By Kaler Wong
The British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon happened to be leading a tour around Tate Britain’s exhibition All Too Human during my recent visit. Accompanied by a cluster of expensively dressed visitors who had no doubt paid a pretty penny to have him there, he reeled off facts and figures to illustrate the significance of the painters and their works. His well-heeled listeners nodded along sweetly as they perused art by the twentieth century’s best British painters. All Too Human, arranged both thematically and by individual artist, explores how artists have “moved beyond naturalistic representation” to capturing images that reveal a level of expression that exists “beyond the limits of verbal language”, revealing much about themselves in the process.
Three artists stand out in this exhibition and make it worth the visit alone. The paintings of Francis Bacon appear rooted in abstract expressionism with an intense degree of human emotion. If the power of these works fails to affect you, then you are no doubt a cold, heartless humanoid (or perhaps your name ends in Zuckerberg). Bacon’s images are certainly not easy on the eye, the artist himself states a desire for his pictures “to look as if a human being has passed between them…leaving its trail as the snail leaves its slime”.
The bodies of humans and animal carcasses contort around the canvas, evoking the carnage of the two World Wars that defined Bacon’s early life. The artist’s distressing childhood along with his sadomasochistic relationships were similarly important influences. The artist’s obsession with depicting internal organs can in part be revealed by his startling perspective on life: “Violence is part of human nature. Even in the most beautiful landscape…under the leaves the insects are eating each other.”
From bloody violence to capturing moments of daily life, Paula Rego’s large scale drawings in pastel are typically big and bold. Placing women at the centre of her work, she addresses a world “shaped by patriarchal power”, an apt subject in our current climate. In a range of intimate settings Rego effectively invites the viewer to peer into her own world, exposing her own tender desires, fears and memories. The pursuit of art can often seem a very selfish act, an investment into individualism that the artist feels is worth sharing. Yet Rego’s drawings feel the very opposite, an opening into her own thoughts and expression of emotions. From an artist who has been very open about her struggle with depression this feels refreshingly personal and unpretentious.
My personal highlight, however, was the room filled with paintings by Lucien Freud, a titan in British painting. Having previously studied Freud’s self-portraits intensely myself, their vibrant quality shouldn’t have surprised me. Nevertheless, standing in front of Freud’s Man’s Head (Self Portrait I), the raw brushstrokes are so bold it looks like it could have been painted yesterday. Freud peers down at you, nonchalant if not just plain annoyed. The background curves around his head and arm, superficially dismissing every rule of portrait painting yet adding to a picture that is unnervingly brutal and intrusive in its scrutiny of the subject. Portraits are always based on reflection and observation, rewarding the evocation of character and likeness. This is the perhaps the greatest self-reflection, even self-interrogation, that art can offer.
Famed for being intensely private, Freud claimed that all his subject matter was autobiographical. Under such intense scrutiny, no wonder Freud painted so many portraits of himself. Every brushstroke is carefully calculated yet seemingly effortless and does indeed seem to become the flesh itself as the artist intended. His paintings of his mother and also of contemporary, Auerbach, are equally expressive and revealing of an artist totally obsessed. It is clear that pictures in a newspaper can’t do them justice.
Not all art is as easy to admire as this: powerful combinations of expert skill with thoughtful subjects. Above all, these paintings aren’t grounded in stages of art history or factual knowledge that requires an expert such as Graham-Nixon to accompany a visit. It is about the reflection of person onto canvas through a variety of subjects, in the intense study of being human. This, surely, we can all relate to.
Photographs: Kaler Wong
All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life exhibits at Tate Britain until 27 Aug 2018. (Free membership of the new scheme Tate Collective allows people aged between 16-25 tickets for £5.)