Nicola Baird (London South Bank University)


Dr Nicola Baird is an independent curator and researcher affiliated with the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image, London South Bank University. She has postgraduate degrees from Queen Mary, and Birkbeck College, University of London and in 2021 completed a PhD, which was a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership between London South Bank University and the Ben Uri Research Unit.

In 2018 she curated ‘The Making of an Englishman’: Fred Uhlman, a Retrospective at Burgh House, London and the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle. In 2021 she curated an exhibition of the early work of Gustav Metzger at Ben Uri Gallery, also editing the accompanying catalogue and organising a complementary series of events sponsored by the Paul Mellon Foundation. She was also the curator of Knots: Jonny Briggs x Burgh House: Contemporary Interventions into an Historic House, at Burgh House, 2021-2022.

Modernism, Identity and Intersectionality (Race, Class, Nationality): The Case of David Bomberg, the Ben Uri Gallery and the Sarah Rose Collections

The early, experimental work of eminent British artist David Bomberg (1890-1957) is undoubtedly canonised and placed neatly within the context of pre-war native avant-gardism, however, his mid-career and late work is seen as an apparent disavowal of the modern. It is arguably apparent, however, that such logic has been exhausted, and that it is in fact a project of the modern to judge Bomberg’s work in such terms, for the moderns ‘consider everything that does not march in step with progress archaic, irrational or conservative’ (Latour, 2012, p. 73). Bomberg’s work is key to both the Ben Uri Gallery and the Sarah Rose collections, and yet the ways in which he is mobilised and laid claim to differ in each case. For Ben Uri he is a child of the ghetto, the son of Polish Jewish émigrés, a Whitechapel Boy, synonymous with the gallery and its East End cultural heritage and a major influence on early British modernism, his life and work used to highlight the aestheticisation of the Jewish experience and to exemplify issues around identity and migration. For Sarah Rose, however, he is a Messiah figure, a forgotten genius marginalised by the modernist mainstream. It is evident that the Ben Uri Gallery and the Sarah Rose collections, too, are deeply troubled by modernism, reconstructing alternative art historical timelines which seem at once to embrace and to bypass modernism. Furthermore, the story of British modernism becomes problematised by attempts to place the collections within the canon—both of which might be seen as marginal, peripheral and/or other. It is necessary, then, to consider a broader, more capacious understanding of modernism.[1]

This paper seeks to critique notions of art history as tracking continual progress and the positing of modernity as an unquestionably progressive destination as well as to interrogate the modernist project—the modernist co-optation of the modern—by questioning modernism’s agency within art history. Using assemblage theory as a theoretical and conceptual vehicle, and Actor-Network-Theory as a toolkit for the enabling of new insights and understanding it is possible to open up and operate beyond disciplinary boundaries, in order to tackle the problem of modernism not only in relation to the perceived incommensurability of Bomberg and the two collections, but also in relation to the hybrid reality of the world in the twenty-first century. This paper functions then, as an intervention into art history, implementing an alternative mode of practice derived from philosophy (assemblage theory) and studies of the sociology of science and technology (Actor-Network-Theory), increasing the discipline’s purview with regard to what can be encompassed in such research and actively encouraging interdisciplinarity. The result, therefore, is the possibility of different, and better art histories as well as, more specifically, different, and better modernist studies.

[1] Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, founded in 1915 in Whitechapel, the heart of London’s East End, has, over the course of its 100-year history continued to augment its permanent collection of works by émigré artists of primarily Jewish descent.  London South Bank University houses a collection of paintings and drawings by David Bomberg and selected former pupils bequeathed by independent collector Sarah Rose in 2012.