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Life skills

Tate Britain’s new show looks at a century of artists’ efforts to explore ‘what it is that makes us human’

02 March, 2018 — By John Evans

Paula Rego: The Family, 1988. Acrylic paint on canvas backed paper 2134 x 2134 mm. Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego.

THE opening room features two of Walter Sickert’s atmospheric nudes and the final room in Tate Britain’s new show has a hauntingly elegant self-portrait by Celia Paul.

More than 100 years separate the works but, in this exploration of how artists capture the intensity of life, we are invited to make connections. And with each of these, and on a host of occasions along the way, All Too Human references London-based artists, with Camden playing an important part.

At the very core of the exhibition, which is curated by the Tate’s Elena Crippa and Laura Castagnini, are large-scale and ambitious works by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Lucian Freud (1922-2011).

Walter Richard Sickert: Nuit d’Été, c.1906. Oil paint on canvas. 500 x 400 mm. Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

For the first time since 1965, shortly after it was created, we can see Bacon’s painting of his friend, with Freud daubed to left of centre, bare-chested, curled up and cornered, in some dystopia, with just a single light bulb above him. Over six feet high, it was originally part of a triptych which did not last. Nearby there is a Bacon triptych; a homage to his lover George Dyer, from a private collection and not seen in a public gallery here for 30 years. Another portrait, shown last in 1962, is of Bacon’s violent lover, Peter Lacy, this one nude and complete with internal organs on show.

Freud himself has a real range on display, from his delicate paintings of his first wife Kitty Garman, and of his mother, to portraits of Frank Auerbach (b1931) and monumental nudes, such as his Two Women and one of model Sue Tilley, of “benefits supervisor” fame.

Freud and Bacon are most prominent in this gathering of 100 or so works by 22 artists.

Celia Paul: Painter and Model, 2012. Oil paint on canvas, 1372 x 762 mm© Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

The curators say: “Despite their great differences, these artists… were committed to rendering intimate and powerful representations of humanity.”

But the exhibition is wide, including not only the works by Sickert (1860-1942) and Paul (b1959) but also Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) and even Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943). The men are seen as forerunners in “portraying an intimate, subjective and tangible reality”.

Working out the links is part of the challenge perhaps; whether that’s by what one sees or, in most cases, chronology and what one knows about who was doing what with (and to) whom. The connections are not always there and unique works of quality must be accepted as stand-alone pieces.

Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson notes the direct influence of David Bomberg (1890-1957) and William Coldstream (1908-1987) as teachers.

And he refers to those most often associated with the “School of London” group, the term coined by RB (Ronald Brooks) Kitaj (1932-2007), for artists such as Michael Andrews (1928-1995), Auerbach, Bacon, Freud, and Leon Kossoff (b1926). But the irony is, he accepts, these artists were – and are – highly independent, even isolated, in pursuit of their art.

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1964, Oil paint on canvas, 1980 x 1476 mm. The Lewis Collection © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London.

So, “All Too Human seeks to tell a broader and longer history of modern figurative painting in Britain,” he adds. The unusual “reinvention” of a European figurative tradition, he says, “unmistakably reflected the existential and societal crises of the postwar age”.

One section, The Cityscape of London, devoted to Auerbach (Mornington Crescent features, of course) and to Kossoff, examines their fascination with the postwar urban scene.

Camden-based Paula Rego (b1935), is given a room of her own, and here her emphasis, often painful and personal, is on women, with paintings such as The Family, Bride, and The Company of Women.

Among the most stark images are those by FN (Francis Newton) Souza (1924-2002), who was born in Goa, brought up in Mumbai, and arrived in London in 1949.

It was in Camden that he produced Negro in Mourning, 1957, which he said he painted when the race riots flared, and noted that it was “about the colour of skin”. Souza too has a room to himself, Icons of a Modern World, with his Black Nude and Crucifixion, and an icon-like Jesus and Pilatus.

Rather than a clear progression of allied artists, the “history” of modern figurative art is illustrated in this show via a relatively small selection of each individual’s output.

And rounding it off, in the final room too, the curators’ choice is younger women, among them, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b1977), Cecily Brown (b1969) and Jenny Saville (b1970).

• All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is at Tate Britain until August 27, details 020 7887 8888,


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