Jenny Saville, “Reverse” (2002-3), oil paint on canvas, 213.4 x 243.8 cm (courtesy of the artist and Gagosian, © Jenny Saville)

LONDON — All Too Human at Tate Britain explores how artists throughout the 20th century sought to capture a most intangible, immaterial concept: the human experience of the immediate physicality of their surroundings. The associated artists — of whom big names like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon will be familiar to most and duly enjoy good coverage – were mainly based in London, renowned for their savagely inventive manipulation of paint and creating images that are as visceral as they are technically ambitious. The thematically loose, high-concept brief behind the show, All Too Human, allows curators Elena Crippa and Laura Castagnini to touch on some more left-field interpretations of ‘human experience.’ At best, the premise shows artists such as Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach at an intriguing new angle and revisits lesser known names like FN Souza, but at worst makes some perplexing curatorial choices which defy its own set of rules, stretching relevance through some optimistic inclusions.

The size and expanse of the galleries to fill, combined with the relatively non-prescriptive brief allows for an inclusive approach, which is loosely chronologically arranged. We begin with Stanley Spencer, Walter Richard Sickert, and Chaïm Soutine, all working in the first half of the century and related, by the curators, through their practice of working from life. The styles vary wildly in mood and tone from the hot orange flesh of Spencer in domestic nude studies, to sombre Sickert interiors in grim Camden, and the brilliant seedy red of Soutine’s bell boys from the underbelly of Parisian hotels, each thematically distinguished by the artists’ personal situation. Still, we are invited to consider the paintings as a shared exercise in capturing the material-ness of experience. The importance given to brushwork and technique is highlighted as much as color. From the start, the curators seem to have no problem including Paris-based Soutine in a show supposedly focusing on London.

Frank Auerbach, “Head of Jake” (1997), oil paint on board, 61.3 x 50.8 cm (Private Collection © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)

The same principle is put to work with similar effect on artists characterized by their preference for impasto technique, where paint is laid so thickly as to become semi-sculptural, almost high-relief. Frank Auerbach’s 1960 “Head of E.O.W.I” is an extremely plastic riot of yellow, red, and white in which a smeared portrait illusion becomes apparent from a certain distance, and Leon Kossoff’s “Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon” of 1971 is a barely distinguishable vision that communicates through shimmering blue and beige hues the joyously bright and fun scene of the title. A whole room given to FN Souza demonstrates similarly the power of painterly technique over narrative content; supremely bold is his 1965 “Two Saints (After El Greco)” in which the entire surface is black, with figures distinguishable only by areas of matte versus gloss finish.

F.N. Souza, “Two Saints in a Landscape” (1961). acrylic paint on canvas, 128.3 x 95.9 cm (courtesy Tate, © The estate of F.N. Souza/DACS, London 2017)

Such inclusiveness dictated by the all-encompassing criteria of “personal experience” — by definition allowing everything from portraits, landscapes, interiors, studies, and nudes — constantly threatens to digress and stretch relevance. A hefty degree of willingness to suspend disbelief is required to digest some cases the curators are making; the pairing of Michael Andrews’s opaque, obtuse scenes from photographs and R.B. Kitaj’s highly linear graphic works on the basis of a shared admiration for Francis Bacon, who also worked from photos, is a flimsy argument not strengthened by any clear visual correlation between the works. A room filled with otherwise stunningly raw Francis Bacon’s has some balls to call itself “Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti: Figures in Isolation.” The room features a single Giacometti maquette and argues for a shared sense of post-war loss, as if this was not a feeling perpetuating much of the art made during this time. Bacon and Giacometti’s friendship and parallel careers concern a complex array of shared themes, of which alienation is definitely prominent, yet the single maquette here feels like shorthand, or a thumbnail, referencing a much wider survey that exists outside the scope of this show.

R.B. Kitaj, “The Wedding (1989-93), oil paint on canvas, 182.9 x 182.9 cm (courtesy Tate, © The estate of R. B. Kitaj)

Francis Bacon, “Portrait” (1962), oil paint on canvas, 198 x 141.5 cm (Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen. The Lambrecht-Schadeberg Collection/Winners of the Rubens Prize of the City of Siegen, © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London)

The idea of the medium of paint being specifically used as a detached, clinical method of observing the artist’s immediate surroundings — i.e. the nude body — is most pronounced with the inclusion of Slade School of Art’s Professor of Fine Art, William Coldstream. In this instance, the study of the body is so intellectualized that it is defined by the very grid-lines used when measuring one’s surroundings by sight; perpendicular, grid-like lines are visible at the outlined contours of his nude figures. This almost savage level of observation is most intense in the unflinching, unforgiving nude studies by Lucian Freud. Despite reams of warm flesh tones rendered by coarse, angular and truly virtuosic brushwork, the subjects remain cold, distant, as if lying in the operating room, or the morgue.

Freud’s work most closely fits the brief, coming closest to capturing the real ‘presence’ of the literal, material body. It is, however, what until now would have been called, without backlash, “masculine” painting. Its dominance, and how the Tate chooses to deal with this, results in some troubling gender representation. There is no denying that Freud embodies “the male gaze,” evident not just in the vulnerable faces in the female sitters but in the stark ugliness he imbues in all the naked flesh his eyes pore over. In this context, finishing the exhibition with female-only contemporary painters, each represented by a single piece and awkwardly crammed together into a tiny final room, feels like tokenism and positive discrimination. Jenny Saville, a British painter who has long been carrying the flame for so-called “masculine” painting with her marvelous, uncompromisingly large and close-up nudes is represented by the single “Reverse” (2002–3), but could — and should — have filled her own room. Paula Rego is generally criminally under-exposed and it is a delight to see her have one room to herself here, though her highly linear, narrative-driven renderings of fantastical scenes — though hauntingly captivating — belong in another exhibition.

Paula Rego, “The Family” (1988), acrylic paint on  canvas backed paper, 213.4 x 213.4 cm (courtesy Marlborough International Fine Art, © Paula Rego)

The work throughout this show is invigorating, gutsy, and demonstrates the immense power of the medium of paint when stretched to its limit. Yet an ill disciplined agenda too often undermines it with whimsical parallels and forced narratives, and the deliberate inclusion of women is encouraging in its well-meaning intent but handled with unfortunate clumsiness. It is rare that an exhibition characterized by such consistent quality of content may have benefited from some keen pruning and more focused arrangement.

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is on view at Tate Britain (Millbank, Westminster, London) until August 27.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...