A Big Umbrella: “All Too Human” at Tate Britain
All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life at Tate Britain
February 28 to August 27, 2018
Millbank, London SW1
No matter how big the curator’s umbrella, some of the artists huddled under it in “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life” seem destined to slip on London‘s rain-soaked pavement. In Tate Britain’s blockbuster summer show, which revolves around London-based painters, there’s an unruly range of representational imagery. So missteps are not surprising. What is surprising is how much power huddles beneath this exhibition‘s leaky umbrella.
One huddler is a Swiss artist who never lived in Great Britain. Why is this show’s only sculpture even here? Granted, Giacometti inspired several key players in All Too Human, but so too did many other artists who are not included. Perhaps Woman of Venice IX (1956), whose feet are almost ten times larger than her head, kicked and stomped her way in.
There’s a high voltage figure/ground sizzle jolting many of the paintings in this show. It runs from the group of complex compositions of R. B. Kitaj, an American expatriate who lived in London for almost forty years, to the turbulent canvases of Cecily Brown, a Londoner presently living in America. A more probable justification for including Woman of Venice IX, therefore, is that she melds place and person. Textured like tree bark, earth, and rocks, she is landscape incarnate. I never thought about a standing-straight-up figure so clearly in this way before — with an earthy surface, a faraway head, a middle ground body, and foreground feet.
Giacometti’s figure-ground “Woman” stirs the center of a gallery filled with portraits by Francis Bacon. Eyeing her, a prowling, ravenous Dog (1952) growls beneath its breath and saliva. Female as food. I couldn’t decide if the erect figure was scared stiff or impervious.
Mostly, Bacon’s cast of characters are “not only far from divine but all too human,” a phrase of Friedrich Nietzsche’s that provides this exhibition with its title. Curator Elena Crippa’s choices are often grippingly rude and unpredictable, as are some of the nonhuman subjects included here, like Bacon’s dog and a bloodthirsty baboon.
While there are no feral animals in Brown’s Teenage Wildlife (2003), two youths – the male dressed, the female naked – peek out amidst tangled flora. The zestful rhythms juicing the painting’s skin revel forward and back, as shapes and spaces pop and recede, a marked difference in speed and spirit from Bacon’s downbeat Portrait (1962), where a physiological figure/ground flip-flop prevails. Internal organs of Bacon’s sometime muse and lover, Peter Lacey — who once, in a fit of fury, flung the artist through a plate glass window — appear outside the man’s ripped-open body.
Emotional darkness colors Jenny Saville’s Reverse (2002-03). Saville literally overturns conventions of self-portraiture. The bruises and blood — even coating her teeth — make you want to look away. But her unblinking, glassy-eyed stare is riveting. After getting used to seeing this battered, in-your-face face in magazines and on computer screens, it was good to be reminded how overwhelming this nearly eight-foot visage can be when viewed in person.
Celia Paul’s self-portrait, Painter and Model (2012), like Saville’s Reverse, breaks from traditional, male-gaze norms in respect to its gray, utterly unflattering portrayal. We sense blood and bruises beneath the skin rather than on it. Freud’s more comely portrait of her graces the front cover of the exhibition’s catalogue.
The psychological bruise of loss is the subject of Paul’s Family Group (1984-86), painted shortly after her father’s death. Highlighted in her checker-patterned skirt, the mother looks the same age as her daughters, and there are no younger or older sisters; this is time viewed through the prism of grief and gobs of pigment.
Family crowds a small bed. Survivors on a life raft, mom anchors the middle. Each remains in her isolated space, not sharing so much as a glance or word. Yet the group feels closely knit, drawing aid from its strength-in-numbers union.
Many of the artists in All Too Human were good friends. Some painted one another. Lucian Freud and Celia Paul were lovers. Others enjoyed a teacher/student relationship: Sickert taught Bomberg; Bomberg taught Auerbach and Kossoff; William Coldstream taught Paula Rego, Euan Uglow, and Michael Andrews; Freud taught Paul. It’s an impressive litany of begat-ing, biblical-sounding lineage. Yet, while friends like Auerbach and Kossoff are of like mind, brush, and chops, how they relate to the brilliant Sir Stanley Spencer and Walter Richard Sickert, or the lesser lights of F.N. Souza, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and the one photographer in the show, John Deakin, beats me.
I appreciate that Auerbach and Kossoff were inspired by (among many others) the Belarus-born Soutine, who lived his adult life in Paris — never in Great Britain. Was he Giacometti’s plus-one? Or vice versa? Neither RSVP’ed. Either way, for me, these great artists are welcome party-crashers.
This show boasts a trove of first-rate works by first-rate artists, Paula Rego and her multi-figure narrative compositions ranking high among them. They are overwhelming in scale, skill, and heart, her stories breathtaking, even as they keep us guessing.
Despite the “figure painting” way All Too Human is being promoted, there are numerous still lifes, as well: Examples by William Coldstream and Euan Uglow stand out. So too do the landscapes and (rainy) cityscapes of painters who seem not only to have traded in their smocks for raincoats, but their brushes for shovels, slathering simple recognizability into scabrous mystery in the process.
Accordingly, the subject of much critical attention is what Freud said he wanted paint to work like: flesh. That’s where inside meets outside. Psychic skin. Where figure and ground merge.
Freud’s Sleeping by the Lion Carpet (1996) is a case in point. The artist seems smitten by his model’s nuanced skin colors. We’re seduced by the sensuousness of the encrusted pigments, as well as the savage scrutiny of the painter’s scientific eye.
The dozing Sue Tilley (or Big Sue as she is also known) and the huge canvas she commands are part of a delicate public/private blend playing out in a small chair. The model looks unfazed by the queens or kings of the jungle lounging behind her like kittens on a rug. (Or are they a pair of wild beasts poised to attack a pair of gazelles?) There’s a raw beauty of raw form here, dignity free of pretense.
While Freud’s reclining, little-footed Big Sue and Giacometti’s standing, big-footed, skinny Venetian represent different visions and looks, they share as much as they don’t. Forty years apart, both are ephemeral and earthy at once. Making their way through the museum’s rooms, they nod at other artistic sisters like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Celia Paul, who display little family resemblance.
Grand and idiosyncratic, this show includes all too human inconsistencies. Yet, a slew of powerful, brave, and unruly umbrella huddlers sometimes rise to realms not far from divine.