All too human
Join OCA’s Gerald Deslandes on the 14 July at Tate Britain in London.
This must-see exhibition brings together the giants of 20th century British figurative painting. Among the score of artists represented are portraits and figure-studies, cityscapes and conversation pieces. Some by Francis Bacon and Michael Andrews are derived from photographs. Others by William Coldstream and Euan Uglow rely heavily on life-drawing.
What brings them together is a kind of ‘dirty realism’ that is manifest in the grimy craters of Auerbach’s bombsites, the chlorine chill of Kossoff’s swimming pools or the obese flesh of Lucian Freud’s portraits of Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley. Often, as in the mysterious dialogues of Paula Rego’s figures or the claustrophobic arenas of Bacon’s triptychs, the artists seem to scrutinise their subjects longer and harder than is comfortable. Nearly all the painters share an interest in expressionism that is apparent in their use of thick, impasto brushwork or, as in the case of Bacon and Kitaj, of shrill, disquieting colours.
The works are arranged in approximately chronological order. Hence the exhibition begins with Sickert’s seamy Camden Town interiors and Stanley Spencer’s voyeuristic paintings of his second wife, Patricia Preese. Just as Sickert’s work was influenced by Degas’ paintings of prostitutes and the real-life crimes of Jack the Ripper, the portraits of Patricia – with or without her clothes – are reminiscent of German Neue Sachlichkeit artists such as Otto Dix. In the same gallery are works by Soutine, whose bright colours provide a European context to Sickert and Spencer’s work in the same way that Giacometti does when his edgy, existential sculptures are placed in the same room as Francis Bacon.
European influences are also apparent in the work of first or second generation Jewish immigrants such as Bomberg, Auerbach, Kossoff and Kitaj. In Kitaj’s case, there is an additional comparison to William Hogarth who resurfaces in the work of Paula Rego alongside the influence of Munch and Goya. Perhaps less successfully, this must-see exhibition ends with a gallery containing paintings by a number of younger artists that are working currently.
After an independent lunch in the Tate café, we shall look at earlier examples of expressionist portraiture and ‘dirty realism’ in the late 19th century collection.
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