Wednesday 14 March 2018

All Too Freudian, All Too Baconian

The other day I dropped in on the All Too Human exhibition at Tate Britain, an exhibition subtitled Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life. It certainly lives up to the first part of the subtitle, treating us to Bacon and Freud in quantity. As I take little pleasure in the works of either – so ugly, so grotesque, whatever their technical merits or 'importance' – this was for me the weak point of the exhibition (though I did enjoy Freud's uncharacteristically tender little portrait of his mother, and I rather like Bacon's Dog). So I was hoping for better things from the 'Century of Painting Life' (whatever that means).
 It turned out to be an odd selection of pictures and artists linked, for the most part, by nothing very much apart from being broadly figurative. As if in recognition of this incoherence, the curators make strenuous efforts to construct a connective thesis where it might have been more useful to provide a little more basic information about the artists and works concerned.
 The first room contains a few works by Sickert, Spencer, Bomberg (including a fine self-portrait) and, for some reason, Soutine. The second plunges us into Bacon (with a link to Giacometti), and the third is devoted to F.N. Souza, whose works look to me uncomfortably like the kind of garish Sixties kitsch that turns up in charity shops. The next room brings in William Coldstream and the Slade, and includes a couple of paintings I wouldn't have minded taking home: an early still life (with Delft jar) by Euan Uglow [right], and an orange tree (in a pot) by Coldstream himself.
After this, Bomberg reappears, along with some of his pupils, including Auerbach, Kossoff and Dorothy Mead (of whom I'd have liked to see more). A room full of glutinously impasted paintings of London scenes by Kossoff and Auerbach is followed by more Freud, including several of his huge and revolting nudes – and then comes another room of Bacons, but which time I was wondering if I was going to find anything in this exhibition to lift my spirits.
 The answer came in the following room, which contained just three paintings by Michael Andrews and three by R.B. Kitaj, each of which gave me more aesthetic pleasure than the whole of the rest of the exhibition. Andrews is represented by two large group portraits (more evocations than representations) taken from Soho life – The Colony Room and The Deer Park – and by Melanie and Me Swimming [below], a painting that transforms a holiday snap into a potent and touching image of human frailty, of the preciousness and precariousness of life and love.  Of the Kitajs, it was a joy to see To Live In Peace (The Singers) [above], especially on a cold grey March day, and to let the eye wander over the densely packed, richly coloured surfaces of The Wedding and Cecil Court (The Refugees), the centre of London's second-hand book trade viewed through the prism of Jewish history and yiddish theatre. Both Andrews and Kitaj are artists whose work is due a proper reappraisal – a joint retrospective would be a good thing. I'd certainly go and see it.
 All Too Human is rounded off by a room full of Paula Rego – easy to admire, hard to enjoy, impossible to live with – and a room of works by younger artists in the figurative tradition, as if to demonstrate that, despite everything, it's still going strong.


  1. Wow, that's sparked many interests. Thanks. I saw an exhibition of Bacon's work last year in Treviso on an excursion from Venice. Have to say I find his ability to convey psychological realities arresting and fascinating.

  2. Perhaps you've seen this Nige.

  3. A few further thoughts on Bacon and Freud. Bacon's work is hellish, violent and frightening but so was Dante's Inferno which is great because of the execution, the poetic power, the imagination etc
    On the subject of the disgusting and revolting, I've just completed Leo Damrosch's biography of Swift which devotes a chapter to "The Disgusting Poems" also mentioning Gulliver's revulsion at seeing Brobdingnagian maids' blotchy, pimply skin close-up which makes me think of Freud's nudes. The Damrosch chapter examines the "problem" of Swift's disgusting material with comments and 'diagnoses' from the likes of Geoffrey Hill and DH Lawrence. Damrosch seems to conclude that it was to do with Swift's painful awareness of the "alarming vulnerability of the human body" and of mortality. As with 'Description of a City Shower' Swift showed reality, and the human condition, as it is and in its entirety. Perhaps that is what Freud does? Perhaps this aspect of Swift is not your cup of tea.

  4. Thanks for the link Guy - I wish I'd seen that exhibition.
    I must admit that as a grubby schoolboy, it was the 'disgusting' Swift that first drew me in (by way of a parodic essay by Aldous Huxley, The Excremental Vision). However they are more of a 'problem' in Swift that the locus of his genius, and I cling to the old-fashioned notion that the business of art (especially
    visual art) is to create beauty, and that there is lasting (even eternal?) value in beauty.

  5. Of course there is value in beauty. Perhaps, though, the beauty can reside, in Swift's case, in the subjection of such content to well tested forms rather than remaining as mere coarseness. Indeed there is a certain pleasure in the interplay between the verse form and the content. A comic and bathetic pleasure in the contrast between the base content and the elegant mock pastoral form (using names like Strephon and Corinna etc). Isn't that what he's doing very consciously and deliberately in 'The Ladies' Dressing Room' etc? Isn't that part of his wit and his entertainment? In the visual arts I would subscribe to the 'Fleurs du Mal' ( wasn't Baudelaire a very good art critic?) principle also as, if not, you might exclude some Chardin, Goya, etc. Are Breughel's 'Slaughter of the Innocents', 'The Rape of the Sabine Women' 'The Raft of the Medusa', or Rembrandt's 'Rape of Lucrece' not beautiful? They are all unflinching in the treatment of not very beautiful subject matter but transformative by the means of art. I guess you don't think Freud succeeds there.

  6. It's the sheer one-note relentlessness of Freud and Bacon that gets me. If Swift had written nothing else, Breughel, Goya etc had painted nothing else, they'd have been quite minor figures. And in the case of the paintings you mention, ugly things are being made beautiful, whereas Freud in particular takes something potentially beautiful and compulsively makes it ugly, and so much of Bacon seems a kind of forced and melodramatic distortion. Neither artist, for all their talent, rings true to me.

  7. As often, Nige, your words contribute to my education and give me much to think about.