All Too Human review – brutal, tender and bizarre, this is life, not art
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2018-02-28 Size:
I’d love to say it was David Bomberg’s arresting landscapes or ……

Tate Britain, London

Here in this dazzling survey of modern figurative painting are works that truly matter, in their humanity, courage, feeling and truth.

Unguarded humanity … Melanie and Me Swimming 1978-79 by Michael Andrews from All Too Human: Bacon Freud and a Century of Painting Life. Photograph: The estate of Michael Andrews

I’d love to say it was David Bomberg’s arresting landscapes or Francis Bacon’s existentially challenged popes and apes that got me addicted to Tate Britain’s brilliant and brave new exhibition, but in truth it was a breast. In Lucian Freud’s early painting Girl With a White Dog (1950-51), his first wife, Kitty Garman, sits in a lime-green dressing gown with a dog resting its long snouty face on her lap. She has one breast exposed while the other is hidden under fluffy fabric. Somehow, as I looked, I felt the mystery of a beating heart, the pulse of her being, in the way she places her hand on her covered breast. Freud, it hit me, is an artist who – like Caravaggio – delivers the shock of the real, the disturbing sense that you are looking at life, not art.

‘The pulse of her being’ … Girl With a White Dog, 1950-51, by Lucian Freud. Photograph: Tate

The intimacy of that strange, lovely portrait becomes even more disarming in his later works. Out of the monumental paintings Freud made in the 1990s of two outsized characters, the performance artist Leigh Bowery and benefits supervisor Sue Tilley, the curators have astutely chosen two in which the subject is asleep. Tilley slumbers in an armchair as the artist observes her unconscious plenitude. Bowery, too, is caught in dreams, his huge shaved head resting in a tender way on his soft shoulder. These paintings make the people in them not just immediate to us but utterly engrossing: as urgent and close and bizarre as your own face in the mirror.

Again and again in this exhibition, sheer sensitivity and honesty floor you. Paula Rego’s extraordinary 1988 painting The Family seems at first sight to show a strange attack on a patriarchal figure. Is this the next stage of #MeToo – a mother and her daughters assaulting a father in his own bedroom? In fact it is a scene of love and pity, painted when Rego’s husband was dying from multiple sclerosis. She and her daughter are helping him, not torturing him. Their burden of pain is terrible.

Love and pity … The Family, 1988, by Paula Rego. Photograph: Paula Rego

A father portrays himself supporting his young daughter as she learns to swim in a black pool surrounded by forbidding rocks in Michael Andrews’s Melanie and Me Swimming (1978-79). The sheer unguarded humanity is humbling, especially as Andrews looks frail, a middle-aged man with a child to protect. The black water entombs their buoyant bodies like a promise of nemesis.

That sense of life’s seriousness and weight never leaves the paintings of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. These two make a formidable double act at the exhibition’s heart. Freud and Bacon may be the official stars but there are at least four great artists here. And I am not using the word “great” lightly. The churned-up, excavated, eviscerated paintings that Auerbach and Kossoff made in the early 1960s share a muddy magnificence, a ripe gooey feasting on slimy paint. Kossoff’s Building Site, Victoria Street (1961) gazes into a pink pit of fresh earth, a gory wound in the city’s fleshy organism. Auerbach creates a face as a shadow, a memory trace, within the teeming morass of yellow and red paint that cakes his Head of E.O.W. I (1960).

All this, and the savage butcher of Soho, too.

Francis Bacon starts by pummelling you with his 1953 Study of a Baboon, whose unexpectedly delicate rendition of a tree in the shadows softens you for the shock of a howling mouth and bared teeth. Then he cudgels you with the uncanny power and presence of his 1966 Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, a painting that somehow reveals its subject’s beauty by tearing her face to shreds and reassembling it like a drunk putting a broken ornament back together. If that seems overly violent, don’t even look at the mutant male forms in his horrific yet glorious Triptych 1974-77, headless phantoms of decay that haunt an empty beach. Bacon is weeping among these spectres of madness, mourning his lover George Dyer.

Here in this exhibition are works of art that truly matter, in their humanity, courage, feeling, truth. Whatever it is that makes art profound, Kossoff and Auerbach, Rego and Andrews, Bacon and Freud have it. They are the true heroes of modern British art.

• All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is at Tate Britain from 28 February to 27 August.

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern