Melanie and Me Swimming

The All too human experience at Tate Britain

Where can you go and see Freud, Bacon, Rego and Auerbach all under one roof? Tate Britain’s ‘All Too Human’ captures the intimacy of life throughout the 20th Century in the idiosyncratic gestures of these renowned artists.

As I walked into this show, into the first room ‘The Raw Facts of Life’, I was struck by how little I knew about the early, pioneering 20th Century generation of artists. Bomberg, Sickert, Soutine – these were audacious artists of their time with a fearless approach to the handling of paint and choice of subject matter. They captured the spirit of painting, in a very loose and freeing way; seeking to make their mark and create something new and fresh with this traditional medium.

This fresh exuberance rubbed off on the following breed of artists, who became renowned for their bold expressions and unique styles. Francis Bacon was one such artist who played with the conventions of painting. It was an exciting time for artists living and working in post-war London and he became central to the brewing artistic scene in Soho. There were a lot of Bacon’s on show, including 3 important works brought together for the first time in over 3 decades.


But this lesser known piece ‘Figure in a Mountain Landscape’ (below) stood out to me. All I can say is that, unequivocally, it creeped me the fuck out. Perhaps more than it should have. Like studying an inkblot test, I’m sure everyone interprets this painting differently. The title helps with this piece, as it suggests to the viewer to go looking for a  figure in this mountainous landscape. For me, I can see a dark and sinister presence at the center of the painting, with an exaggerated curved back. I can also see this looming figure reaching out to a young girl. Yep, creepy. A dark crevasse in the distant hills adds to the disturbing scene. Not that Bacon’s images are anything less than disturbing, sometimes horrifying in fact. His ‘Study After Velquez’ is somewhat haunting, guttural, and beautiful, all at the same time.

frances bacon
‘Figure in a Mountain Landscape’, Frances Bacon – 1956

As I moved through the centuries, into the modern world, the London art schools impress on you to study artists’ living, working and breathing London, like none before them. We see Coldstream’s influence beyond the Slade, and Saint Martin’s School of Art graduates Auerbach and Kossof’s distinctively stylistic approach to the cityscape. They encapsulated the essence of the city, over-spilling with energy and noise, but not neglecting their own version and vision of the human figure; the significance of what it means to be human in a vast, yet congested landscape. Kossof’s ‘Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon’ is a painting that perfectly captures the energy and noise expected from a room full of children at the local swimming pool.

‘Children’s Swimming Pol, Autumn Afternoon’, Leon Kossof – 1971

From the concrete, collective bustling space that surrounds us to one man and his sitter in the artists’ escape of the studio. Lucian Freud painted life through the people around him, and shows us a personal fragment of his own timeline. Like most successful artists’, he has a unique and distinctive style, but as this exhibition highlights, was highly developed and experimented with throughout his career.

Early on he was influenced by Surrealism, but began a realist portrait style, similar to the 1920’s German painting tradition of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). We feel a cold, sharp intensity from the ‘Girl with a Kitten’, which is one of eight portraits that Lucian Freud made of his first wife, Kathleen Garman. In ‘Girl with a White Dog’ we see a more linear, highly detailed style of painting. Make sure you take closer look at the dog when you see this in the flesh. It’s incredible.

Freud was a very private man, and this isolation and alienation of the world, plays out psychologically in his work. It was much about the studio he inhabited than the people he painted. From using small brushes, he moved onto larger, coarser brushes that allowed Freud to push and sculpt the flesh, creating large gestural marks and densely applying paint. Freud’s position as an artist to paint his subjects looking down at them and from a distance, gives us a sombre sense that human life, our existence, is a lonely one.

The exhibition ends on a high with a bit of Michael Andrews, Paula Rego and a stark, unforgiving portrait from Jenny Saville. I don’t want to give too much away, but these last rooms were my favourite. Andrews delivers poignancy through his beautifully crafted depiction of social relationships; Rego brings women to the fore, explicitly showing patriarchal power in her large scale paintings; and to Saville and her contemporaries, who tie this historic exhibition together, seeing the human figure with a contemporary eye.

jenny saville
‘Reverse’, Jenny Saville – 2002-3

‘All Too Human’ runs until the 27 August at Tate Britain.

Banner image: ‘Melanie and me Swimming’, Michael Andrews – 1978-79

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