All Too Human
For a little personal context, I met up with a 17-year long, online friend at the ‘All too Human’ exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery. It was a well chosen exhibition. Happily, we didn’t miss a beat and a close online friendship begun when the web was pretty much ‘wild-west’ (and ‘Henry’ was a very new website) continued into the corporeal dimension. It was just as if we’d both walked out of computer screens and into each other’s material world.
So, being surrounded by canvases swelling with flesh and curves and resonating with the trials and tribulations of our mortal coil was a perfect meeting ground.
Intense human experience and 100 years of British figurative painting are just two of the themes in the collection of canvases that are All Too Human.
The exhibition’s star artists would have to be Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon though extraordinary works of lesser known artists make it far more compelling and illustrate the changing attitudes to art and the artist in British society.
image: 'Portrait' (1962) Francis Bacon Courtesy of the Estate of Francis Bacon and Tate Britain
Bacon’s work is often identified with existentialism, provocatively anxiety-inducing and vulnerable. Bacon seems to convey figures that are almost trapped by their physicality and much has been made of his gestural brushwork that highlight’s this engagement with the material side of life, much like the famous imprints of sculptor Giacometti. His men frequently can’t get out of the way of their penises – which was often the case in Bacon’s own complicated sado-masochistic private life – and frequently seem trapped in loneliness. Mind you, so are his depictions of dogs and baboons and other animals that he monumentalised in paint. The artist Frank Auerbach inferred that London art was chugging along in a fairly unremarkable fashion when in walked Francis Bacon “picking his nose” and changing the figurative art scene forever.
image: 'Girl With a White Dog' (1950-1) by Lucien Freud. Courtesy of Tate Britain
Similarly, Freud’s models impress us with a vulnerablel depth within the physicality of his painterly style. A thing of flesh, blood, bosom and dog in this painting ‘Girl with a White Dog’, while later works of this artist illustrates how Freud’s application of brushwork and paint became, like Bacon's brush work, more expressionistic as he matured. (*I remember reading the curatorial accompaniment to a Rembrandt exhibition in LA’s Getty Museum many years ago where two suggestions were made. The first was similar to my note above, that Rembrandt’s more primal application of paint in a self-portrait of his later life was to represent more effectively the inner turmoil of this great painter at a difficult period. The second suggestion was that his eyesight was failing!) We can feel reasonably secure that both Bacon and Freud’s evolving painterly approaches were to technically convey an inner reality.
image: image: 'Portrait of Leigh Bowery' (1991) by Lucien Freud. Courtesy of Tate Britain
One critique summed up the beginning of the century of British painterly works as ‘muscular’ – essentially starting as a movement of male artists, only to encompass women artists as the century drew to a close.
image: 'In the Company of Women' (1997) by Paula Rego. Courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art and Tate Britain
The tender care depicted in Paula Rego’s ‘The Company of Woman’ (1997) where the female figures in Rego’s work are caring for an incapacitated male family member is obvious in all the complexity and sadness involved in such an asymmetrical relationship.
Jenny Saville’s ‘Reverse’ is another perfect example of a canvas that resonates with the pain of life. Saville’s brush work of this burn victim’s portrait goes far beyond photo realism to give the viewer a suggestion of the human state far more evocative than a snapshot.
image: 'Reverse' (2002-3) by Jenny Saville Courtesy of the artist, Gagosian and Tate Britain
All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life will stay with you.
Tate Britain until August 27