‘All too human, Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life’ at Tate Britain, begins by following British painting after the Second World War. At this time in our history rumours about what had happened during the Holocaust were trickling into the media. During this period many books and essays were written as people tried to come to terms with what had taken place. This experience encouraged intellectuals to look inwards and ask hard questions about the purpose of human existence.
It was complexing to hear about the atrocities and then to consider how humans could behave in such a way. The central theme of this exhibition looked at what British representational painting achieved during this period. Artists including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer, Alberto Giacometti, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, R. B. Kitaj and David Bomberg amongst others explored whether painting life as it is had any answers. They took on the battle through the depiction of the figure, the flesh and the surrounding. The painters were asking, how after this experience, could art depict man with any conviction.
The lead curator Elena Crippa, and assistant curator Laura Castagnini from Tate Britain, laid out the show in chronological order. The hanging of the show highlights how the artists were influencing each other. The relationships and rivalries between teachers, mentors and friendships runs throughout this exhibition. The whole show contains approximately 100 works tracing the startling impact of this shocking time and the coming effect on following generations.
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In the first room, I was drawn to the works of David Bomberg and Stanley Spencer. David Bomberg painted the rugged landscape of worn-torn cities capturing the light on structure and scenery. With his speciality handling of paint he tries to get a grip on the subject, simplifying what he saw. He records memories and emotional states in almost abstract shapes. Meanwhile there is forcefulness of the work of Spencer. He paints a representation of the life, of a person in the flesh. The direct and honest painting opens up the sitter to the viewer. The painting becomes about looking more deeply at the painting itself and the process of applying it.
Freud, ‘In Girl with White Dog by Lucian Freud’, 1950-1 sees life for the mystery it is. Freud highlights the estrangement and coldness of the body. He once said, ‘I want the paint to work as flesh does.’ It indeed does that under his intense observation. The romance is undoubtedly removed, and there is a feeling of distress in the compelling moment of the life of his sitter.
In Frank Auerbach’s painting, ‘Head of Jake,’ 1997 Auerbach tries to find a new way to depict life and capture the horrifying experience. He uses shapes and colours as symbolism to show what he saw. He created a vibrant, profound visual language that extends beyond the outer appearance. There is deep emotional charge in thick impasto style penetrating loss and depths of physical structures into evidence of the forgotten moments.
A lot of the work in this exhibition is influenced by the existentialist view that we live to suffer. Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud,’ 1964 depicts going beyond surviving and suffering through painting. Bacon sees art as “about trying to make something out of the chaos of existence.” He looks into the human condition like we are carcasses. He focuses on our alienation and disorientation of the visible world to stir emotions and tell the truth about the darkness of human characteristics.
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At the end of the exhibition after seeing many great revealing and fascinating works of art, I felt I had learnt something about our purpose as humans in this world. For me, this exhibition highlights our existence while words can only fail to define it. When words are used to try and explain the physical experience they often come up short. Painting and art, in general, adds to our understanding in a substantial and meaningful way. Any outcome to these big questions without art is missing a truly more profound understanding.
The show concludes with a Lynette Yiadom-Boakye painting, ‘The Host Over a Barrel’ 2014 and Celia Paul ‘Painter and Model,’ 2012. Yiadom-Boakye invites the viewer to construct their own view of what she sees and ask questions about what painting is. While Paul’s meditative self-portrait captures herself as an artist contemplating and scrutinising her own form and presence as a painter of life.
I thoroughly enjoyed what this exhibition says about the human experience. This exhibition to me says yes to life. It questions life’s purpose and is like going into therapy. I would be interesting to know what the impact would be on an individual who has lost his way in life and whether they would say yes to life after visiting the show.