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All Too Human: A Review


A few weekends ago, I visited the Tate Britain’s ‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life’ exhibition - still showing until Monday 27th August 2018. The exhibition chronicles famous portrait artists of the last century (as well as some working from 2000 - present) including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and - a personal favourite of mine - Jenny Saville.

Choosing to showcase painters who capture the intimate and sometimes unsightly reality of the human body, All Too Human brings together an eclectic brood of artists across several generations and countries of origin. As well as figurative painting, a secondary nexus of this collection could be London – not only because many of the artists featured lived and worked in the capital, but also due to the fact that R.B. Kitaj and several of his ‘School of London’ colleagues appear in a throwback to his 1976 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery: ‘The Human Clay’.

I’d forgotten the impressive scale and design of the Tate Britain. I circled the entire building in the sunshine before making my way inside and down the stairs to the exhibition. On my way, I stopped in the Duveen Galleries to watch one of Anthea Hamilton’s vegetable people walking somnolently among the white tiled islands. What I really wanted to see was a Jenny Saville up close. I’d studied Saville’s work as part of an A-Level project a few years ago; apparently, she’s a popular choice for A-Level art students! Nevertheless, I was excited to see one of her infamously huge canvases IRL because I do feel a personal connection with her work. But first I was taken through a catalogue of Saville’s predecessors – figure and landscape painters who all reinterpreted the human body in their own unique way long before Saville was piling oil onto canvases.

The exhibition began with works by David Bomberg, Walter Sickert, Chaïm Soutine and Stanley Spencer who are proposed to have influenced the namesakes of the exhibition, Bacon and Freud. These artists were beginning to depart from the European tradition of figurative painting, whilst also focussing on putting “life” back into portrait art by creating a more sensual and textural impression of their subjects. Their works contain all the hallmarks of the School of London’s raw, almost expressionistic approach to painting - you can still smell the paint coming from Bomberg’s Toledo from the Alcazar even though it was finished 1929! The ghastly proportions of Stanley Spencer’s Patricia Preece (1933) also seem to make way for Lucian Freud’s somewhat disturbing incarnation of his wife in Girl with a White Dog (1950-1) and the frustrated eroticism of Euan Uglow’s Georgia (1973).


After the Second World War, certain artists continued to work in similar ways to Bomberg and Spencer, but were now starting to channel a sense of existentialist angst into the process: you can see this in Bacon and F.N Souza’s work. I made the mistake of painting on too big a canvas during my A-Level exam simply because that’s what Saville did. While I wasn’t able to manage such a big surface area, the opposite can be said of Bacon’s Study After Velázquez (1950), a huge portrait full of big and imaginative brushstrokes. Bacon uses all of the space to distort and distress the subject. Taking cues from earlier painters including Picasso and Goya, Bacon seems to take the figurative painting method one step further by imbuing his portraits with almost cartoon-like emotion. The blurred double-takes that obscure the face in works like Study for Figure VI (1956-7) and Study of a Baboon (1953) are somehow more expressive than anything in the National Portrait Gallery (#sorryboutit).

What struck me as I moved through the rooms of All Too Human was that these artists were thinking about the act of painting as much as they were observing their subject and recording him or her. From Bacon to Souza and Dennis Cressfield to Dorothy Mead, each and every work is thoughtfully composed in a way that is three-dimensional in its conceit. Souza’s Two Saints (After El Greco) (1965) practically looks like it was done in tar! This injection of subjectivity into the painting process allows the observer to understand a new layer (literally) of the work and project their emotion onto it.

Souza’s expressionistic paintings give way to a more exacting and analytical approach as advocated by William Coldstream, Euan Uglow and a young Lucian Freud. Freud’s Girl with a Kitten (1947) is stunning up close -  there is something akin to Tamara de Lempicka in its smooth perfect shading and fibrous detail. The portrait is also quite flat so the eye isn’t drawn to anything in particular, instead the whole scene is harmoniously in balance. What this exhibition does well is juxtapose artists who liberally use paint with those who pursue perfection. Freud’s work is in both camps. His 1960s portraits are the ones we all know, and represent a very different method in which paint becomes more layered, brush strokes are bigger and flesh seems to come alive. These paintings have a much more direct line pointing to Saville’s work, especially in the sense that both artists like to portray the human body in its most naked and often grotesque form.

Details from Jenny Saville,  Reverse , (2002-3).

Details from Jenny Saville, Reverse, (2002-3).


The last few rooms of All Too Human open up to depict female ideas about the human body, a refreshing change of pace from what had been a very male-dominated few galleries. These works also represent the younger generation of the figure painting movement, e.g. Celia Paul, Cecily Brown, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Saville. Looking back on earlier works, each artist embarks on a similar creative process to their forbears, yet they also seem to foreground contemporary ideas of identity in their work. Though these artists are experimenting with the realistic depiction of the figure in a way that suggests Bacon’s work, each portrait is charged with a renewed sensitivity towards the subject: from Cecily Brown’s kaleidoscopic dreamscapes revolving around female sexuality, to Yiadom-Boakye’s haunting portraits of no one black individual in particular, but a symbolic depiction of those bodies shut out of the Western artistic canon. And of course, there’s Jenny Saville.

Seeing Saville’s Reverse (2002-3) up close was definitely a transcendent experience for me. The marks and lines (see above) on the canvas seem totally independent, and yet they come together to conceive this wonderfully gestural and evocative portrait. Her approach to capturing the human body seems at once inquisitive yet almost sadistic, especially when you think of paintings like Stare (2004-5) and Torso 2 (2004). Her portrayal of female bodies is especially interesting. Saville has said she isn’t interested in passing any judgement on women’s bodies, and that ‘it was the idea of how bodies can be changed, and the stories of why they had changed, that fascinated her.’ Reverse is definitely a brilliant way to close the exhibition. The sheer size and impact of the piece is one thing, but that the painting also seems to capture the passion of Bacon’s work and the intimate nature of Freud’s paintings is excellent, whilst also representing the leaps and bounds that the human body has been on in figurative art these past 100 years.