Coquelicot Art of the First World War
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David Bomberg, Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunelling Company, first version, 1918-1919, oil on canvas, 304 x 224 cm, Tate Gallery, London.

© Tate Gallery, London, 1998.


David Bomberg, Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunelling Company, second, final version, 1919, oil on canvas, 305 x 244 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

© National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Transfer from the Canadian War Memorials, 1921.

The battlefield

24 - David Bomberg

Bomberg (1890-1957) was one of the major artists of the London avant-garde scene, one of those whose Cubo-Futurist approach led them to invent geometrical signs verging on abstraction. In 1917, he was commissioned by the Canadian authorities to do a painting celebrating an operation in which the sappers successfully blew up a salient of the German defences at Saint-Eloi near Arras. He was told to steer clear of Cubism. Despite this warning, the first version of his painting shows a mixed style in which figurative elements are caught up in a composition dominated by non-imitative colours and the powerfully dynamic rhythms of oblique lines in blue and purple. The painting was rejected by the emissary of the Canadian committee, who criticised Bomberg's 'Futurism' which he found unacceptable. Convinced by his wife, in a very short space of time Bomberg produced a second version in line with the commissioner's instructions. The original colours and dynamism have disappeared, but the structure of the beams, the movements of the soldiers, their uniforms and the tools they are using are all painted with the required accuracy. As if to indicate what a burden this work had been for him, Bomberg painted himself in the foreground with a heavy beam on his shoulder. He afterwards returned to his own devices, so that the second version of Sappers remains a painful exception in Bomberg's work, and the first a good example of the links between artistic modernity and technological modernity.