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How British artists made flesh seem fresh

How British artists made flesh seem fresh

A potted history of figurative painting, from the 1900s to the present day

A potted history of figurative painting, from the 1900s to the present day

Laura Garmeson | March 19th 2018

A contorted figure howls into the night. A crowded swimming pool becomes a living, breathing mass of bodies. A woman sleeps naked in an armchair, great rolls of flesh spilling over the sides, her face squashed against her hand.

Artists have been preoccupied with the human figure for millennia, but the postwar School of London – which included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud (above), Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Michael Anderson and R.B. Kitaj –  painted nudes as they’d never been painted before. The group, which remained faithful to figurative painting when the rest of the art world was bewitched by abstract expressionism and conceptualism, takes centre stage in “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life”, an exhibition at Tate Britain.

But the scope extends far beyond this famous boys’ club, running from Walter Sickert’s shadowy nudes, to Paula Rego’s domestic tableaux to the work of contemporary British artists like Cecily Brown and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. In fact, the exhibition is probably too expansive. It suffers from a lack of coherence – it’s not always clear how paintings in the same room relate to one another. But it’s impossible not to be both moved and provoked by these images of grief, loneliness, power and desire.

 

“Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne” by Francis Bacon (1966)

Francis Bacon’s works are interspersed throughout the first half of this exhibition, from his spectral screaming popes to a spectacular six-foot portrait of his peer and rival, Lucian Freud. By the 1960s Bacon was working almost exclusively from photographic portraits, mainly of people he knew, and one of his favourite models was the artist Isabel Rawsthorne.

Sparing daubs of lurid pink and puce form the contours of an anguished face looming out of the darkness. His characteristicly dynamic brushstrokes make this portrait seem frighteningly alive.

 

“Georgia” by Euan Uglow (1973)

Euan Uglow was part of a cohort headed by William Coldstream at the Slade School of Fine Art, who aspired towards a highly poised, intensely objective style of figurative painting as a way to try and “fix” reality. Uglow’s paintings offer a coldly beautiful masterclass in precision over personality. Here, one of his students, Georgia Georgallas, reclines in beaming white.

Uglow micromanaged every aspect of the composition and appearance of his sitter, insisting she cut her long, dark hair to shoulder length and even dying her tights a particular shade of bubble-gum pink.

 

“Melanie and Me Swimming” by Michael Andrews (1978-9)

There are relatively few self-portraits in this exhibition. Even Michael Andrews’s poignant portrayal of him swimming with his six-year-old daughter in a rockpool is less about the artist, and more about fathers and daughters. Andrews based this painting on a photograph taken on a holiday in Scotland. Quick-drying acrylic paints, sprayed onto the canvas, enhance the fluidity of line, making the rippling yellow and pink flesh tones shine out against the black liquid expanse of water. It’s a perfect depiction of the pride and fear a parent feels as their child learns to strike out on its own.

 

“The Family” by Paula Rego (1988)

Paula Rego is famous for her subversive portrayals of women and fraught family relationships. In “The Family”, a mother and daughter restrain a visibly distressed father sitting on a bed, the lighting stark and dramatic. The scene is ambiguous, the smiles of the female family members hinting at some sinister intent. But the ambiguity dissipates once we discover that it was painted during the last few months before Rego’s husband died from multiple sclerosis. The realisation transforms the scene into one of ordinary family devotion, as a mother and daughter lovingly dress a sickly, fading patriarch. She makes illness appear simultaneously grotesque and mundane.

 

“The Host Over a Barrel” by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2014)

The final room of “All Too Human” focuses on painters who are adapting figurative art for the 21st century. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is one of Britain’s most prominent portrait artists, but none of her sitters actually exists. Her “fictive” oil paintings, which would once have been considered sacrilege in art schools that insisted on painting from life, are composites of various people she has known or invented. In this painting of three young black dancers at rest (Yiadom-Boakye has cited Edgar Degas as an influence) their confidence and poise is communicated more through their posture than their faces.

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life at Tate Britain until August 27th