Is it possible to curate an exhibition that truly captures the experience of life in paint? To span a generation of artists and in so doing demonstrate the power of figurative painting in the 20th and 21st century?
That’s certainly what Tate Britain’s landmark exhibition, ‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life’, intends to do and it’s hard to deny that it’s successful. The installation is ambitious, showcasing around 100 works by some of the most celebrated modern British artists. These include most prominently Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, along with Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, RB Kitaj, Leon Kossoff, Paula Rego, Jenny Saville and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
“I want the paint to work as flesh does,” said Freud, and there’s much in the rich sensuality and intimacy of both his and Bacon’s works, which seem at once viscerally honest and nakedly intimate, that contributes to that. Here we see artworks that capture some of Bacon’s relationship with photographer John Deakin, whose portraits of friends and lovers were often the starting point for Bacon’s work, including ‘Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne’ (1966). Francis Bacon aficionados and experts will also be excited to see rarities appearing here, some unseen for decades, including ‘Study for a Portrait of P.L.’ (1962).
Though much of Bacon’s subject matter throughout his career can feel brutal and alarming, it is nothing if not arresting and memorable. It’s refreshing, too, to see a thematic arrangement of work in this way, with earlier works by Bacon like ‘Study after Velazquez’ (1950) set alongside a sculpture by Giacometti, since both artists explored the enduring presence of isolated figures.
The exhibition also sheds light on the role of women artists in the traditionally male-dominated field of figurative painting. Paula Rego explores the condition of women in society and the roles they play over the course of their lives, while always referring to autobiographical events, as in ‘The Family’ (1988, see image above). Contemporary artists like Cecily Brown, Celia Paul, Jenny Saville (see image of ‘Reverse’, above) and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye work in dialogue with this tradition while also taking the painting of figures in new directions.
All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is curated at Tate Britain by Elena Crippa, Curator, Modern and Contemporary British Art, and Laura Castagnini, Assistant Curator. It is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue and a programme of talks and events in the gallery. The exhibition will tour to the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest later in 2018.