All Too Human – Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life

Tate Britain, 28 February – 27 August 2018, London

The All too Human exhibition explores how artists in Britain have used the medium of paint to capture life around them in the past century. It features an impressive list of artists: Bacon, Freud, Sickert, Soutine, Rego, Giacometti and Auerbach, as well as a few less high-profile painters such as De Souza and Bomberg.

When I visited the show on a Saturday afternoon it had attracted a large crowd who seemed to be responding excitingly to the displays, thrilled to see all these artists being brought together under one roof. To be fair the works by Freud, especially Man’s Head (Self Portrait I), and Auerbach’s representation of the cityscape of London were simply dazzling in their originality, skills and raw power. The Sickert nudes were also a highlight: his purposely limited colour palette, the darkness of the composition and the smaller scale of the canvases only helped them stand out and they were a broody and seductive presence that commended attention amongst such a busy show.

But a closer inspection revealed a few glaring issues.

The artist friend who had accompanied me to the exhibition found herself asking: ‘where are the works by new artists and why is there such a focus on a traditional representation of the human figure?’. Indeed.

The ‘youngest artists’ in the exhibition were in fact well established painters in their own right, including Jenny Saville, Lynette Yadom-Boakye and Cecily Brown. Their paintings were shown in the last room of the display and the works simply struggled to match the levels of intensity and skill of previous exhibits. Brown’s paintings especially appeared weak, muddled and unfocused and seemed completely out of place in this show with their almost amateurish use of paint. I am usually a fan of Yadom-Boakye’s paintings but the selection on display here did her no favour and came across as banal and lacklustre. Even Saville’s painting packed less of a punch once compared to the Freud or Rego portraits that we had just seen. There was also little originality or real character in the way these artists chose to reinterpret the tradition of figurative painting. It would have been more interesting and adventurous to elect to show in this final room the works of a few emerging painters, instead of these ‘safe bets’, in order to leave us with the impression that the current crop of painters is still working on surprising us with their interpretation of life. I also wondered why Rose Wylie, who chooses to look at life by injecting humour and playfulness in her paintings, or Chantal Joffe , who can produce such powerful and effective representations of women in particular, were left out of this show.

Another aspect of the exhibition that made me stop and think was the fact that so many of these artists were not British-born but chose to make Britain, and often London, their permanent base or at least a huge part of their artistic development. Soutine, Rego, De Souza, Giacometti and of course the Berlin-born Lucian Freud. This read like a Remainer’s dream. I could not avoid seeing the irony of this fact in a post-Brexit world. Yet another reminder of how art and the creative industries in general have always benefited from the interaction of different cultures and the influence of people from various backgrounds. This left me with a question mark as to how Brexit might affect any of this exchange of thoughts and creativity in the future.

My friend also rightly bemoaned the standard admission price for the show which, at almost £20 a head, will be a steep price to pay for many. She pointed at that as a result all she could hear in the room were ‘middle class accents’ (ours included). Maybe that is another thing for us to ponder. A retrospective that somehow reminds us that painting and art in general can often still feel like the privilege of the few just as it has done through history.