All Too Human – Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life. New show at Tate Britain which traces 100 years of life painting and shows the evolution of artists’ fascination with the human figure and the way it is depicted.

I’ve been drawing from life for years.  Every Monday I spend two hours scrutinising an obliging model who braves the chill air of the art room to try and override the brain’s assumptions about shape and proportion and really try to capture, and make sense of, the figure in front of me.  Of course I make my version out of paper collage, rather than pencil or paint!

This level of scrutiny of the human form has fascinated artists for centuries.  It never gets any easier but it does evolve. This show puts the focus on the last 100 years of life painting and majors on the post-war artists – Bacon, Freud et al – to assemble an intriguing collection of paintings. These works represent the human form and portrait in many different styles – though it also includes a few surprising landscapes and cityscapes which vaguely reference the human element but do jar a bit.

The Tate has an impressive collection of life paintings already, always a good starting point for a curator, and about a third of the pictures on show come from the gallery’s collection.  However, the show has acquired an interesting selection of pictures I have never seen before.  For example, there’s portrait of Lucien Freud by Francis Bacon (a detail is below).  I also liked the self-portrait by Leon Kossoff, below the detail from the Bacon.





It’s good to see Paula Rego given an entire gallery. I’ve always loved her edgy work which tackles some unappealing elements of the human condition – weakness, abuse, bullying, cruelty.  Here are my photos of her epic triptych, The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck all done on paper with pastel and inspired by Marriage a la Mode by Hogarth.

I’m not sure I was told anything especially new by this exhibition – the layout is fairly clunky in the sense that it features specific artists in their own gallery space. Perhaps if they’d been mixed up a bit more I might have made more of a double take when looking at the works.  A room full Freud paintings is just that – and we did see a lot of them at the major Freud retrospective a few years ago.

I also wish that the background walls had not been so grey. There’s something about that colour which tends to drain the energy from pictures rather than enhance them.  When you have paintings full of skin tones I feel it’s helpful to have a stronger background colour, perhaps an opposite in green or blue.  But that’s just my view.

Below: David Bomberg self-portrait, Stanley Spencer portrait of Patricia Preece, Ewan Uglow, Georgia and Michael Andrews, Melanie and Me Swimming.

However, it’s always a joy to see a collection of great figurative art and life-painting.  For years the idea of ‘eye-balling’ the human figure was abandoned by art classes and steamrollered by the hefty abstract and conceptual movement.  But real artists can’t help looking at things and the human form will always be a challenge. It’s very heartening to have a show at a major gallery like Tate Britain which celebrates this important artistic legacy.

As a finale, they presented  a gallery full of contemporary works by female artists: Below: Celia Paul‘s portrait of her mother, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Coterie of Questions and Jenny Saville‘s Reverse.


All Too Human at Tate Britain runs from 28 Feb – 27 Aug 2018. #AllTooHuman @Tate


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