Saturday, 31 March 2018

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life. Tate Britain, London (28 February-27 August 2018)

Installation view:  Reverse (2002-2003), Jenny Saville 

Unsurprisingly for an exhibition about life painting, there is a lot of emotional angst, anguish and naked flesh (both male and female) on display in Tate Britain’s “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life”.  Covering over a century of art making, along with Bacon and Freud, this exhibition also includes a stellar supporting cast of artists, such as Walter Sickert, Frank Auerbach, Euan Uglow and Jenny Saville.

Top:  Nuit d'Ete (c.1906), Walter Sickert   
Bottom: Polish Woman (c.1922), Chaim Soutine 

As well as examining how Bacon and Freud moved beyond naturalistic representation to capture ways in which they were affected by their subjects, “All Too Human” also traces the influences, relationships and connections between the ‘supporting cast’ of artists featured as well as redressing art historical gender and ethnicity imbalances, with London as a backdrop where most of the artists have lived, studied and exhibited.

Top:  Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964), Francis Bacon 
Bottom:  David and Eli  (2000-2004), Lucian Freud

The influence of Chaim Soutine on Bacon and Stanley Spencer on Freud are easily seen and there are some wonderful examples of their work in the first gallery of the exhibition.  Walter Sickert is also included here.  Sickert taught David Bomberg, who taught William Coldstream and Frank Auerbach.  Coldstream told Euan Uglow, Michael Andrews and Paula Rego at the Slade School of Fine Art, where Freud was also a tutor.  All these artists are included in the exhibition and provide a fascinating contextual and visual narrative throughout.

Bacon’s monumental, solitary and angst-ridden figures undertaken in the years following the Second World War in the second room are incredibly powerful.  Displayed on every wall and circling Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture Woman of Venice IX (1956), the intensity of the anguish rendered in every raw brushstroke is almost palpable.  Even Bacon’s animal, as well as human subjects featured, appear consumed with existentialist angst!

Clockwise: Study after Velazquez (1950), Francis Bacon ; Woman of Venice IX (1956), Alberto Giacometti;  
Study of a Baboon (1953), Francis Bacon 

Frances Bacon was nineteen years older the Lucien Freud and their individual approaches to their subjects differed dramatically.  Bacon’s models bear the artist’s inner emotional turmoil and feelings towards them, particularly in the portraits of his lover George Dyer.  Bacon's series of portraits of Freud are fascinating.  In contrast, but by no means lacking in potency, Freud’s cold analytical gaze tore out and displayed to the world the vulnerability of his sitters.

Top: Bella (1996), Lucian Freud   
Bottom: Georgia (1973), Euan Uglow 

Of all the naked flesh on display, only Freud’s naked portrait of his daughter makes uncomfortable viewing.  However, it is the clothed studies which are more characterful and offer the most interest.  Of these, Freud’s Bella (1996) and Uglow’s Georgia (1973) particularly stood out for me.  Two group compositions by Michael Andrews, Colony Room I (1962) and The Deer Park (1962), capture the artist’s group of friends in and around Soho and act as a window into a world of creative and destructive hedonism.

Top:  Reclining Figure (c.1954), Margaret Mead
Middle: Colony Room I (1962), Michael Andrews
Bottom: The Deer Park (1962), Michael Andrews

With the exception of one painting by Margaret Mead, two thirds of the exhibition are dominated by male artists, reflecting how women’s lives and stories were often overlooked in art as a historically male-dominated activity.  Thankfully, as the exhibition timeline progresses through to contemporary art practices, paintings by the formidable Paula Rego are followed by a final room of the youngest of artists featured.  All women, thes artists demonstrate not only how their practice has been influenced by their predecessors, but more importantly how this generation of  female artists investigate and challenge stereotypical views on gender, sexuality and race.  Of course, the superb Jenny Saville is featured, as is the wonderful Cecily Brown and both artist's gaze gaze and skill with brush and paint are equally as intense as Bacon's and Freud's.

 The Company of Women (1997), Paula Rego

“All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life” is big, ambitious, intense and powerful exhibition.  It demonstrates the enduring potency and possibilities in exploring the human condition within artistic practice and is a not-to-be-missed exhibition.

Top:  Teenage Wildlife (2003), Cecily Brown
Bottom: Coterie of Questions (2015), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye