‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life’ at Tate Britain is about art based on everyday human experience. A very British preoccupation, you might say, if the story of twentieth century painting in this country is anything to go by. Unfortunately, despite its interesting premise, the exhibition is marred by some very questionable curating decisions, many of which I found completely baffling.
For a start, although the show claims to span ‘a century of art making’, it doesn’t really deal with the first half of the twentieth century at all, unless you count the rather perfunctory selection, including paintings by Walter Sickert and Stanley Spencer, in the first room. The real starting point is actually Bacon’s brooding ‘Figure in a Landscape’ (1945). A better subtitle might have been ‘Paintings by the School of London’, because, in addition to Bacon and Freud, the big names here are all post-war London artists: David Bomberg, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews and Ron Kitaj.
Another caveat that I should enter, because it’s not entirely clear from the title, is that although this is a show about painting ‘life’, it’s not really about painting from life as such. Freud, of course, painted directly from the model but Bacon, for example, worked almost exclusively from photographs. True, there’s a room of carefully-composed paintings by William Coldstream, Euan Uglow and the Slade school, whose traditional methods Bomberg dismissed as ‘the hand and eye disease’. Mostly, though, the emphasis here is on the conceptual rather than the perceptual.
The selection of artists in the show is frequently bizarre. Where is David Hockney? The only possible explanation I can think of for his absence (he isn’t even mentioned) is Hockney’s lack of a London connection – not a recent one, at any rate. Or perhaps Tate Britain thinks we’ve had enough of him after all the hype surrounding last year’s retrospective. Equally odd is the decision to devote an entire room to the work of the Indian artist F. N. Souza, who worked in London for a while after the war (he painted a bit like Jean Dubuffet) before moving to New York in 1967. Without wishing to sound chauvinistic, why include Souza and not, for the sake of argument, Richard Hamilton, John Minton or Carel Weight? Sticking my neck out still further, why does the final segment of the show, covering the last thirty years, include only women artists: Paula Rego, Jenny Saville, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye? Why no Julian Opie or Peter Doig or Gary Hume?
Otherwise, Bacon and Freud predictably take centre stage, cropping up not only in each other’s paintings but also in other people’s – Michael Andrews’s ‘Colony Room I’ (1962), for example, although there’s no mention of this on the wall label. The big draw is supposedly Bacon’s seldom-exhibited portrait of Freud from 1964 but I find it rather a comical thing, almost a caricature, reminding you that sometimes Bacon could produce thunderously bad art. Thankfully, there are much better works by Bacon elsewhere in the show.
Freud gets a huge room to himself. The overall effect is undoubtedly impressive, although I still prefer the paintings he did before he discovered hog hair brushes, including the two portraits of Kitty Garman, his first wife (‘Girl with a Kitten’ and ‘Girl with a White Dog’), both of which crop up earlier. Kenneth Clark would have agreed, once telling Freud as much to his face (that took guts). Freud never spoke to him again.
The true creative genius here, though, in my opinion, is Bomberg, and this isn’t the first time he’s stood out for me in a survey show of twentieth century British art. Even before he left the Slade in 1913 Bomberg was producing stunningly original paintings with the merest nod to contemporary Cubism and Futurism. Between the wars he went off to paint landscapes in Spain and ‘Toledo from the Alcazar’ (1929), shown here, is a knockout. Both in his own work and in his later teaching at the Borough Polytechnic Bomberg was an advocate of ‘painterly’ values, and his importance in this regard to Auerbach, Kossoff and indeed Freud emerges very clearly in ‘All Too Human’. (I can’t illustrate his work because the organisers obviously don’t think it’s important enough to be included among their authorised images).
Pallant House Gallery in Chichester recently held a retrospective of Bomberg’s work but the Tate hasn’t had a major show on him since 1988. If anyone epitomises the search for truth through painting – the hallmark, you might say, of the School of London – for me it’s Bomberg. He deserves to be up there with Sickert, Spencer, Bacon and Freud.