REVIEW: All Too Human at the Tate Britain

 

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Disjointed, but with some show stoppers. You can’t miss seeing Bacon and Freud supported by Kossof, Spencer, Saville, Paul (and one lonesome Giacometti) at the Tate Britain. Curator Elena Crippa has got some marvellous paintings, but arranged rather oddly—might that be the point?

On entering the galleries, you’re struck by Stanley Spencer’s arresting portraits of arch-manipulatress, Patricia Preece, which were painted in 1933 and 1935. Aistè Ga, who’d graciously agreed to accompany me after our review of Picasso at the Tate Modern, gazed admiringly at the 'dominating and powerful looking’ woman. Indeed, Pam Gem’s Stanley (1996) dramatization of Spencer and Preece’s unconsummated relationship won an Olivier Award in 1997. She not only convinced Spencer to divorce his wife, Hilda, but also sign over his house to Preece so that she could live there with her partner, Dorothy Hepworth. Spencer, with Preece ‘working’ as his agent/manager, almost went bankrupt paying for both Hilda and Preece (and Hepworth, whose paintings Preece sold under her own name).

 Spencer's  Patricia Preece  (1933) © Estate of Stanley Spencer / Southampton City Art Gallery

Spencer's Patricia Preece (1933) © Estate of Stanley Spencer / Southampton City Art Gallery

Aistè (somewhat unnervingly) likes this story and assumes (perhaps correctly) that Spencer wasn’t so much a victim as a perverted eccentric who’d just so happened to have met his match in Preece. Whatever the truth of Spencer-Preece, they’re convincing portraits of a convincing woman. But Spencer, alongside Walter Richard Sickert, Chaïm Soutine and David Bomberg, serve merely as the ante-chamber for the Francis Bacons and Lucien Freuds of the show.  

You’re presented with Bacon almost immediately—along with one lonesome sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, whose inclusion irks Aistè. (She’s too close to properly view the Bacons, but can’t move further away for fear of tripping over the Giacometti.) She gazes at Study of Velázquez (1950) and the sinister green of Study for a Figure VI (1956-7) which seem to oppress the vulnerable-seeming Giacometti’s Woman of Venice IX (1956) that occupies the floor between the Bacons.

 Francis Bacon's  Study for a Figure VI  (1956-7) © Estate of Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon's Study for a Figure VI (1956-7) © Estate of Francis Bacon

We’re taken aback, however, moving into the next room by F.N. Souza, whose inclusion is deemed ‘laughable’[i] by Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times. Elena Crippa, curator, suggests that ‘[l]ike Bacon, Souza painted in a very gestural, immediate way, and referenced religious themes. His images are also ones of desire and intense sexuality, where the subject is at once an object of love and desire, but also of abjection.’[ii] One suspects that this reasoning is rather post-curatorial-factum…  

You’re in for something completely different in the next room: the ‘analytical gaze’ of William Coldstream and his acolytes at the Slade School. Coldstream’s Seated Nude (1952-3) apparently took some sixty sittings, each lasting an hour-and-a-half. The Tate helpfully suggests that this was a ‘struggle to pin down an ever-changing reality.’ If so, it wasn’t really successful. The exhibition’s introductory spiel states that it ‘explores how artists in Britain have stretched the possibilities of paint in order to capture life around them,’ but these paintings capture nothing vital. Instead, they’re strangely cadaverous. We’re saved, however, by Girl with Kitten (1947) and Girl with a White Dog (1950-1) by the same Freud who was employed by Coldstream at the Slade.

We’re then presented with Frank Aurbach and Leon Kossof, whose Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon (1971) is one of the show’s best paintings, before coming across Freud once again. It’s almost 30°C outside the gallery in the afternoon sun, but these paintings are imbued with that cold, harsh, palette that typifies Freud. It’s too incongruous for Aistè, who thinks that Two Women (1992) is very depressing.

 Lucian Freud's  Two Women  (1992) © Estate of Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud's Two Women (1992) © Estate of Lucian Freud

We moved swiftly on before arriving at our favourite work of the show, Bacon’s Triptych (1974-77) which deals with the death of George Dyer. Here, Dyer struggles like some doomed Atlas. First, with the black umbrella on the limbo-like beach that forms the paintings’ setting. But then, defeated, he half-slumps, half-genuflects toward an elevator shaft-like void. If you go for one single work, go for this, which sold for £26.3 million at Christie’s in 2008.

We tear ourselves away and past the Michael Andrews, R.B. Kitaj and Paula Regos to the final room comprising works by Celia Paul, Cecily Brown, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Jenny Saville. You can’t but feel for Brown and Yidadom-Boakye, but especially Paul’s Artist and Model (2012) which appears even more sombre and mournful besides Saville’s gargantuan self-portrait. Again, this is one of the highlights of the exhibition.

 Jenny Saville's  Reverse  (2002-3) © Jenny Saville and Larry Gagosian

Jenny Saville's Reverse (2002-3) © Jenny Saville and Larry Gagosian

I’ve written this review room-by-room; consequently, it’s as disjointed as the curating. Karen Wright’s review in the Independent asks: ‘Where are the quirky distinctive voices of painters like Rose Wylie and Chantal Joffe, the wonderful portraitists like Catherine Goodman and if you make the strange choice to include one Giacometti, why not open the doors fully to other figurative sculptors?’[iii] Waldemar Januszczak’s in the Times questions Crippa’s inclusion of Soutine, ‘who lived and worked in Paris; has no connection with London; never came here, as far as I know.’[iv] Moreover, ‘Giacometti was Swiss. He never worked in Britain. What is this,’ continues Janusczak, ‘pin the tail on the donkey?’[v] Wullschlager bemoans the omission of Hockney.[vi]

And yet, I wonder whether this is all purposeful. It’s nigh-on-impossible to take a single overwhelming point away from this exhibition. Save that British painting owes much to non-Brits and incorporates works (painting, sculpture, photography, writing) that comes from other sources and just so happens to make it here, for some reason. But Crippa is also very honest here, the story of “British” art since whenever isn’t so easy to curate, narrate, but there’s lots going on at least.

You’ll have to cough up £19.50 for tickets, but those aged 16-25 can register for Tate Collective and get tickets for only £5. We’ll finish by recapitulating our scores and the reasoning behind them: 4/5 stars from me for an instructive and challenging—if occasionally, unwieldy—exhibition that’ll delight lovers of Freud and Bacon; but only 2/5 stars from Aistè for Crippa’s perplexing arrangement that lacks a common thread running from beginning to end. But perhaps, she admits, that’s the point of it all.

[i] Jackie Wullschlager, ‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life — unmissable but infuriating’, The Financial Times, <https://www.ft.com/content/0423941a-1c74-11e8-aaca-4574d7dabfb6> [accessed, 5 July, 2018].  

[ii] ‘Curator Interview: Bacon. Freud and a Century of Painting Life at Tate Britain’, <https://www.christies.com/features/All-Too-Human-Bacon-Freud-and-a-Century-of-Painting-Life-at-Tate-Britain-8946-1.aspx> [accessed, 5 July, 2018].  

[iii] Karen Wright, ‘All Too Human – Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life, Tate Britain, London, review: It all seems a bit too dutiful and sombre’, Independent, < https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/all-too-human-review-francis-bacon-lucian-freud-tate-britain-a8229561.html> [accessed, 5 July, 2018].  

[iv] Waldemar Januszczak, ‘Art review: All Too Human — Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life at Tate Britain’, The Times, <https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/waldemar-januszczak-art-review-all-too-human-bacon-freud-and-a-century-of-painting-life-at-tate-britain-h7kgzh99r> [accessed, 5 July, 2018].   

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Jackie Wullschlager, ‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life — unmissable but infuriating’, The Financial Times, <https://www.ft.com/content/0423941a-1c74-11e8-aaca-4574d7dabfb6> [accessed, 5 July, 2018].  

D.S. Graham