It’s Alive


A new exhibition at the Tate Britain examines how British artists of the 20th century represent human life in their work.

Cecily Brown, Boy with a Cat, 2015

Cecily Brown, Boy with a Cat, 2015, oil, pastel on linen, 1092 x 1651 mm.

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In an often-quoted interview with David Sylvester, the celebrated Irish-born British painter Francis Bacon said, “Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses.” The response came to Sylvester’s prodding about the correlation between the artist’s depictions of hanging carcasses of meat and crucified human figures. Bacon, side-stepping a bit, instead discussed how the human body—he cites, for instance, a Degas pastel in the National Gallery, London, that articulates the top of a woman’s spine and x-ray photographs—can look rather similar to the meat found in a butcher shop. He added that the slight protrusion of the women’s spine in the Degas pastel (After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, circa 1890–95) makes the viewer “more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body.”

One of the most arresting aspects of Bacon’s own work is just that—the vulnerability of his figures and their bodies. Bacon’s figures suffer trauma and mutilation; they are twisted and shuffled around; they shriek and shout with open mouths. The experiences and the suffering his figures seemingly undergo are representative of the ancient Greek concept of pathos as defined by Greek philosophers even before Aristotle’s Rhetoric. The viewer is moved emotionally by what seems to be a plea from these figures and feels a deeply—yes, almost ancient—human response to their plight. This is made perhaps most clear with Bacon’s repeated portrayals of crucifixions—in which a body suffers and it is understood, in a historical sense and in the sense of the viewer in a gallery, that others look on.

When Bacon recreates the textural material of the human body in paint he showcases the vulnerability he saw in the Degas pastel. This perceived vulnerability has the ability to create an intoxicating horror in the viewer. If our bodies are so pliable and putty-like and our feelings are so primal, then are we not at any time susceptible to agony and mutilation? Or worse, to the soulless state after death when our body parts are little more than the carcasses Bacon referred to? It is this vision of the human body that the goriest horror films succeed in imparting—one that Bacon’s paintings can certainly share.

The portraits Bacon painted of his close friends are similarly celebrated for expressing a sense of vulnerability. Bacon painted his friend and fellow artist Lucian Freud, who also famously portrayed the realism of the human body in paint (Freud painted Bacon, as well). The German-born British painter said, “I want the paint to work as flesh does.” In Freud’s work the paint lusciously recreates skin, musculature, fat, bone structure, and hair. In the 1950s, he set his focus on portraiture, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 1960s that he began creating the works for which he is best known: full-scale nudes. Freud’s treatment of the nude human body marries the detail of Renaissance studies with the personality of modern portraiture—balancing a sense of intimacy with the sitter and a cold, almost clinical look at the human physique. In favor of honesty, Freud’s nudes lack the mythological, otherworldly, or idealized qualities of the nudes that populated art history from the Classical period through the 19th century, and at times even lack a sense of dignity. Instead, Freud’s figures portray how harrowing and yet how banal it can be to inhabit a human body.


Capturing humanity in paint is the subject of “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud, and a Century of Painting Life,” an exhibition that opens at the Tate Britain on February 28 (through August 27). Using Bacon and Freud as anchors, the show will examine the portrayal of the human experience in art and provide an expansive picture of figurative painting in the 20th century, particularly in Britain. The exhibition features some 100 works by artists such as Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, R.B. Kitaj, Leon Kossoff, Paula Rego, Jenny Saville, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and many others.

Through examining the careers of Bacon and Freud, two of the most revered artists working in Britain during the 20th century and also famous drinking buddies, the show reveals what ties their work together and what separates it. One major difference is their process. Freud worked from life, with his models typically making large time commitments to sit for him. His studio, which frames the sitters in his work, serves as both a stage and a subject for his paintings. The repeated use of his studio as setting also brings awareness of Freud’s physical presence in it—it seems vital to remember that the sitter and Freud were occupying the same space and that the view we have of the model was Freud’s view. In Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, a 1996 painting in the show, Sue Tilley, a frequent subject of Freud’s in the 1990s, is seen draped in a chair. Her face, overcome by sleep, is scrunched into her hand—a position perfected by most of us in an airplane seat. Freud himself seems very close, looking on silently, as a birdwatcher or biologist might watch a sleeping species of interest. Behind her, crouching lions can be seen on the motif of a carpet—the kings of the jungle seeming so inferior to this larger, more majestic animal.

Freud’s portrait of fellow British painter Frank Auerbach (Frank Auerbach, 1975–76), also features a rather close, intimate view. Freud depicts the artist on a downward angle from the crown of his head to the top of his green t-shirt-clad chest. Freud’s brush delights in every detail of Auerbach’s face—emphasizing the thinning of his hair, the tonal disparities of his skin, the furrows of his brow and cheeks, and the teeth-grinding scowl of his mouth. The painting captures what appears to be a moment of anxious frustration or intense concentration—the type of moment we typically have alone. For the viewer, it feels like a rare and intrusive look at man’s face and state of mind. Freud’s presence, which hovers over Auerbach and the painting itself, simultaneously exposes and soothes the other artist.

Unlike Freud, Bacon used photographs as a starting point for his paintings. Of this process Bacon said, “What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance.” Bacon frequently used the work of friend and Vogue photographer John Deakin for his paintings. Deakin, who was in the habit of photographing the figures of the mid-century Soho art scene, such as Freud, Auberbach, and Eduardo Paolozzi, also took portraits for Bacon on commission, including the source material for Bacon’s 1963 Portrait of Henrietta Moraes and the 1969 work Three Studies of Lucian Freud. Deakin’s photograph Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (circa 1966-67), which was commissioned by the painter, was used to create one of Bacon’s most celebrated paintings, Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho (1967). Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, a 1966 painting in the exhibition, also depicts the inimitable Rawsthorne, a painter, designer, and model for Picasso and Giacometti.

Works by other members of Bacon and Freud’s circle also appear in the show. Auerbach’s 1967–68 painting Primrose Hill is a highlight. The oil on board work is essentially an abstract landscape, inspired by Auerbach’s frequent visits to the park at Primrose Hill in north London. The artist compiled an excess of 50 working drawings for the painting, made during all four seasons and all different times of day and night. Working on it daily for over a year, Auerbach fell into the nearly incessant process of scraping paint away and adding more. The result is a pan-season, pan-weather, pan-hour, expressionist rendering of life, both observed and lived.

The show isn’t limited to a single generation of artists. Walter Sickert’s Nuit d’Été (circa 1906), for instance, with its chilly portrayal of a female nude sprawled on a bed, is a perfect precursor for viewing Freud’s work. Sickert, a member of the Aesthetic movement and student of James McNeill Whistler who is thought by some conspiracy theorists to have been the serial killer Jack the Ripper, painted a series of nude women in sparsely decorated, cheap London bedrooms. Unlike the intimacy of Freud’s work, Sickert’s paintings are dark, distant, and even a bit menacing at times (perhaps there is something to those rumors?).

The exhibition also features several paintings by women artists. Paula Rego’s The Family (1980), depicts a group of figures in action within a bedroom setting. A man, dressed in a grey suit, sits on the edge of an unmade bed, his cuff and jacket being fussed over by two women—perhaps a maid and his wife, or his wife and older daughter. A girl, who is presumably a young daughter, looks on from several feet a way, standing in front of an open window. In the corner near the bed sits a Portuguese retablo depicting St. Joan and St. George slaying the dragon, while on a chest below it, an image of Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Stork is illustrated.

Cicely Brown’s 2015 oil and pastel on linen Boy with a Cat quickly brings Renoir’s ghostly 1868 nude The Boy with the Cat to mind. However, Brown’s chaotic, reclining nude takes from de Kooning’s work the sense of forms appearing within abstraction, and it is oddly exhilarating to watch the faces and bodies of cats emerge and recede in the painting as one looks at it. The artist sops up the machismo of Abstract Expressionism only to wring it out as one would a wet washcloth. What’s left is an engrossing, erotic work that surges with energy and playfulness.

Another more recent work in the show and a painting in the Tate’s collection is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s 10 pm Saturday (2012). Yiadom-Boakye, a London native of Ghanaian descent, looks to the historical European tradition of portraiture but paints largely fictional characters. Born of her imagination, her figures are typically placeless and timeless and are left susceptible to the interpretations and readings of the viewer. 10 pm Saturday shares with many of Bacon’s portraits a dark, vacuum-like background. Yiadom-Boakye’s figure stands in profile, looking side-eyed past the viewer over his own shoulder. Wearing a red and white striped shirt and black pants, he seems so familiar and yet he is a man who has never lived.


By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: January 2018