All Too Human

“Renaissance painters painted men and women making them look like angels. I paint for angels, to show them what men and women really look like.”
– F. N. Souza, 1962

Throughout history, artists have attempted, some more successfully than others, to represent the human figure. For centuries, the Renaissance influenced the angelic, pure forms that many have replicated, giving a false impression of the realities of human appearance. Historical portraits can be likened to the contemporary Photoshop mania where sitters or models dare not resemble anything less than perfect. However, within the last couple of centuries, radical thinkers and artists have challenged the rules with movements such as Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. Although originally sparking outrage or stubbornly ignored due to their supposed “bad taste”, artists have stretched the boundaries to try to capture the life they see around them.

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life, hosted by Tate Britain, explores the works of 20 artists in Britain from the early 20th-century to the present day. All 20 fall into what the general public would deem “modern art”, however, they use a variety of approaches. Some artists, hence the two mentioned in the exhibition’s strapline, may already be known to some visitors, but many will be new names. Whether abstract, minimalist or conceptual, each artist has moved away from the previously accepted methods of art to create a whole series of figurative paintings.

The exhibition is set out in a loose chronological order beginning with four painters who were working in Britain towards the beginning of the twentieth century. Confusingly, not only paintings of the human body are included in the display, however, they help to emphasise the style of each individual artist. David Bomberg (1890-1957), Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942), Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) and Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) inspired the generation of figurative painters that followed them. Despite all working during the same period, the four artists had different approaches from the way they handled paint to their subject matter. The scenes were influenced by their everyday lives, particularly the people and places that meant something to them. To quote Sickert, each artist was attempting to depict “the sensation of a page torn from the book of life.”

 

 

The second room in the exhibition (there are 11 in total) jumps straight to one of the key artists featured in All Too Human. This is, of course, the Irish-born painter, Francis Bacon (1909-92). Having left Ireland for London at the age of 16 and living through two World Wars, Bacon was a troubled soul who expressed his feelings of isolation and angst in his artwork. Bacon was also dealing with homosexuality in a world where it was not yet accepted.

Bacon’s paintings of the human figure were usually solitary and distressed, perhaps expressing the sense of loss after the devastation of war. As a result of the wars, the philosophical theory of existentialism rose and became associated with artists such as Bacon and Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), whose isolated figure sculpture stands alone in the centre of the room surrounded by Bacon’s paintings.

In essence, existentialism emphasises the importance of the individual and the freedom to develop through acts of their own will. It is perhaps due to this thinking or the increasing difficulty to believe in God or a higher power, that Bacon produced abstract pastiches of other artists’ paintings, particularly those of popes. One example is Study after Velázquez in which Bacon uses Diego Velázquez’s (1599-1660) portrait of Pope Innocent X to create a demonic-like figure screaming in an isolated, cheerless room.

Francis Bacon appears once again in a later room of the exhibition. Here it reveals his interest in portraiture and the lengths he went to collect sources from which to base his paintings. Bacon used a variety of photography and newspaper clippings to inspire him, often commissioning the photographer John Deakin (1912-72) to take specific portraits of people. Bacon’s outcomes never looked like the original photograph, however, they were vital as a starting point. Incidentally, Bacon’s first identified sitter, Study of  Portrait for Lucian Freud (1964), was in fact based on a photograph of Franz Kafka (1883-1924).

 

 

A contemporary of Bacon, the Indian artist Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), was also affected by the war and expressed his personal feelings within his artwork. His figurative paintings are simplified bold, swift strokes made with thick oil paints, which give a sense of movement as well as dark and distressing emotions.

Souza’s portraits are of a range of figures, including saints, businessmen and nudes. A few are inspired by biblical passages, for instance, Crucifixion (1959) and Jesus and Pilatus (1955-6). His abstract depiction of the human body removes the masks society hides behind to reveal the raw and complex emotional states underneath. Souza often used these strong emotions to express his feelings about the attitude towards different races: “I painted Negro in Mourning in London when the race riots flared. I personally think it is one of my best works – socialist realism maybe, Expressionism certainly. Moreover, Negro in Mourning is close to the bone of man because it is about the colour of skin.”

As well as portraits, this gallery contains a few cityscapes, which were also a favourite subject of the artist. Souza was a frequent traveller and visited many cities. It is thought that the complex, cubist-like paintings are a composition of memories and images of the places he encountered and his personal experience within these cities.

Other artists of the same period follow in the next few rooms of the exhibition and reveal different approaches to figurative art. William Coldstream (1908-87), for instance, painstakingly attempted to record reality by intensely scrutinising his subjects and measuring the locations of the key features in order to achieve the correct perspectives. Markings on the edges of the canvas can be seen where Coldstream had made his initial measurements.

David Bomberg (1890-1957), on the other hand, had a completely contrasting painting technique. As a tutor at the Borough Polytechnic in south London, he emphasised the importance of capturing the physical experience of the subject matter rather than merely the appearance. For Bomberg, art was about the process of applying paint to canvas, which can be seen in the works of some of his art students displayed here in the exhibition. The amount of paint applied to the canvases borders on excessive and creates a tactile as well as a visual outcome. This technique is a literal take on one of Francis Bacon’s insights into art: “the image is the paint and the paint is the image.”

 

 

As already mentioned, All Too Human is not an exhibition solely focused on the human body. Many of the paintings can explore what it is like to be human without needing to include a detailed portrait. Frank Auerbach (b.1931) and Leon Kossoff (b.1926) are two examples of artists whose approach to art focuses on alternative ways of engaging with reality. Although their style of painting differs, Auerbach and Kossoff both lived and worked in London and explore what it is like to be human in a modern and industrial society.

Both artist’s paintings are dynamic, play with light conditions, and reflect the mood of the setting or scene. The sharp, geometric lines that shape Auerbach’s Chimney in Mornington Crescent – Winter Morning (1991) imply a bleak, cluttered city life, which is a stark contrast to Leon Kossoff’s Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon (1971). The latter’s carefree brushstrokes, implying natural movement, convey a more pleasant experience.

 

 

Eventually, the exhibition reaches the second of the named artists in the title’s strapline, the grandson of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Lucian (1922-2011). Considering the size of the room Freud’s work is displayed in, he is perhaps the most celebrated of the 20 artists featured in this exhibition. A couple of his early works were shown in previous rooms in which he had laboriously approached with small brushes to achieve a smooth finish. The features on the faces of his models were usually abnormally large, particularly the eyes, however, by the 1960s, Freud’s method of painting changed completely.

From the 1960s until his death in 2011, Freud swapped his small brushes for thicker, bristly ones and applied paint to the canvas in a method more characteristic of a palette knife. Although Freud was less precise with his paint brushes, the final outcomes are far more realistic than his previous method.

The first painting visitors come across in Freud’s new style is a self-portrait. At the time it was painted, Freud was in his 40s and made no effort to romanticise his appearance. He focused heavily on his flesh and the contours of his face, which he positioned in an ungainly angle emphasised by his fist. This heavily textured style was employed in all his portraits regardless of who they were, their age and so forth.

Freud also began to paint full figures, particularly of naked men and women, in immodest positions. These are not the easiest of paintings to look at and may evoke disgust or embarrassment in many visitors. Yet, all Freud was attempting to do was confront reality, show the body simply as flesh and reveal the animalistic nature of the human body. As T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) stated in his poetry collection Four Quartets, “human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.”

Taking Freud’s portrait of Leigh Bowery (1991) as a less indecent nude painting, it is easier to understand his objective. Leigh Bowery (1961-94) was an unconventional gay performer in nightclubs and was usually recognised by his flamboyant dress sense, yet, this small portrait strips that all away. Bowery is painted asleep with his bald head resting on his left shoulder, evoking a feeling of vulnerability – a complete contrast to his public persona. Freud has uncovered the true human form beneath his everyday identity.

Freud predominantly uses the same setting for his portraitures – his sparsely-furnished studio – making each figure almost feel like an intrusion into his private space. On the other hand, this helps draw the eye to the model, whether naked or clothed and contrasts the complexities of human life with the simplicity of inanimate objects. These carefully constructed compositions are similar to the approaches of other artists, for example, David Hockney (b.1937) who, not only painted people in his studio, always used the same chair.

Interestingly, one painting within this display of Freud’s artwork is completely different and unexpected. Titled Two Plants (1977-80), this botanical painting contains no evidence of human life. The two plants, Licorice and Aspidistra, are painted in perfectionistic detail and look almost photographic. Its inclusion in this exhibition is entirely metaphorical; the plants are in various stages of growth and death, which can be used as an analogy for the human life cycle. “I wanted it to have a really biological feeling of things growing and fading and leaves coming up and others dying.”

 

Whilst Freud was looking at the realities of the human flesh, other artists were interested in the development of social relationships. Two examples are Michael Andrews (1928-95) and Ronald Brooks Kitaj (1932-2007) who, whilst approaching painting in vastly different ways, were both followers of Francis Bacon.

Kitaj’s works are often crowded and combine several scenes together. In his busy painting The Wedding (1989-93), Kitaj has amalgamated everything he witnessed during his marriage ceremony onto one canvas, conveying the hectic day and the heightened emotions experienced. Similarly, in Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees) (1983-4), Kitaj also merges several incidents. In the foreground, Kitaj has painted himself reclining on a chair in front of the London alleyway while various people and shop fronts with a personal association to the artist fill the background.

Michael Andrews, on the other hand, painted less busy scenarios, however, still manages to convey people’s behaviour and relationships with each other. Like Kitaj, Andrews has also produced paintings of friends, family or acquaintances, although, his depictions look far more realistic. One particularly striking canvas Melanie and Me Swimming, which Andrews finished in 1979, is based on a photograph of himself on holiday in Perthshire with his six-year-old daughter. Rather than including the rocks and details of the water, Andrews focused mostly on his body supporting Melanie as she learnt to swim, evoking a sense of fatherly love and protection.

 

Although women (mostly naked) have been the subject of many paintings in this exhibition, the actual lives of the female sex have been widely overlooked. The art world was historically a male-dominated profession and it is only in recent years that women have been able to challenge the preconceived ideas of womanhood. Paula Rego (b.1935) is one such artist who places women at the centre of her work. Whether a portrait or busy scene, women are presented in various moods and activities, proving that they are each their own individual person.

Whereas in the past women were depicted as pure, angelic-like creatures, Rego occasionally goes to the other extreme, illustrating women as animalistic, powerful individuals. In Bride (1994), the woman, complete with wedding gown, lies in an animal-like position, almost like a dog lying on its back. Although dogs are animals that can be trained into submission, Rego is making the point that women, like dogs, are also powerful beasts. To be human is to be a physical creature and not something to be worshipped or controlled by men.

Covering one wall of the gallery is Rego’s triptych in response to William Hogarth’s (1697-1764) Marriage a la Mode (1743-5). Hogarth’s series tells the story of an arranged marriage between an ill-matched pair whose lives come to an end prematurely as a result. In The Betrothal, Lessons and The Shipwreck (1999), Rego brings Hogarth’s scenario into the 20th century but reverses the roles of the parents so that it is the mothers arranging the doomed union. Rego expresses her feminist views by recreating the story to focus on female suffering and strength.

Although Paula Rego was the only key 20th-century female artist in the exhibition, the final room introduces four contemporary female painters who are continuing along the same lines as their predecessors to produce works that concentrate on identity and what it means to be human. Each artist has their own unique approach, however, the human figure is their main focus. Celia Paul (b.1959), Cecily Brown (b.1969), Jenny Saville (b.1970) and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b.1977) experiment with various processes of mark-making, colour palette and layout in their artworks. Brown, for example, prefers to be fluid in her application of paint, whereas the others are more precise and detailed.

Yiadom-Boakye of Ghanian descent concentrates on cultural identity but leaves the final outcomes with some ambiguity as to their purpose and meaning. With obscure titles, such as Coterie of Questions (2015), the artist invites the viewer to imagine the story behind the name and image. This brings in to question and challenges stereotypical views on race and identity.

Saville, on the other hand, is more like some of the older artists in the previous rooms, particularly Lucian Freud. She concentrates on the appearance of the flesh, refusing to shy away from the unsightly truths of the human body. The painting Tate Britain displays is a self-portrait, which is less shocking than some of her other works. Saville is particularly interested in painting wounded bodies and collects imagery of bruised skin and lacerations as inspiration. Reverse (2002-3) is a realistic representation of the human face, however, it is marred by the split lip and blood surrounding the mouth. Although a beaten up face may not be the average person’s prefered subject, Saville is successfully conveying the human body, emphasising our fragility and physical appearance.

With these four artists concluding the exhibition, All Too Human is a journey through a century of figurative painting. From its origins in the early 20th-century to the present day, the Tate Britain triumphantly reveals the determination artists have had to show humanity in its true form.

“Here are works of art that truly matter, in their humanity, courage, feeling, truth. Whatever it is that makes art profound, Kossoff and Auerbach, Rego and Andrews, Bacon and Freud have it. They are the true heroes of modern British art.”

– Jonathan Jones

Some artworks may be difficult to look at, some may disgust visitors, some may raise questions, some may inspire, but most importantly, they capture real life, real emotions and humanity at its most vulnerable. With a range of different styles, there are many interesting, beautiful and complex paintings to study that can either be taken at face value or considered more philosophically. All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is not only an art exhibition, it is a visual conversation about what makes us human.

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life will remain open to the public until 27th August 2018. Entry is £19.50 per person but under 12s may visit for free, however, be aware that some paintings may not be suitable for children. Tickets may be purchased on arrival at the gallery or can be bought in advance online.

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2 thoughts on “All Too Human

  1. Wow, so interesting and informative it’s another tour de force from Hazel.
    Consistently of a high quality Hazel continues to entertain her readers with refreshing honesty about the exhibitions she visits but always in a gentle and informed manner.
    Thank You Hazel for sharing, i eagerly await you next article.

  2. Pingback: Portraits at the Mall | Hazel Stainer

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