduced it as a frontispiece in The Dial Monthly, explaining that it was set in a paddock at a race meeting, that the two figures on the front right of the composition were bookies, those to their left spectators, and that the style was ‘cubist’. He also felt it necessary to add, ‘It is not intended to be comic’. Executed in 1913, when Bomberg was only 22 and approaching the height of his youthful powers, Racehorses is a key transitional work, which demonstrates his absorption and understanding of the contemporaneous European avant-garde, skilfully reworked into a drawing of startling power and originality.
Even before he became a student at the Slade School of Art, inspired by Roger Fry’s seminal Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1910–11, Bomberg had begun to employ a shallow picture space and to simplify his forms. By 1913 he had started to produce specifically ‘Cubist compositions’ including one featuring the wooden ‘donkey’ on which students sat to sketch in the Slade life class – and which bears a close resemblance to Bomberg’s stiffly-jointed racehorses. Bomberg’s understanding of Cubism was enhanced by his visit to Paris in 1913 and he had been exposed to Futurism. Indeed, the 1910 Futurist Manifesto with its explanation that ‘a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular’ could have directly inspired his racehorses. The rigidity of Bomberg’s figures also suggests a fascination with mechanisation that Bomberg shared with the nascent Vorticist movement. This was reflected in the manifesto that accompanied his first solo show at the Chenil gallery, London, in July 1914, where he explained that his object was ‘the construction of Pure Form’. However Bomberg also combined modernist techniques with allusions to older processes: the close-grained texture of the picture is reminiscent of woodcuts, and monochrome colouring akin to that in photography of the day. He would have been familiar with Eadweard Muybridge’s famous photographs of the ‘animal in motion’, and his racehorses also neatly illustrate what Muybridge himself noted in his ‘Prelude to Analyses’, that ‘during very rapid motion by a good horse, the aggregate of the body preserves a nearly horizontal line.’
Like Bomberg’s other innovative works, Racehorses was generally viewed with hostility and incomprehension when first exhibited. The Jewish Chronicle called his racehorses ‘Opposed to all that is rational in art’. However, the work marks Bomberg’s transition from aspiring student to recognised radical and, in the coming year, acted as a springboard for the experiments that have earned him a lasting place in British modernism. This is one of 14 works by Bomberg in the Ben Uri Collection.