Fleshy Nudes And Late Night London: 100 Years Of British Painting

All Too Human, Tate Britain ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 74 months ago

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Fleshy Nudes And Late Night London: 100 Years Of British Painting All Too Human, Tate Britain 3
Time to get up close with this massive Jenny Saville painting. © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

A naked woman stares at us, dragging our eyes away from her drooping breasts. A contorted body becomes featureless through raw emotion, and the city of Toledo's straight lines of architecture bump up against rolling mountains.

This is life but not as we know it — as Tate Britain takes us on a hundred year journey of British painting from life.

Many of Britain's great artists are accounted for, including distorted works by Francis Bacon. He manages to take a painting and fill it with energetic chaos, so that in one the features of the person are no longer determinable and the background fades into grey. Bacon even manages to create the same effect with a dog and a baboon, making them appear demonic.

You can't go wrong with Bacon. Here's a portrait of Lucian Freud. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

A set of Bacon's painting face a spindly Giacometti sculpture, it's an odd pairing that flourishes. The serene sculpture surrounded by all the chaos on the walls around it — like a delicate flower standing strong in the middle of a hurricane.

Lucian Freud is represented well in this show and we get a whole room filled with his massive fleshy nudes. However, it's his smaller works we preferred — with a confident pose in a self-portrait and the innocence of a baby nestled gently into a green sofa, the folds cradling him like a parent.

Lucian Freud gives us this more subtle works and plenty of his massive nudes. © Tate

Many of the artists in the show were part of the School of London painters and so the capital features heavily. David Bomberg uses shades of brown to capture the City of London in fading light, and Leon Kossoff recreates a Willesden Green swimming pool with flecks of blue where the water is visible among the many people. Finally Frank Auerbach captures Mornington Crescent station with the dark red building just about visible late at night, as light from the ticket hall spills out on to the street.

The real find for us in this show is F.N. Souza whose dark crucifixion is one of the most powerful works — covered in thorns and with a tribal look about him, this is a messiah divorced from his traditional Western look. Also impressive by Souza is two saints painted entirely in shades of black paint, so the details can only be seen once you get a few centimetres away from it.

Leon Kossoff captures the energy of a swimming pool in Willesden Green. © Leon Kossoff

Sharp eyed readers will have spotted no mention of female artists, as is often the way with art history. Thankfully Tate has sought to remedy this by including contemporary female painters. A massive head lying on the floor, and sporting wounds is a remarkably visceral work by Jenny Saville, while Lynette Yiadom-Boakye brings some much needed diversity with her paintings of black sitters.

The theme of this show is a hard one to work out, though it seems to be painters who like a fleshy approach to their painting — which would explain Hockney's absence in a show about the last century of life painting.

Cecily Brown helps up the number of female painters in this show. © Cecily Brown Photo: Richard Ivey

Ultimately this lack of a coherent theme would matter little if all the works were great, but for every chaotic Francis Bacon, is a dull Walter Sickert interior scene. We're no fans of Soutine and his bright paintings here also disappoint and as for William Coldstream's sketchy nudes they should have been left out in the cold.

This is a show where the quality varies greatly and the theme is tenuous, though it's saved by a large chunk of fabulous life paintings from the ever reliable big hitters of British painting.

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life at Tate Britain. 28 February - 27 August. Tickets are £17 each.

Last Updated 27 February 2018