‘ALL TOO HUMAN’ AT TATE BRITAIN: PAINTINGS THAT MAKE THE ONLOOKER FEEL EMBEDDED WITHIN IT

‘All Too Human’ at Tate Modern takes its name from Nietzche’s homonymous book (1878) where a new kind of Man who doesn’t need to justify his actions through transcendental ideas is championed. This return to the materiality of the human can be, firstly, seen, a few years later, in the work of artist like Giacometti and Chaïm Soutine and later on in the so called ‘School of London’ amongst whose practitioners there are Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Leon Kossoff, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach and R.B.Kitaj.

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Sickert

The curatorial script intelligently follows both a chronological and a thematic criteria, mainly linked to issues of technique, colonialism and identity politics. Spanning from Sickert’s voyeurism to Lucien Freud who wanted ‘paint to function as skin’, this show is devoted to those artist who either conceived an idea of painting as in a state of becoming (Freud, Soutine, Bacon, Kosoff and Freud) or transformed the observation of the human body into a painfully meticulous and calculated process which is the case of Coldstream and Uglow to whom the curators dedicated one whole room (Room 4). In both cases the influence of Giacometti and Soutine is evident in the fact that all of them observe the sitter until they feel him or her. Painting a figure entails for them the materialisation of something that is felt in the body.

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Room 4 shows the group of artist that followed William Coldstream’s method of the analytical gaze, taught by him at the Slade School of Fine Art. Through the analytical gaze, they tried to register reality through a painstaking method of measuring it. His influence can be best seen in Euan Uglow who was his student at the beginning of 1940’s and 1950’s and whose paintings include the tiny crosses needed to anchor the measurements to the surface of the canvas. Lucien Freud is also included in this room with one of his amazing still lives with squids and also with his ‘Girl with a Dog’ which is one of his eight portraits of his wife Kathleen Garman. With precision, the image conveys a sense of discomfort and alienation that makes it unsurprising the fact that they separated shortly after that painting was finished.

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Freud

Although this might come across an anathema in so English an institution, Jean Paul Sartre’s inverted idea of humanism is felt everywhere in the show. According to the French philosopher, after Hiroshima authenticity is defined through angst and isolation. Without mentioning him, there is a room (2) dedicated to exactly that. The figures in isolation in Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti include a subject which is not only a human human figure but also the void that haunts him. In both artists, the figures are framed inside an empty space which they desperately inhabit. One of the most impressive examples is Bacon’s Study of Diego Velazquez (Innocent X) where the isolated figure screams and in the process rejects the idea that there is something transcendental taking care of his fate.

 

A consequence of this idea of human truth through pain and isolation is, of course, an anxious and abject view of love. This is the case of Room 7 entirely dedicated to Lucien Freud and of Room 8, dedicated to Francis Bacon and John Deakin. The former is a huge room dedicated to the way Lucien Freud uses a thicker brush at the time he distances himself from the model adding more psychological weight to his anguished figures. The point of view is also elevated making the figures more bulky and helpless. In that room we can find Freud’s self portrait when 45 years old which conveys a grotesque idea of humanity at the time in life when mortality becomes a certain possibility. A very exquisite painting of ‘Two Plants’ (1977) is included and justified in this context through that he ‘wanted to have a real sensation of that that grows and dies’. In ‘David and Eli’ (2003/4′, his lifelong assistant is depicted with his dog inviting a comparison between the existential weight of both figures which are too similar to convey any kind of humanism. In Room 8 the show explores Bacon’s commissioning of very specific types of photos for his paintings. The frontal compositions, intimated portraits and unnatural expressions that characterise John Deakin’s photos are transformed by Bacon into figures that seem to be subjected to invisible forces. In this room, Francis Bacon’s triptych of the death (suicide) of his lover George Dyer is included and his lost one appears as a maimed body that leaves the wrestling arena of life towards a dark void whose gatekeepers are two grey men. Bacon seem to follow Nietzche in the belief that nothing better is waiting for us in the afterlife.

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It is at this point that the viewer can see one of the main thesis of the show which has to do with Edgar Degas’ influence on these painters. In fact, Bacon’s paintings include a direct allusion to Degas’s ‘Scene at the Beach’ (1876).  In Room 1, it was almost impossible to see the Sickerts as anything more than a departure from Impressionism through the realistic gateway opened by Degas. It is from this point of view that we should understand these efforts as, amongst other things, an attempt to reconstruct the healing powers of painting after cubism and abstraction used the intellect to destroy it.

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Bacon

The cityscapes and landscapes are reserved for Room 6 where Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff paintings are included. Room 5 is all about David Bomberg, their teacher at The Borough Polytechnic, who unlike William Coldstream did not prepare his students for the national exams and rejected Slade’s method of measured observation which he ironically called ‘the hand and eye disease’. The high level of study and preparation of these artists is evident in the fact that both Auerbach and Kossoff attended classes at Saint Martins and RCA during the day and studied with Bomberg in the evenings at Borough.

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Kossoff

In the year of the #MeToo movement and of an almost apocalyptic sense of political correctness, this show risks, however, with flirting with a group of misogynistic men who only understood women as a confirmation of everything that was wrong in the world. This post Victorian group was also exclusively white and Northern-European. This is the reason why Tate Britain wisely decided to dedicated one entire room (3) to Francis Newton Souza, an Indian artist that was deliberately ignored by his colleagues for the obvious reason that paint and suffering were, at that point, a white male privilege.

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Souza

The idea that the artists included in this show were legitimised through a series of institutions very much imbued by colonial idea is a very interesting thesis of the show. Souza’s paintings are all about angst. He depicts his relationships with women through love, desire and abjection. The issue of racism is included in his ‘Negro in mourning’ (1957) which is a displaced selfportrait if we bear in mind that having arrived to London from Mumbai he was ignored by the artistic community because of his accent and the colour of his skin. Jew London is depicted by R.B.Kitaj whose master piece ‘Cecil Court, London WC2’ is included. The last part of the show is dedicated to the following generation of artists who explored the issues of isolation and exclusion through their identity. There we find Paula Rego, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville and Lynette Yiadom Boakye for whom the context is more important than the certainty that there is only flesh and pain. J A T

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Kitaj
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Rego

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