Show Hide image

All too human: How Bacon, Freud and the postwar British painters made realism both new and personal

A striking new exhibition at Tate Britain looks afresh at the “school of London” in a period seemingly dominated by American abstract expressionism and pop art.

In 1935, Kenneth Clark, then just 32 but already the director of the National Gallery, wrote an essay in The Listener entitled “The Future of Painting”. If it had one at all, he suggested, then it was irredeemably grim. “The art of painting has become not so much difficult as impossible,” he said, set around, as it was, by decaying old art peopled by “belated impressionists… who correspond to liberalism in politics”, over-civilised post-impressionists, brutalist Germans, and surrealism and abstraction with their “extreme reliance on theory”. Clark’s view of art was an offshoot of his view of society: both stood, he believed, at “the end of a period of self-consciousness, inbreeding and exhaustion”.

Clark wrote at a time of dark clouds gathering, but he was airing an old idea. The phrase “painting is dead” was first recorded in 1839 as issuing from the lips of the French salon darling Paul Delaroche. Delaroche was wrong (within 35 years the impressionists redefined what painting could be) and Clark was wrong too. The postwar years did indeed see the growth of anti-painting  – conceptualism, abstraction, performance, the found object and photography – but they also witnessed the reinvigoration of the old tradition of putting oil on canvas. The idea that painting was brought back to life though is misleading: for all Clark’s gloomy prognosis, it was never in extremis in the first place.

Just what happened in British painting after the Second World War is the subject of Tate Britain’s wonderfully enlightening survey “All Too Human”. The exhibition comes with a degree of throat clearing about artists who set out to capture “what it is that makes us human”, but really shows how painters from Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud to Leon Kossoff and Paula Rego made realism – defined as unsentimental objectivity – both new and personal. There is no room for Clark’s theory-reliant modes of art; this is an exhibition about paint.

In fact, paint itself was seen by some artists as a means of salvation, the drug through which to quieten the anxious postwar frame of mind. Leon Kossoff described endlessly painting the streets of London, many of them war damaged, because they conjured “a faintly glimmering memory of a long-forgotten, perhaps never experienced childhood, which, if rediscovered and illuminated, would ameliorate the pain of the present”. Freud, meanwhile, was less existential, stating simply that: “I want the paint to work as flesh does.”

Credit: The Whitworth, © The University of Manchester. © The Lucian Freud Archive/ Bridgeman images

What all the artists in the exhibition seemed to have felt was the intimacy involved in moving paint about on a surface and how that was in itself a way of processing their personal and intense individual experiences of life. In this they represent the opposite of modernism, with its belief in the rational and the progressive.

The exhibition takes the form of a family tree with, as its roots, a cluster of pre-war painters who embodied this distinctive vision: David Bomberg, Stanley Spencer, Walter Sickert and Chaïm Soutine. One of the many strengths of this show is the way that their work echoes through the rooms – Bacon and Freud’s nudes being inadvertant reworkings of Sickert’s unsparing and sexually unsettling paintings of naked models and prostitutes; Kossoff and Frank Auerbach’s paint-encrusted London landscapes recalling the fractured Spanish landscapes of Bomberg; the unwavering stare of Spencer’s second wife, Patricia Preece – both naked and clothed – re-emerging in Rego and Jenny Saville.

The links are not coincidental but in many cases were made directly. Between 1945 and 1953, for example, the financially struggling Bomberg (who had himself been taught by Sickert) was a teacher at Borough Polytechnic and both Kossoff and Auerbach were among his students. What they imbibed from him was that traditional representation was a “hand and eye disease” and that painting should seek to transmit “the sense of touch” and “the illusion of the third dimension”, that is the experience of forms rather than simply the look of forms.

Meanwhile, at the Slade School of Art, William Coldstream (who had attended Sickert lectures) taught both Michael Andrews and Euan Uglow and invited Lucian Freud to become a visiting tutor there. What they learned from him was how to fix their sitters on the canvas, like a pinned butterfly, and get to the truth of them through the exact representation of what they saw: as Uglow said to one model, “Nobody has ever looked at you as intensively as I have.”

This interrelatedness also manifested itself in the friendships between the leading artists. In 1976, in the introduction to a catalogue for an exhibition called “The Human Clay”, the American painter and honorary Londoner RB Kitaj christened the Bacon, Freud, Andrews, Kossoff and Auerbach circle, “the school of London”.

The artists drank together in Soho – where Andrews showed them in his Colony Room I of 1962 – and painted each other (Freud’s portrait of Auerbach, 1975-76, and a Bacon painting of Freud from 1964 are both included).

What the exhibition does is expand Kitaj’s school of London to include all the painters present, with mixed degrees of success. It is elastic enough to include, for example, the Indian painter FN Souza, who arrived in London in 1949 determined to be a modern artist but whose work didn’t begin to gain traction until the mid-1950s. His pictures have a painterly affinity with the thick impasto of his British peers – indeed Two Saints (After El Greco), a masterly study in shiny and matt black of 1965, is a bravura (if irreproducible) display of paint handling – but his subject matter is completely at odds with theirs.

Park Village East (2006) by Frank Auerbach. His London scenes use paint so gravity-defyingly thick that it is almost sculptural​. Credit: Frank Auerback, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Souza’s work draws heavily on his Christian upbringing and is peopled with Christ and the saints. This appeal to an older and overtly religious tradition may be his response to the anomie of the age, but the other artists in the show all take reality as their starting point rather than metaphysics. Souza may have been in London painting at the same time as his fellows but he doesn’t belong with them.

The same is true of the Portuguese-born Rego, another of Coldstream’s pupils. A genuinely significant artist, her work is based in the realm of the imagination and suggests a narrative. Typically dealing with family or folk- and fairytales, her paintings are invariably ambivalent and there is always something at work in them, often with sinister or sexual overtones.

The Family of 1988, for example, shows a man seated on the edge of a bed being undressed by two women while a third looks on from a distance. The expressions of the women are rapt and complicit and the image carries the frisson of violation. In fact it refers to Rego’s husband, the painter Vic Willing, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, and the women are mother and daughters helping an invalid out of his clothes, rather than overpowering an unwilling man.

Rego has said that, “Stories are just as important as if they existed in reality; it makes no difference.” But while that may be true for her it is not necessarily the case for the viewer. The question prompted by her paintings has nothing to do with observation and intimate realism but is rather more straightforward: what is happening here?

More representative are the early Bacons which, despite the familiarity of the “Screaming Popes” (one version here has a businessman in place of Innocent X, his very anonymity making it all the more relevant), still have the ability to shock.

Strangely, it is his paintings of animals that most potently express some of the agonies of the human condition. Dog (1952) shows a near-feral animal, tongue hanging out and panting exhaustedly after endlessly circling, as if in a rage at itself, while in the background cars stream unheeding along an American coastal freeway. Study of a Baboon (1953) is an image of a howling creature conjured up in feathery brushstrokes that belie the violence of the image: the monkey’s bared teeth, exposed in a primal scream, are no defence against existence. As images of loneliness and pain they outmuscle even Bacon’s grief-infused Triptych 1974-77, in which he tries to work out his feelings about the suicide of his
lover George Dyer.

Where Bacon worked best at one remove from his subject, using photographs as inspiration and compositional tools, Freud needed endless hours in front of the live model. From the painstaking, miniaturist works of the 1950s such as Girl with a White Dog (1950-51), in which every hair of both woman and animal is shown with the care of a medieval manuscript illustration, to the slumped form of the plus-size “Big Sue” Tilley, Sleeping by the Lion Carpet (1996), Freud was haunted by flesh.

 Life lessons: a detail from Melanie and Me Swimming (1978-79) by Michael Andrews​. Credit: The Estate of Michael Andrews

In most cases the sitters do not look at the artist and there is no engagement between them: these are essentially paintings without a meaning. If they have a subject, it is the corporeality of individual human beings and the infinite variety of skin tone and colour. The sitters have bodies but not personalities. And if Bacon’s paintings are full of the sound of screaming, Freud’s are eerily silent.

Perhaps the most effective of the mini-retrospectives offered by the exhibition are the London paintings of Kossoff and Auerbach. Their pictures of streets and buildings use paint so gravity-defyingly thick that it is almost sculptural, and the ceaseless movement of their brushstrokes mimics the vibrations of the city. They faithfully followed Bomberg’s stricture to look for mass and structure and found them everywhere: Auerbach described London in the immediate postwar years as “a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountain and crags, full of drama formally”. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Kossoff’s 1961 Building Site, Victoria Street, a painting of a hole in the ground that uses only viscous slatherings of black and brown but that could be painted in mud or London clay.

The one maladroit step in the exhibition is the curators’ attempt to update the predominantly white, male and venerable story of postwar British painting by co-opting women (and young ones if possible) into their expanded school of London. The last room shoehorns in Celia Paul (1959), Cecily Brown (born 1969), Jenny Saville (born 1970) and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (born 1977).

Saville has a strong claim to membership – her huge and frank paintings of the naked female body (here her massive self-portrait, Reverse, 2002-2003) clearly belong to the Freud-Bacon bloodline, and indeed they expand the possibilities of rendering the human body in paint. The presence of the others is harder to justify and makes a curatorial rather than an authentic
artistic point.

This, though, hardly detracts from an exhibition that looks afresh at a period seemingly dominated by American abstract expressionism and pop art, and European heavyweights from Picasso to Gerhard Richter, and teases out a distinctive and important British strand. In 1966, Bacon defined it when he said, “What I want to do is distort the thing far beyond the appearance but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance.” Reality through distortion became the British way.

“All Too Human” is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 27 August

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman are joined by Michael Prodger to discuss the "All Too Human" exhibition at Tate Britain. Plus the music of Sade, the loss of the dinner party album in the age of Spotify playlists, and the noniversary of the Final Destination franchise.

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Our theme music is "God Speed" by Pistol Jazz, licensed under Creative Commons.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war