I emerged from Tate’s ‘landmark exhibition’, thinking ‘what was that all about?’ They informed us that it ‘celebrates how artists have captured the intense experience of life in paint.’ Is that not what artists tend to do anyway, other than abstract expressionists? There are certainly some fine examples of British art on display, and of the ninety-odd paintings, a third are from Tate’s own collection. Perhaps this was a legitimate way of getting some dusty old canvases out of storage and onto the walls.
The show opens with a room of paintings by David Bomberg, Walter Sickert, Chaim Soutine and Stanley Spencer entitled ‘The Raw Facts of Life.’ How a couple of Spanish landscapes by Bomberg and a French one by Soutine got in here is puzzling. The Sickerts are always a treat to see, as are the two portraits by Stanley Spencer of Patricia Preece, one from Hull Museums, with her pendulous, heavily-veined breasts and small, pursed lips. She was the same voracious woman who befriended Spencer, married him, then refused to have sex with him, before throwing him out of his house. Maybe the title of the exhibition is a little ambivalent, as in the next gallery, Bacon dominates, and he was an artist who never drew or painted from life. In the middle of the room is Giacometti’s Woman of Venice, for no apparent reason. A whole room is devoted to the neglected Indian artist F N Souza, a proponent of Outsider Art and Expressionism, three of whose paintings are on loan from the collection of Jane and Kilo de Boer in the list of works (surely Kito de Boer, the former senior McKinsey director and diplomat?). Negro in Mourning is redolent of the French painter Bernard Buffet, and even has a similar signature.
After a sortie into the world of William Coldstream, Euan Uglow, his pupil at the Slade, and the first of the Freuds, we are led into the works of David Bomberg and his students, namely Dennis Creffield, Leon Kossoff, Dorothy Mead and Frank Auerbach, all strong painters with an appreciation of the dynamism of life in the city. Lucian Freud is wall-to-wall in the next room, some featuring wall-to-wall models with legs splayed, while there is a sensitive portrait of Girl in a Striped Nightshirt, and another of The Painter’s Mother. Francis Bacon’s room is next, one he shares with the photographer John Deakin, and includes Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud 1964, a painting that has not been seen by the public for fifty years. Both Michael Andrews and Ron Kitaj share an interest in the dynamics of social relationships, as shown in the former’s Colony Room and Deer Park, and the American’s Cecil Court and The Wedding. Paula Rego’s work always has an edge, sometimes bordering on the menacing, and The Family needed an interpretation, otherwise one could have mis-read it completely.
The final room is devoted to four young-ish women artists, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown, whose Teenage Wildlife is wonderfully evocative, Jenny Saville, whose larger than life paintings of the human figure are not done from life at all, nor are the works of the Ghanaian Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who reckons to bulk out a canvas in a single day. There was no real thread to this exhibition, or, if there was, it was a phantom one. There is more to a successful show than just hanging some terrific paintings by famous artists next to each other, even ones that the visitors have not seen before, or at least for half a century.