Saturday, 17 August 2019


Tate Britain, London

”Renaissance painters painted men and women, making them look like angels. I paint for angels, to show them what men and women really look like.”

Painting With Severed Hands

Try this for a theory. Through figures such as Henry Moore and Barbra Hepworth, Modernism had combined internationalism, universalism and semi-abstraction. And in the post-war era this proved triumphant, in terms of mass acceptance and public commissions. Modern art was being made as part of a modern world.

Yet every action will have an equal but opposite reaction. So the inevitable rejoinder to this was a rejuvenated Expressionism, with a renewed focus on the unidealised figure. It was a return to, as the first room of the show is called, “the raw facts of life”. The show’s title comes from Richard Schacht’s summary of Nietzsche, that even “the pride of our culture and the zenith of our humanity… was not only far from divine but all-too-human.” Art was no longer transcendent but particular, the figure no longer an example of the universal but a representation of the self. It’s a sweeping theory, but surprisingly compelling.

So, just as Moore and Hepworth were associated, the artists in this show form a loose-knit group - sometimes referred to as the School of London. Their stories are frequently overlapping, and they often use one another as models. But they had more than association in common.

Neither Moore nor Hepworth were stereotypical champagne Socialists. The art they made was avowedly anti-elitist. Moore was a miner’s son, who put most of the money he made into a Foundation for the arts. Hepworth might have come from a more typically privileged background, but was after all a woman in a male-dominated arts scene.

Nevertheless, it’s a striking contrast just what a group of outsiders produced this work. Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach were Jewish, both arriving in Britain as children fleeing fascism. Auerbach’s parents stayed behind, and died in the camps. Also Jewish, Leon Kossoff’s parents had fled persecution in Russia, though he was born after they reached London. Kitaj, again Jewish, was born in America but had relatives who had needed to escape the Nazis. But they were polyglot even in their outsiderness. Francis Bacon was Irish, and not just gay before legalisation but with an authoritarian father who sought to beat those ‘effeminate’ ways out of him. FN Souza was Indian by birth. As Kitaj pithily put it: "You don't have to be a Jew to be a Diasporist."

Nevertheless the irony, and proof that history is never neat, is that both groups can claim to represent their era. Semi-abstraction and universalisation represented the bold new world of the National Health Service, mass education and new housing. (As seen in the ‘Out There’ exhibition.)

Whereas seen the other way up post-war plenty merely obscured the question, like a spray scent which masks a bad smell while ignoring its source. We might stock up in supermarkets or picnic in the park, but all the while knowing human beings had the capacity to destroy other human beings in terrible numbers. 

And the way the Second World War segued straight into the Cold War upped the ante even on this; it raised the suggestion that the human being was not just some mad beast at war with itself but one with the capacity to utterly destroy itself. Unlike the War, how was it possible to choose between those two sides this time? The problem seemed too deep to be political, it seemed existential.

Ironically, this was much the same motivation as had driven the American Abstract Expressionists. But differing national contexts meant that what drove one group towards abstraction simultaneously drove the other back to the primacy of the figure. (Perhaps significantly, when Ab Ex artists did name-defyingly draw the figure, the results were not so very different. De Kooning is the most obvious example.)

Moore and Hepworth, though they never really went fully abstract, had something transcendent about them. The riposte here is partly that we claim we can universalise when we do not even understand ourselves. Kitaj curated a 1976 exhibition called ‘The Human Clay’, after a line from an Auden poem (“Art's subject is the human clay/And landscape but a background to a torso”). But there’s something stronger, the notion that we universalise to avoid looking too deeply into ourselves.

Another reason for the return to the figure is given before you’re even in the show, in a series of photos of the artists’ studios. Artists at work are not normally thought of as tidy folk. Though significantly, it’s the two best-known artists of this era, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud who are the messiest of all. (A slightly different photo of Bacon’s studio is below. While Kitaj’s, bucking the trend, looks tucked into a neat nook of a suburban house.) We’re also told that there was a renewed interest in artists’ studios, with the book ‘Private View’ published in 1965.

But it’s Bacon who’s the giveaway where, among the layers of detritus, are stacks of magazines and reference books. Semi-abstraction was seen as new, neat, sleek, a way to throw off all that weight of art history. Its surfaces were smooth. This was a way of reloading it, of reproblematising the age-old question of how to capture the figure. And Bacon not just returned to the figure but frequently cited earlier works in his paintings.

As a brief introduction to the style, try Leon Kossoff’s ’Self Portrait II’, (1972, above). It’s a brooding image, his head angled down and his eyes shifting to the side. But it’s the thick swabs of paint, as thick as the detritus in Bacon’s studio is deep, often applied in heavy downward strokes, that so distances it from Moore and Hepworth. It’s like someone took that studio and smeared it over the canvas. The sheer viscous thickness of oil paint is foregrounded, even as it’s pressed into the service of capturing an image. The artist has become his own subject matter again. Freud (more of which anon) said “I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them… as far as I’m concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.”

Though of course nothing starts from nowhere, and the show starts with… wait, I need a preamble here. Because of rule foisted by social media companies that incitements to fascism are just fine but the human body is objectionable, I’ve had to figleaf the offending body parts. Not being entirely happy with this, I have covered them with something which could more genuinely be considered offensive.

Anyway, where was I? Though of course nothing starts from nowhere, and the show starts with important antecedents to this stye. Walter Sickert is one of the oldest, ’The Studio: The Painting of a Nude’ (above) dating to 1906. As the title telegraphs he paints the painting of a nude, rather than the nude herself, as emphasised by the outstretched artist’s arm in the foreground, and the mirror reflection. We treat ‘the nude’ as a genre in which we recognise if not expect certain poses, normally to do with displaying the body, whereas this model doesn’t seem to be posing at all.

In fact no figure or object is shown complete in the whole painting. Combined with the low lighting, this creates a sense of mystery, like trying to infer a picture from incomplete puzzle pieces. Further, by crossing the figure that foregrounded arm gives things a sinister air. That paintbrush gains the air of a murder weapon. Artists were normally to be found insisting their use of nude models was a healthy, creative affair. Whereas Sickert’s combination of sinister and sordid will recur again and again in this show. Her nudity makes her seem vulnerable, the dark and cluttered room around her leaving her nowhere to run. But this also marks the degree to which Sickert is only a precursor. He paints scenes, in which the figures are normally decentered.

Wheres with works such as ’Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece’ (1935, above) Stanley Spencer is more pioneer. In fact much which follows in this show start from here. Like Sickert’s subject she’s not in a classically ‘nude’ pose. But from there all the differences are epitomised by her being named in the title. She’s centred (the only background being her armchair), well lit and - most noticeably - calmly meets our gaze.

In fact it looks like a classic portrait in which her nakedness is unmistakable yet incidental. Her face looks made up, but there’s no attempt to idealise or eroticise her body. There’s folds in her belly, below sagging breasts lined with veins. Yet Spencer was at this time obsessive over Preece, only two years later divorcing his first wife to marry her. (Disastrously as it turned out, but he could scarcely have known that then.)

In one of the most counter-intuitive statements I may have ever said about art, forget (if you can) that this is a male artist painting a woman. What’s more important, and more typical, is that it’s a painting of someone the artist knows well. So it becomes a depiction of the human body as we find it, not as we would like to. More, whether the painting is of the artist (as with Kossoff) or not (as here), it still functions as a kind of mirror. A mirror which, even as it rather mercilessly traces every blot and blemish, uses a record of an individual to evoke a state of being.

There’s a passage in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel ‘The Reprieve’ which elucidates this:

“There lay his hands on the white parapet: bronze hands they seemed, as he looked at them. But, just because he could look at them, they were no longer his, they were the hands of another, they were outside, like the trees, like the reflection shimmering in the Seine: severed hands… “

Our consciousness makes us aware of our bodies, but as something outside of ourselves. We say “my body”, the way we say “my hat,” “my house” or “my annoyance at stupid social media rules”. And, seen through this lens, the body becomes a bag of sagging flesh and gristle. Yet the same consciousness also tells us that we are contingent on our bodies, and in this way they are not like hats or houses. Within this paradox we’re aware these bags of flesh are inevitably subject to disease and decay, while equally aware that we are trapped within them.

Tarred With the Same Brush

Though there’s a plethora of names included here, it’s Bacon and Freud who are the undisguised headliners. Not only could the whole show have easily been devoted to them, I’ve seen both in solo shows which worked well – Bacon here at the Tate and Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. (Though, to my everlasting shame, I never got round to writing up that one.)

There’s an art tradition where the portrait centres on or just features the head. Even Spencer cut Preece off at the torso. The artist is often interested in getting to the essence of the person, for which the head can work as a kind of synecdoche. Whereas Freud often insist on painting the whole figure, working from a semi-raised perspective. He commented “I wanted the likeness, the portraiture, to come from the figure.”

He even uses this perspective in a rare occasion when he does merely paint someone’s head; in his ‘Portrait of Frank Auerbach’ (1975/6, below) the head seems elongated, the face is pushed down into the lower half of the composition and the bare-flesh brow gets if anything more attention than the features. Compare the composition to the full-body painting ’Sleeping By the Lion Carpet’ (1996, also below).

And he didn’t just focus on but show a meticulous fidelity to the figure, described in the National Portrait Gallery show as “forensic”. Models had to be willing to sit for him for hours as he tried to capture each fold, kink and crevice of flesh. It’s hard not to think of the subjects as… well… subjugated. It’s almost reminiscent of a cop grilling a suspect, interrogating him for hours until he finally cracks. In fact, so frequently do his subjects have an off-milk pallor, you could almost believe he’d been keeping them prisoner until he pronounced the work done. (When not in his studio Freud seems to have been sexually predatory, fathering at least fourteen children.)

At one point, moving to a larger studio, Freud upped the scale of his works and started to include windows. Yet this soon proved a mistake; letting the outside world in took too much away, breaking the hermetic spell. Significantly, none of the works chosen for this show are from this period. (Though ’Two Irishmen in W11’, 1984/5, is in the guidebook.)

Figures never seem to strike a pose, they recline and sometimes look asleep. (Perhaps an inevitability given his lengthy painting time.) You can look at the Spencer up above and ask yourself what Preece might be thinking. You can’t do that with Freud, the question essentially rebounds. As the clothes go so does the veneer of civility. But he dehumanises without deindividualising, reduces us our our essential animal state while keeping the domestic setting.

He often paints people alongside animals, as if to emphasise this point. See for example ’David and Eli’ (2003/4) above. The composition emphasises David’s genitals. Yet he’s not displaying them, as we might see in erotic art. There’s simply no reason to find a pose to hide them, the way a dog would behave.

Bacon’s gurneying psychodramas, often featuring gross distortions of reality, may seem a long way from Freud. See for example ’Study After Velazquez’ (1953, above). Bacon’s painterly mirror could hardly have any been more distorting, Freud’s scrutinising stare any more unyieldingly exacting. And Bacon worked more from photographs and film stills than from life models, increasingly so as he went on. But put their work side-by-side, and these formal distinctions tend to fade in importance. Both painted hermetic interiors as a kind of existential hell. Both would compare human to animal figures. For example compare the work above to ‘Study of a Baboon’ (1953, below).

We see a snarling baboon, clearly in a cage, including links of chain fence. But, only slightly more metaphorically, the Pope figure is effectively transformed into another raging caged animal. Note how the vertical lines, nominally some kind of curtain, continue into the figure. It’s a (literally) vicious circle in which the bars provoke the beast to fury, which only strengthens the bars. While the baboon is itself semi-translucent, the background part-visible through it.

In Freudian terms (and remember Sigmund was Lucien’s Uncle) it’s the instinctual drive of the Id versus the controlling superstructure of the Super-ego, a self-perpetuating war between snarling dog and lead. His signature distortions of the figure need to be seen as an expressive means of portraying this.

Apeing Apes

In my look at Bacon’s solo show, I noted an overlap between this and “the cod-Freudian pseudo-science of Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey, whose books filled the era.” Often referred to as the killer ape theory, this stuff can roughly be summarised as the notion human evolution is only skin deep. Our savage instincts were the very things which drove us to succeed as a species and are now barely sublimated by social norms.

This thinking did not originate in this era, and within evolutionary studies would be considered (seen most generously) as highly contentious. But there was a spike in both populist and popular versions of it, perhaps starting with the 1961 publication of Robert Ardrey’s ‘African Genesis’. The opening section of ’2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968, still below) was clearly a dramatic retelling. But perhaps it achieved maximum popular culture penetration with a 1974 episode of the comedy TV series ‘Whatever Happened To the Likely Lads’, where a pub fight’s viewed through the writing of Konrad Lorenz (as read in a Sunday supplement).

Part of its appeal was that its cartoon thinking gave reassuringly simple answers to complex questions about human society. Much as Von Daniken, another staple of Seventies paperbacks, did to questions about the origins of human society. One said, “aliens dunnit”, another said “all about apes, duh”. Books such as ‘African Genesis’ (1961) and ’The Territorial Imperative’ (1966) could literally be read by their lurid covers (below). And it had more general associations with art. Just as Von Daniken often seemed to be writing reformatted science fiction scripts, Morris was himself a Surrealist painter and Ardrey a playwright and screenwriter.

The Naked Ape is of course an antonym to the ennobled, universalised and above all smooth-skinned human figure of Moore and Hepworth. It doesn’t emphasise common humanity, it traps each person within their self. And it them defines that self as an animal self.

And of course this seems worse now than it would have done then. If Moore and Hepworth’s art represented a society made up of benevolent institutions, this art is all too close to the non-society that would supplant it – the free-market fundamentalism of neoliberalism. Such theories normally tell us more about the era they’re coined in than the era they’re ostensibly about. The supposedly inviolable law of the market, that each is placed against all, was supposedly reflected in the law of the jungle. So any constraints on the market are seen as akin to tampering with the laws of nature.

In short it only managed a human understanding of the animal world, a failing it then tried to pass off as an insight. Neither needed questioning because, in classic circular reasoning, each could justified by the other. And this continues today, in examples such as Jordan Peterson’s recent rantings about lobsters.

So do Freud and Bacon reduce to that reading? Their art is actually more sophisticated than the supposed scholarly writings. The whole existential notion of self as cage, so central to them, is nowhere in Morris and Ardrey. And in general I tend to regard the darker arts as the most likely to be politically progressive, dealing in realities which need to be faced down. As Thomas Hardy put it, “if a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worse.”

Nevertheless, there’s no sense Freud or Bacon had a point to get over, more simply they were trying to externalise what was within. In fact, in their differing ways they led the lives of figures from their work. And in the evocation of the savage there is a familial resemblance which is hard to unsee once you’ve seen it.

Coming soon! Part two looks at Kossoff, Auerbach, Kitaj and Souza

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