Tackling the ‘personal, intimate and intense experiences of life’
What were you trying to achieve with this exhibition, and what received ideas about British figurative painting are you trying to challenge?
Elena Crippa: ‘While in the United States, Germany or Italy we speak of a “return” to figurative painting, there is an incredible continuity in British figurative painting across many decades. We thought it would be interesting to take another look at the work of the post-war figurative painters whose style collectively became known as the School of London — Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, Leon Kossoff and R.B. Kitaj — but open up the narrative both in time and in terms of the artists included.
‘In fact, the School of London doesn't have many tenets. You have Freud, who only paints in the presence of the sitter. You have Bacon working from fragments. Auerbach and Kossof completed a picture in a day, while others took ages. And Kitaj stretched figurative painting towards a return to history painting. With this show, we wanted to re-examine what really unites this group.
‘At the same time, we wanted to think about how we can make room for artists who have often not been considered part of the London School, not because their work doesn’t fit, but because they did not run in the same circles as London School artists.
‘Indian-born F.N. Souza, for example, was hugely important in the post-war British art scene. Like Bacon, Souza painted in a very gestural, immediate way, and referenced religious themes. His images are also ones of desire and intense sexuality, where the subject is at once an object of love and desire, but also of abjection.
‘Ultimately, what holds true for each of the artists in this exhibition is a consistent tackling of very personal, intimate and often very intense experiences of life.’
How were you able to source the works in the exhibition — particularly the many paintings by Bacon that have not been seen for decades?
EC: ‘Martin Harrison’s catalogue raisonné was a hugely important resource. Locating some of these pictures was a mixture of chance and also knowing who are the major British or international collectors of British post-war art. Once we reached out, many of these collectors became very interested in the exhibition and were very generous in sharing their works. To be honest, we were overwhelmed by how eagerly lenders responded to the project of showing the breadth and continuity of British figurative painting.’
What did the London School artists take from predecessors such as Walter Sickert or Stanley Spencer, and what are you trying to show in setting them in dialogue?
EC: ‘The story of British figurative painting doesn’t begin in 1945. It unravels slowly and has very important precedents. For example, Walter Sickert’s naked nudes in these quite poor, dim dwellings became iconic works that the London School painters turned to over and over again.
‘They were attracted to what Sickert himself defined as his attachment to the raw facts of life; this intense material experience of everyday encounters and objects. With Stanley Spencer, too, we see the incredible, uneasy intensity of his gaze.
‘We see these influences reflected in the London School painters — an attachment to what is truly real, a sort of raw quality of life.’
The work of Freud and Bacon forms the heart of the exhibition. Were you looking to present their work in a new way, or say something about these artists in particular that hasn't been said before?
EC: ‘I think there is definitely a continuous engagement with Bacon’s work, both by art historians and audiences. But there is still research to be done on his engagement with theatre, and his use of photographic fragments. That has not received much attention, and I wanted to gesture towards his relationship with photography.
‘With Freud, I wanted to highlight the diversity of his painting. Discussion often centres around his depictions of large bodies, but actually he was interested in subjects of many different shapes and types. I’ve also of course been very aware, as so many of us have become recently, that an artist like Freud has become subject to questions about the appropriateness of the male gaze, and how women are looked at. I wanted to show paintings by Freud in which his gaze and his representations of women are very different.
‘Certainly, in the 1972-73 Naked Portrait, for example, there is something really stark about his gaze, and uncomfortable power relations can feel imposed on the picture. But in Two Women, from 1992, he’s offering something really complex. Something in their posture suggests a frailty, but also gives a real sense of strength and a powerful psychological presence. I wanted to show the range of his approach and his gaze.
‘I think it's necessary in 2018 to question the way women are represented, and whether or not a given painting objectifies women. But it is also right to look at the nuances of the different works.’
The last room centres on work by women. Why did you decide to end with these artists, and how do they link to the London School?
EC: ‘An exhibition is a journey. And I very much felt that in the journey of British painting, Paula Rego represented a turning point in terms of her painting from a woman’s perspective. But one could not end with Rego.
‘I didn't deliberately set a task to only choose female artists for the last room. Yet there was something special in the way that the work of the four artists I selected not only relates to, but also expands so much that had been explored earlier in the exhibition in terms of gaze; the relationship between painter and sitter; and the way a painter thinks of their presentation of human relations.
‘When Celia Paul created the first of her two pictures shown in the final gallery, she was working closely with Freud [her ex-lover and the father of her child]. She was a sitter for him, and at the same time was developing the group composition paintings that Freud would also explore. As her own model, she did not shy away from painting herself with a sort of frail confidence.
‘Jenny Saville’s work to me is a clear statement about producing something which is so confident, so bold in terms of scale and ambition, which you can link back to Freud’s preoccupation with painting flesh. Yet as she’s making this authoritative statement, she also reveals her delicate, awkward position in the world. That tension is what makes the picture so strong.
‘Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, meanwhile, is doing something very different. She’s interested in the way human beings behave and exist in space — and it doesn’t matter that her subjects aren’t even real. It’s about the way these figures embody the world, the way they relate to one another in the picture. I find these paintings quite miraculous. She produces them incredibly quickly — they are not even based on drawings. And they’re so convincing.
‘Each in their own way, the works in the last room are in dialogue with the earlier sections of the exhibition. There is the animated, textural brushwork of someone like Jenny Saville, which we have seen in Freud. In Saville or Paul, we have a very direct, non-idolised way of looking at the figure, that is a through-line from someone like Spencer. You can make these and so many more links again and again.’
All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is on show at Tate Britain until 27 August