Thursday, 7 June 2018

Review: All Too Human at Tate Britain

All Too Human is an exhibition on at Tate Britain in London. It's a large show that I would recommend anyone to go to who is interested in painting as an art form. It's focus claims to be about the artist trying to capture the world around them, but personally, I'm not too interested in what the curator claims the exhibition as a whole to be about, I am interested in what is on show, the paintings themselves, and so that is what I'll concentrate on in this review, room by room.

Room 1
David Bomberg
The show starts well with with two painters who I love: Chaim Soutine and David Bomberg. There are also paintings from Walter Sickert and Stanley Spencer, but if you've ever read or watched anything I've done before you'll know that my main interest is in the use of paint as a medium to creating art rather than just the pictures that are the result. That said, you can't go wrong with Soutine and Bomberg who both use paint to express themselves in a way which ratchets up the power of any work of art far beyond those that merely use paint as a means to get colour on a canvas. The Soutines are great - a portrait, a landscape and a scene of the outside of a butcher's. These are good paintings which show how the power of paint can be used to great effect. The Bombergs are also excellent and include one of his landscapes, a view of Toledo, which is just a glorious expression of buildings in a landscape, paint helping to express the higgledy-piggledy nature of the scene - a really fantastic painting. The Spencer's are interesting, two portraits of Patricia Preece, one clothed, the other naked, which remind me a little of early Freud, and although I think they are good paintings, the use of paint itself I find a little lacking, but the resulting images are good. The Sickerts are what I have always come to expect from him: dingy and dark, the smoke and pollution from innumerable factories and domestic fires seeming to pervade the paint itself - everything one has always imagined of dirty Victorian London. Decent painting for sure, but I feel more can be done with the medium. However, if you like Spencer or Sickert, you certainly won't be disappointed.

Room 2
Francis Bacon
In Room 2 there are a number of early paintings by Francis Bacon. I don't think these are his best, tending to display a slight lack of focus, often a bit of a mess. But the Baboon painting is great to see and shows where he is going to go in future decades. There is also a Giacometti sculpture, a typical work for him of a standing nude, tall and thin, but honestly I'm not sure why it's there. I don't really think it fits in with the rest of the show and is the only sculpture on display. A nice enough piece, but a bit unnecessary.

Room 3
F.N. Souza is an artist whose paintings I have come across before but whose name I never knew. I have been to this show twice now, and the first time I was really impressed by his work. However, on a second viewing, I felt they lacked a little something. They are pictures more than paintings, though his two landscapes, "Citadel" and "Red Sun", I still really like, but more for aesthetic reasons than artistic ones - but you can't have everything! There is one painting in this room however which really annoyed me. It is called "Two Saints (after El Greco)", and is painted only using black paint. Frankly, the first time something like this was done it was a bad joke, and now, after no doubt several thousand paintings done by all kinds of artists employing the same game of "look - no colour!", it is still a bad joke. Uninteresting to look at and even less interesting to think about - unless perhaps you are an art student and enjoy nonsense for its own sake. For me though, I have better things to do with my time.

Room 4
Euan Uglo
This room has the title "William Coldstream and the Slade School of Fine Art: an Analytical Gaze" but would be better titled "William Coldstream and how to kill a painting". These are artists who I despise as painters. Their main purpose is to accurately portray what they see, without any expression whatsoever. Everything is measured and recorded almost as if a spreadsheet of points that need to be noted in order to prove you were there. This room features other artist as well including Euan Uglo, another epitomising the dead-eye-gaze. I took some notes while at the show and this is what I wrote: "If you want to destroy any notion of the creative eye then it seems you should have gone to the Slade. William Coldstream created dull dull paintings by removing any sense of interpretation. These paintings are about as uninteresting as it gets with naturalistic colours and "whatever" poses. This kind of analytical approach can also be found in Freud, but at least he made an effort. Euan Uglo - more tedious dead painting - well done! You can paint accurately what you see without imparting any character of your own. Very forgettable".
Of course, there are people who like this stuff. I suppose they like the resulting images, but really, if you are into paint - and I mean using paint to express yourself in a work of art, then this room can only make you angry/cry/distraught (delete as appropriate).
Interestingly though (or perhaps not given my antipathy towards these "painters"), it seems Lucien Freud was a pupil of Coldstream. I have talked before about how I find Freud rather uninteresting (more about Freud in a later room), and it is clear that his rather unimaginative approach to painting comes directly from Coldstream's dead paintbrush. There are other artists in this room too, but it's all the same stuff: expression sacrificed on the alter of intellectual analysis, like so much bad art even today from painting to the conceptual. These are nothing more than pictures to demonstrate their ability to measure. No interpretation, no artistry, no expression. Dead dead dead.

Room 5

Frank Auerbach
Things start to get a little more interesting in Room 5 with more David Bomberg, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff. This was the Borough Polytechnic where Bomberg taught. Fan as I am of all three, especially Bomberg and Auerbach, these are not the greatest of their paintings. I have talked before about how I think Auerbach's earlier paintings are just trying too hard and the same can be said of Kossoff. But at least they were trying to do something - unlike the previous room. Kossoff's paintings are just too stodgy; too much paint, too much dull paint; too thickly painted. If what you come up with is somewhat akin to mud painted on mud I really think you need to take a step back and consider if you are doing things correctly - as an artist one has to communicate, and mud has very limited powers. Auerbach is similarly over burdened. He has commented before that his palette was limited to those earth colours since they were the only ones he could afford - I presume the same went for Kossoff who was his friend and fellow student at the time. I can only imagine that the very practical idea of painting smaller paintings and considering what you were doing a little more rather than just laying it on thicker and thicker in the hope of creating something worth creating, and then spending the money saved on a few extra colours, had eluded them. But you have to admire their spirit, and for Auerbach there was certainly far far greater things to come.

David Bomberg
There are also a couple of Bombergs, again, not his finest, but one very well known painting called "Vigilante" which is pretty good. Interestingly, I recently came across an interview with a student of Bomberg's from the Borough days who described how Bomberg was a firm believer that the creation of art by a painter did not require the painter to go through the mill of a tedious art-school education, they need only get on with it and become the painter they need to be (I paraphrase). I only wish I had been around at that time as I certainly would have got on well there, rather than determining the self same attitude on my own. There is one nice little Auerbach however, a portrait I think of Estella West - whoever it is, more colour is used and the result, although inches thick, is much better for it.

Room 6

Frank Auerbach
Leon Kossoff
More Auerbach and Kossoff. These are later paintings by the pair, and for Auerbach at least some fantastic work. These paintings - cityscapes of London as the title to the room tells you - are no longer mono-tonal, are emphatic, well choreographed, imaginative and expressive. They really are fantastic paintings. As for Kossoff, well it pains me a little to say so but I feel he reached his peak and had no where else to go. His paintings still seem rather stodgy, and a little messy. There is one of his best known painting, mainly I think because it is in the Tate's permanent collection, of a swimming pool. I don't like this painting though. There's something a little cartoony about it and again it is a bit messy and a bit lacking to my mind. It seems clear to me that what Auerbach has that Kossoff lacks is vision, but they still ride rough-shod over the tedium of the Coldstream acolytes.

But having said all that, there is a rather nice self portrait by Kossoff. Of course, there is something to be said for being able to pull off a very large painting while maintaining its coherence, but I feel that that is more a case of technique rather than art. Still, there is some really great painting in this room.

Room 7
Lucien Freud
I am aware that for a lot of people this will be their favourite. It is a room full of Lucien Freud. I have talked before how I feel Freud's work is unimaginative. His colours are naturalistic, and his execution, though clearly top notch, leaves me wondering if he couldn't just express himself a little more. This is a view I have always held on Freud, and it interested me to discover in the Coldstream room that he was Coldstream's pupil - the dead paintbrush making itself felt. Freud clearly is a greater painter than Coldstream or Uglo could ever have hoped to be, but once again, as I have described before when talking about a retrospective of Freud that I saw a few years back, I am left feeling that more or less every painting is the same: nothing much changes, every sitter is painted with the same eye rather than seeing things for their difference and their own value. Because of this I think this large room does get a little boring. However, there are some good paintings to see, my favourite being of two women on a bed. And it is also surprising to see just how small some of the portraits are with a similarly tiny attention to detail. One cannot deny his craft, his ability to render his subject, and of course they are easy to look at and interpret which will always make Freud a firm crowd favourite, but I think there's more to painting than this.

Room 8
Francis Bacon
This room has some great work in it: Francis Bacon at his best. They are paintings from the 60's and 70's, and if you want to see expression and power in a painting you can't get much better. They are vibrant, expressive, powerful, emphatic - this painter had a big pair of balls and waves them in your face! In the 1970's I think he did occasionally get a little lazy, resting on his laurels perhaps as he has found a style he is happy to repeat, but even so, damn good stuff. These are Tyrannosaurus compared to Coldstream's tiny dead sand lizard. There are also some photographs by John Deacon in this room though I don't really get why. They are not interesting other than for the fact of the subjects, people who Bacon painted, maybe he even used those photographs for his paintings. Whatever the reason, I don't think they add anything to anything. Take them down and put up some more Bacons is what I say.

Room 9
Michael Andrews
Things start to go downhill a little here as we head towards the end of the show. R.B. Kitaj and Michael Andrews. To be honest, I don't know what all the fuss is about Kitaj. I find his paintings rather badly painted, rather too much going on resulting in a lack of coherence. In short, I don't think they're very good. There is a video of him talking about painting outside the exhibition and yet again it struck me how so often artists are assumed to be good at what they do, or having produced work of value, simply because of the rather pompous and over intellectualised way they talk about it. My view is: don't listen, look. If you can't say it in the work, then it's meaningless - write instead and do us all a favour. As for Andrews, well...? I don't know what to say. He seems to be best know for one painting which has been reproduced countless times as prints, a father in a lake or river teaching a child to swim - I don't tend to look at titles so forgive me if I have missed the point. It's a nice enough painting for sure, but more of a picture than a painting. Paint is not the point and so expression is lacking which is something you will never find with Bomberg, Bacon or Auerbach.

Room 10
Paula Rego is again a firm favourite of some. I am not a fan but I do appreciate are ability. In some ways I find her more interesting than Freud, yet less appealing. Again, paint is not a thing in this room, the medium is a way to get colour on a canvas. I personally find her over allegorical style rather wearing, and her figures are all a little too heavy, but again, I can't fault her skill in achieving what she sets out to do. For me I suppose it's an aesthetic that just doesn't appeal, but if you're into that kind of thing you'll have a great time in this room.

Room 11
Arnold Tuppley
This room certainly has some of the worst abuses of paint ever known mainly because there is a painting of someone whose work I cannot stand: Jenny Saville. What is it with her and her monumental self portraits? I could be wrong but I think she paints herself more than anything else (is her ego not big enough?), and early on discovered the gimmick of supersizing. The painting she has on show here is massive, something like 10 or 12 feet wide, maybe 8 feet high, and is of a face only, on its side lying on a mirror. Apart from the gross gimmicky size of the painting the style she uses is something that simply disgusts me and yet again goes back to the "dead art" school of Coldstream. There is a certain "painterly" art school style which she epitomises in very very large form. It is as if realising that painting accurately à la Coldstream results in no expression, and so the art schools decided that one could at least impart the appearance of expression by the use of visible brush strokes and slabs of colour so as to give the right impression of artistry. But it is a fake. This way of painting is pretending to be expressive without expressing anything at all, it is false, pretentious, pretending, obnoxious, superficial in the extreme, and it disgusts me. You can readily see this style of painting in hundreds of other unkown artists if you trawl the commercial galleries or go to something like the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. This is a travesty of painting. A similar style can be found in two works by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye in this room. On a happier note however, there are a couple of paintings by Celia Paul which are pretty good and a nice little painting by Arnold Tuppley which mixes a little abstraction with the sitter and is frankly a relief to look at with your back to the hideous Saville.

All in all, despite my ranting about what I don't like, I think this is a great exhibition. It does have some really fantastic paintings by Bomberg, Bacon and Auerbach which are worth going to see for them alone. The cost of entry is no doubt prohibitive to those who are not part of the wealthy middle-classes - I would certainly not have been able to afford it if it wasn't for my good friend having a membership with the Tate, but I shan't rant on about that now as I have done many times before. So if you like painting, go see this show, it's a good one!

If you want to see me talk about this show on camera with a little ranting as I go, I have a video review on youtube here: