All Too Human, at Tate Britain


Study after Velazquez, 1950, Francis Bacon. Bacon’s picutres are, with those of Lucien Freud, one of the two dominating presences in the exhibition. They are extraordinary in the power and intensity, prompting in me equal feelings of fascinating and revulsion. There can be few major artists in history who expose their own feelings and emotions quite so viscerally on canvas. Bacon’s tortured and pain loving self-loathing is laid out on every canvas. And whilst Freud is obsessive in his observation, painting only from life, Bacon looks entirely within drawing his inspiration from other works, photographs and his own imagination. The study in contrasts between the two of them form the heart of the exhibition, and much of the rest is extraneous.

We all know that critics can be cruel, particularly when they hunt in packs. And it is not just artists who can be savaged by critics but curators too, as the curators of All Too Human at Tate Britain have been finding out. The charge against them is that they have put together a major exhibition at an important time for the institution which is intellectually incoherent.

It is a criticism which is highly damaging for Tate Britain, already the forgotten sibling of the Tate family in London and overshadowed again this summer by Tate Modern’s outstanding exhibition, Picasso 1932 (reviewed here). When I visited the show, albeit on a fine early summer’s day, Tate Britain felt empty and forgotten. It’s nice to avoid the massive crowds of disinterested students who roam in packs around Tate Modern, but it’s in everyone’s interest that Tate Britain rediscovers some of its younger siblings star quality.
Unfortunately it is also a criticism that rings true. The core theme of All Too Human appears to be the evolution of figurative painting in post-war Britain, or to be accurate amongst a core group of London based artists. The central characters are Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, William Coldstream and Euan Uglow, Michael Andrews and RB Kitaj, and Paula Rego. But sadly, there is very little that connects them. There is so much of a gulf in the approaches to painting of, say, Francis Bacon and Euan Uglow that there is nothing to be gained by exhibiting them together. And if the intention is a general survey of post war British figurative art, why include Soutain and Giacometti, neither of whom had anything to do with the UK, and why exclude David Hockney. The show ends up feeling like a series of disjointed trailers for other exhibitions.
That is not to say that you should not go. You should, because there are some inspiring works of art. But should go with the understanding that you have to approach the exhibition as you would approach a visit to the permanent collection, selecting individual works which attract your attention and ignoring the rest. Some of the works which particularly caught my attention are highlighted below.
David and Eli 2003-4 by Lucian Freud 1922-2011
David and Eli, 2003-4, Lucien Freud. Freud was of course an obsessive observer who painted only from life and slowly over the course of a large number of sittings. He was particularly interested in rendering the appearance of flesh in paint. And a reproduction really fails to give a proper sense of the three-dimensional effect he created with layers of carefully applied paint. Each of his pictures rewards continued and intensive study.
Georgia, 1973, Euan Uglow. Uglow was taught by Willian Coldstream from whom he learnt a meticulous approach to measured observation of his subject. You can clearly see the measuring marks on this picture. It apparently took five years to produce and was the product on intense consideration. The tights were a very particular colour, the hair was kept the same through the five years and the cover was designed specifically for this painting. Unfortunately the end result may be accurate but it is also sterile. It is a great piece of draughtsmanship but it tells us far more about the draughtsman than about the subject. Georgia remains a closed book.
Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon 1971 by Leon Kossoff born 1926
Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon, 1971, Leon Kossoff. Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach are both truly London artists whose almost exclusive focus has been bringing the London they see everyday to life. This picture by Kossoff from his local swimming pool has a particular lightness and joy which makes it stand out in an exhibition which is overall rather intense.
Teenage Wildlife, 2003, Cecily Brown. The final room of the exhibition is Identity, Self and Representation and includes work by Jenny Savile, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Cecily Brown. Although I like some of the works, and in particular this loose, fun and flirtatious work by Cecily Brown it feels like an afterthought to the overall exhibition – a sudden worry that female artists were grossly under-represented. Although some of the work is good its positioning here does neither the artists nor the exhibition a service. Let’s have an exhibition of contemporary figurative painting by female artists and give them centre stage, not a quick glimpse on the way out.