Van Gogh and Britain @ Tate Britain

Before I went I’d read some disparaging reviews of this exhibition – but I found it really interesting, thought-provoking, full of wonderful paintings and prints and drawings, and making all kinds of unexpected connections. And big, much bigger than I expected.

The premise is simple: Vincent van Gogh came to live in England in 1873, at the age of 20. He lived in London for nearly three years, developing an intimate knowledge of the city and a great taste for English literature and painting. The exhibition:

  1. explores all aspects of van Gogh’s stay in London, with ample quotes from his letters to brother Theo priasing numerous aspects of English life and London – and contains several rooms full of the English paintings and prints of contemporary urban life which he adored
  2. then it explores the development of van Gogh’s mature style and the many specific references he made back to themes and settings and motifs he had first seen in London, in London’s streets and galleries
  3. finally, the exhibition considers the impact van Gogh had on British artists
    • as a result of the inclusion of his pictures in the famous 1910 exhibition Post-Impressionist Painting
    • between the wars when van Gogh’s letters were published and fostered the legend of the tormented genius, the man who was too beautiful and sensitive for this world
    • and then how van Gogh’s reputation was further interpreted after the debacle of the Second World War

Gustave Doré

The first three rooms deal with the London that van Gogh arrived in in 1873. Among the highlights was a set of seventeen prints from Gustave Doré’s fabulous book London, a pilgrimage, which had been published only the year before, 1872. All of these are marvellous and the first wall, the wall facing you as you enter the exhibition, is covered with an enormous blow-up of Doré’s illustration of the early Underground.

The Workmen’s Train by Gustave Doré (1872)

Frankly, I could have stopped right here and admired Doré’s fabulous draughtsmanship and social history, as I looked at the wall covered with seventeen of the prints from the book which we know van Gogh owned and revered.

It’s the basis of the first of many links and threads which run through the show because, many years later, when van Gogh had developed his mature style but had also developed the mental illness that was to plague him, during his confinement in a mental hospital, he was to paint a faithful copy of Doré’s depiction of inmates in Newgate prison but in his own blocky style, to express his own feelings.

The prison courtyard by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Social realism

Van Gogh had come to London because he had got a job with the art dealing firm Goupil, which was part of the fast-growing market for the popular prints and art reproductions which were informally referred to as ‘black and whites’.

VanGogh ended up with a collection of over 2,000 of these English prints, and admired them for their realistic depictions of contemporary urban scenes, especially among the poor. I was fascinated to learn that there was a set of socially-committed artists who all drew for The Graphic magazine, including Luke Fildes, Edward Dalziel, Frank Holl, and Edwin Buckman. The exhibition includes quite a few black and white social realist prints by artists from this circle and, as with the Doré, I could have studied this stuff all day long.

A London Dustyard by Edwin Buckman, from the Illustrated London News, 1873

The curators related these blunt depictions of London life back to the novels of Charles Dickens, who we know van Gogh revered (in this instance the rubbish dump motif linking to the dust yard kept by the Boffin family, the central symbol of his last, finished novel, Our Mutual Friend). As Vincent was to write during his first year as a struggling artist:

My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw.

But these illustrations by numerous London artists are also here because Vincent copied them. Next to the Buckman image of a dustyard is a graphite sketch of dustmen by Vincent. Next to a Luke Filde image of the homeless and poor, is a van Gogh drawing of a public soup kitchen.

A Public Soup Kitchen by Vincent Van Gogh (1883) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Other images include one of surly roughs waiting for the pub to open and a hooligan being arrested. Next to them all are van Gogh’s own earliest sketches and drawing, including a series he did of a homeless single mother begging on the streets, Sien Hoornik, who he took in and fed and had model for him (fully clothed) in a variety of postures of hopelessness and forlornness. And variations on the theme of tired, poor old men.

This is the Vincent who set his heart on becoming a vicar and did actually preach sermons at London churches, as well as crafting skilled sketches of churches in the letters he sent to brother Theo, and which are displayed here.

The example of old masters

But it wasn’t just magazine and topical illustration which fired Vincent’s imagination. The curators have also included a number of big classic Victorian paintings – by John Constable and John Millais among others – to give a sense of what ‘modern’ art looked like to the young van Gogh.

He was not yet a painter, in fact he didn’t know what he wanted to be. But the curators have hung the sequence, and accompanied them by quotes from letters, to show that, even in his early 20s, he was an acute observer of other people’s art, not only Victorian but other, older, pictures he would have seen at the National Gallery.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) © The National Gallery, London

Several of these classic paintings depict an open road between a line of trees and, as the room progresses, the curators have hung next to them van Gogh’s later depictions of the same motif, showing early versions of the motif done in a fairly rudimentary approach, the oil laid on thick and heavy and dark…

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn by Vincent van Gogh (1884) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

And then next to these, suddenly, we have the first works of his mature style in which his art and mind have undergone a dazzling liberation.

Path in the Garden of the Asylum by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The triumph of distortion

One of the things you can see evolving is his depiction of faces. Early on, he’s not very good. There’s a set of faces of what look like jurymen, as well as individual portraits of working men and women, and often they are either expressionless blocks, or a bit cack-handed, a bit lop-sided. Even the numerous sketches of Sien Hoornik are better at conveying expression through the bent posture of her body, than through facial expressions which are often blurred or ignored.

Similarly, you can’t help noticing that the early landscapes like the avenue of poplars, above, very much lack the suave painterly finish and style of his models (Constable, Millais).

But what happens as you transition into room four – which covers his move to Paris to be near his brother in 1885 – is a tremendous artistic and visual liberation, so that the very wonkiness and imperfections in his draughtmanship which were flaws in the earlier works, are somehow, magically, triumphantly, turned into strengths. The blockiness, the weakness of perspective, the lack of interest in strict visual accuracy, have suddenly been converted into a completely new way of seeing and of building up the image, which feels deeply, wonderfully emotionally expressive.

Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Room four makes fleeting reference to the community of like-minded artists he found working around Paris, and in particular to Pissarro, exponent of what was being called neo-Impressionism.

It seems quite obvious that van Gogh was very influenced by the Frenchman’s experiments with chunks and blocks, and spots and dabs and lines of pure colour. The painting above combines the strong formal outlines redolent of the black and white Victorian prints he revered so highly, with a new approach to filling in the outlines – not with a consistent smooth finish à la Millais – but a completely new idea of filling the space with disconnected lines of paint, the artist quite happy to leave blanks between them, quite happy to let us see them as isolated lines all indicating colour and texture.

The curators link this technique back to the cross-hatching used to create volume and shape by the Victorian print-makers and illustrators. So one way of thinking about what happened is that Vincent transferred a technique designed for print making to oil painting. What happens if you don’t create a smooth, finished all-over wash of colour, but deliberately use isolated lines and strokes, playing with the affect that basic, almost elemental short brushstrokes of mostly primal colours, create when placed next to each other.

It has a jazzy effect, creates a tremendous visual vibration and dynamism. the image looks like it is quivering or buzzing.

The Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition

To be honest, by this stage my head was buzzing with the fabulous images of Doré and Fildes and the other British illustrators, and van Gogh’s similarly social realist depictions of the poor, the old, prostitutes and so on and the way the early social realist paintings had morphed into a series of paintings of outdoor landscapes. I felt full to overflowing with information and beauty. But there was a lot more to come.

Suddenly it is 1910 and room five is devoted to the epoch-making exhibition held in London and titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists by the curator Roger Fry. As with Doré’s underground image at the start, the curators have blown up a page from a popular satirical magazine of the time, depicting the dazed response of sensible Britishers to the outlandish and demented art of these foreign Johnnies and their crazed, deformed, ridiculously over-coloured paintings. A number of Vincent’s paintings were included in the show and came in for special scorn from the philistine Brits.

This amusing room signals the start of part two of the show which looks at van Gogh’s posthumous influence on a whole range of native British artists.

This second half is, I think more mixed and of more questionable value than the first half. We know which British artists and illustrators van Gogh liked and admired and collected, because he included their names and his responses to their works, in his many letters.

As to the influence he had after his death, this is perforce far more scattered and questionable. Thus room six introduces us to paintings by Walter Sickert, leader of the Camden Town school (whose work I have always cordially hated for its dingily depressing dark brown murk), to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (bright Bloomsburyites), and to Matthew Smith, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman.

The Vineyard by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

It’s impossible to place any of these artists on the same level as Vincent. Amid the sea of so-so also-rans, the scattered examples of works by van Gogh ring out, shout from the walls, proclaim the immensity of his genius, the vibrancy of design, colour and execution. Like an adult among children.

That said, there’s quite a lot of pleasure to be had from savouring these less-well-known British artists for their own sakes. I was particularly drawn to the works of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore. Here is Gore’s painting of Gilman’s house. It doesn’t have a lot to do with van Gogh, does it, stylistically? Apart from being very brightly coloured.

Harold Gilman’s House at Letchworth, Hertfordshire by Spencer Gore. Courtesy of New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Similarly, I really liked Gilman’s picture of the inside of a London caff, focusing on the decorative wallpaper and bright red newel posts, and a sensitive portrait titled Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. The curators relate this latter painting back to Vincent’s vivid, warts-and-all portraits, which also contain highly decorative elements and stylised wallpaper, a garish brightness which scandalised critics of the 1910 show.

Maybe. It’s a good painting, he conveys the old woman’s character in a sober, unvarnished way and the use of decorative elements is interesting. But only a few yards away is hanging one of five or six drop-dead van Gogh masterpieces of the show, the Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889), and there is absolutely no competition.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Hammer Museum collection

Good God, hardly anything you’ve ever seen before explodes with such power and vibrancy as this painting. The brown earth, the green grass, the writhing trees and the very air seem to have burst into flames, to be erupting and leaping with energy, fire, ecstasy, fear, manic force.

Although there are a number of other, milder, more discreet landscapes by Vincent, when he is in this manic mood he wipes everybody else off the table, he dominates the dancefloor, he takes over the room, while the others are playing nice tunes on their recorders, he is like a Beethoven symphony of colour and expression, full of tumult and vision.

The impact of sunflowers

Emotionally and intellectually exhausted? I was. But there’s more. A whole room devoted to sunflowers. Pride of place goes to one of his most famous paintings, the sunflowers of 1888, and I was fascinated to learn from the wall label that van Gogh’s still lifes contributed to a major revival of the art of painting flowers. There are ten or a dozen other paintings of sunflowers around this room, by a whole range of other artists (of whom I remember Winifred and William Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Frank Brangwyn and Jacob Epstein). One of the Brits is quoted as saying that the painting of flowers had been more or less dismissed by the moderns, as having come to a dead end in Victorian tweeness and sentimentality. Until Vincent’s flower paintings were exhibited in the 1920s.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) © The National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s flower works showed that flowers could be painted in an entirely new way, blazing with colour and passion, wildly undermining traditional canons of beauty, revealing the passionate secrets implicit in the shapes and patterns of nature.

In a work like this you see a pure example of his exploration of colour for its own sake, a post-Impressionists’ post-Impressionist, the sunflowers not only being a blistering depiction of the flower motif, but a highly sophisticated and daring experiment with all the different tones of yellow available to the artist in 1888. So much to do, so much to paint, so much experience implicit in every fragment of God’s beautiful world!

Van Gogh’s reputation between the wars

By the 1920s van Gogh’s works were being exhibited regularly in Britain and snapped up by private collectors. He became famous. The process was helped hugely by the publication in English translation of his vivid, passionate and tormented letters. The life and the works became inextricably intertwined in the myth of the tortured genius. The curators quote various writers and experts between the wars referring to Vincent’s ‘brilliant and unhappy genius’.

However, this room of his last works makes a simple point. For a long time it was thought that the painting he was working on when he shot himself on 27 July 1890 was ‘Wheatfield With Crows‘. Forests have been destroyed to provide the paper for oceans of black ink to be spilt publishing countless interpretations which read into this fierce and restless image the troubled thoughts which must have been going through the tormented genius’s mind on his last days.

Except that the display in this room says that the most recent research by Vincent scholars have conclusively proven that it was not Van Gogh’s last painting! The painting he was working on when he shot himself was a relatively bland and peaceful landscape painting of some old farm buildings.

Farms near Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) © Tate

The point is – there’s nothing remotely tormented about this image. And so the aim of the display is to debunk the myth of the ‘tortured’ artist and replace it with the sane and clear-eyed artist who was, however, plagued by mental illness.

Phantom of the road

This point is pushed home in the final room which examines van Gogh’s reputation in Britain after the Second World War. All his works, along with all other valuable art had been hidden during the war. Now it re-emerged into public display, including a big show at Tate in 1947.

In the post-war climate, in light of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, the legend of the tormented genius took on a new, darker intensity. The curators choose to exemplify this with a raft of blotchy, intense self-portraits by the likes of David Bomberg which, they argue, reference van Gogh’s own striking self portraits.

But this final room is dominated by a series of paintings made by the young Francis Bacon in which he deliberately copies the central motif of a self-portrait Vincent had made of himself, holding his paints and easel and walking down a road in Provence.

Bacon chose to re-interpret this image in a series of enormous and, to my mind, strikingly ugly paintings, three of which dominate one wall of this final room.

Study for portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon (1957) Tate © The Estate of Francis Bacon

They are, in fact, interesting exercises in scale and colour, and also interesting for showing how Bacon hadn’t yet found his voice or brand. And interesting, along with the Bomberg et al in showing how the legend of tormented genius was interpreted in the grim grey era of Austerity Britain.

And they show what a very long journey we have come on – from the young man’s early enthusiasm for Charles Dickens and Gustave Doré right down to his reincarnation as a poster boy for the age of the H-bomb.

A bit shattered by the sheer range of historical connections and themes and ideas and visual languages on show, I strolled back through the exhibition towards its Victorian roots, stopping at interesting distractions on the way (some of Harold Gilman’s works, the big cartoon about the Post-Impressionist show, some Pissarros, the Millais and Constable at the beginning, the wall of Dorés), but in each room transfixed by the one or two blistering masterpieces by the great man.

Even if you didn’t read any of the wall labels or make the effort to understand all the connections, links and influences which the curators argue for, it is still worth paying to see the handful of staggering masterpieces which provide the spine for this wonderful, dazzling, life-enhancing exhibition.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1888) Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grtand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

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All Too Human @ Tate Britain

Britain is a collection of chilly rainswept islands in the North Atlantic, on the same latitude as Moscow (as we may learn to our cost in the decades to come, if global warming really does disrupt the Gulf Stream). For more than half the year the sky is overcast and grey. Whereas the inhabitants of southern countries like Spain or Italy have a tradition of living outside for much of the year, and dressing their finest every night for the evening stroll or passeggiata, ours is a country of fusty pubs for the working class and dinner parties for the posh. Ours is an indoors country.

This basic fact about life in Britain come across very strongly in Tate Britain’s new exhibition, All Too Human: Bacon, Freud And A Century Of Painting Life. It is a show of some 93 paintings, one sculpture and half a dozen black-and-white photographs by some of the most celebrated British artists of the past 100 years who have painted depictions of the human body. In roughly chronological order the artists are:

  • Walter Sickert b.1860
  • David Bomberg b.1890
  • Stanley Spencer b.1891
  • Chaim Soutine b.1893
  • Giacometti b.1901
  • William Coldstream b.1908
  • Francis Bacon b.1909
  • John Deakin b.1912
  • Lucian Freud b.1922
  • Francis Souza b.1924
  • Leon Kossoff b.1926
  • Dorothy Mead b.1928
  • Michael Andrew b.1928
  • Frank Auerbach b.1931
  • Dennis Creffield b.1931
  • Euan Uglow b.1932
  • R.B. Kitaj b.1932
  • Paula Rego b.1935
  • Celia Paul b.1959
  • Cecily Brown b.1969
  • Jenny Saville b.1970
  • Lynette Yiadom-Boakye b.1970

Mud or Mad

A reviewer of Tennyson’s long poem, Maud (1855) sardonically commented that it would have been more accurately named if either of the vowels had been removed. As I walked round this grim, dark and oppressive exhibition, I began to think most of the works on display could similarly be divided into ‘Mud’ or ‘Mad’, with maybe the additional category of ‘Livid Corpse’.

1. Mud

The School of Mud was inaugurated by Walter Sickert, leader of the so-called Camden Town Group. While John Singer Sargent was painting evocative portraits of fine society ladies or women with parasols lounging in the Mediterranean sunshine, Sickert painted prostitutes in dingy attics or leering crowds in half-lit music halls. The three works by him here are deliberately squalid, dark and dingy, so dark you have to peer up close to see any detail.

Nuit d'Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Nuit d’Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Rooms five and six of the exhibition explore the work of David Bomberg as artist and teacher at Borough Polytechnic, where his emphasis on the tactile quality of paint influenced his students Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach.

Bomberg is represented by Vigilante, which I quite liked because of its powerful vertical lines, which reminded me of the Vorticist work of Wyndham Lewis or Jacob Epstein. But it was his use of thick impasto which influenced his students and went on to become the distinguishing characteristic of the paintings of Kossoff and Auerbach.

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

These murky, smeary, thick abortions of the darkest browns and blacks possible made me think of an explosion in a sewage farm. Some of them made me feel physically sick. The joke is that many of them are meant to be outdoors scenes. Is this how you see or experience London?

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Or this?

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

The commentary claims that:

Both Auerbach and Kossoff display great sensitivity to the conditions of light, convey the dynamism of city life and reflect the mood of a specific moment

which I thought might be a joke. Let’s look again at Kossoff’s sensitive depiction of light.

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Not quite so muddy, but still revelling in gloom, bleakness of mood, greys and blacks splattered with neurotic blotches of colour, is the handful of works later in the show by Celia Paul.

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Cheerful stuff, eh?

The smear-and-daub tradition (Sickert-Bomberg-Auerbach) which this exhibition reveals to be a major thread in modern British art is represented in our day bt the bang up-to-date works of Cecily Brown.

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

2. Mad

Only room one deals with the depiction of the human figure between 1918 and 1945. That’s not much space for nearly thirty years, is it? Murky Sickert, distorted Soutine and blue-veined Stanley Spencer are the only artists included (We’ll come back to Spencer under the category of ‘livid corpses’) thus omitting quite a lot of other artists active during this period.

Then it’s quickly on to Francis Bacon, who dominates rooms two and seven with his screaming popes, tortured dogs and baboons, men turning into hunks of meat. All depicted against precise geometric backgrounds as if caught in cages or on stage as specimens. Angst. Existential despair etc.

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

In the hall outside the exhibition there’s a loop of videos playing which show interviews with some of the featured artists, alongside display cases and wall displays showing photographs of the artists’ studios. Bacon’s was a notoriously filthy, dirty, messy cave with only a skylight allowing the grey light of Soho to penetrate down into the torture chamber. It tends to confirm your prejudices to learn that Lucian Freud’s studio, also in Soho, was nearly as dirty and scrappy.

The room after the early Bacon is devoted to Francis Souza whose strikingly large paintings are done in an edgy, angular, primitive style. The room is dominated by an enormous Crucifixion and a full figure painting of a naked black woman. Reproductions can’t convey how enormous, dark and menacing they are.

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Again – dark dark dark, intense or even demented. I actually liked them, they have a terrific style, but God the mood they convey is wretched.

Room ten of the exhibition is devoted to paintings by Paul Rego. To quote the curators (there are three curators, all women):

Women’s lives and stories have often been overlooked in art as a historically male-dominated activity. Rego places them at the centre of her work. Women are portrayed as undertaking a variety of activities, in a broad range of moods and temperaments, as victims, culprits, carers, passive observers and sexually-charged creatures. As viewers we are drawn into and become complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power.

Here’s an example: can you feel yourself being drawn into it and becoming complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power?

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

Obviously, the more you look at it, the more disturbing it becomes. Maybe that’s what the commentary meant. For me the disturbing element is the way the schoolgirl fiddling with the man’s trousers in a way which in recent times we’ve been taught to think of as pedophilia, as being a sex crime. Yet she has the head of an adult woman. So…

Livid corpses

There aren’t any actual corpses on display, that’s just a short hand way of describing a style of painting human skin and bodies which emphasises the whiteness of English complexions, the lack of exposure to sunlight which leaves so many English bodies pale, pallid and covered in blue veins.

The exhibition decisively shows the strong tradition in English art of arranging and depicting the naked human body in the most unflattering way possible, as if it was a corpse just been pulled out of the Thames. It is as unsensual and unsexy as it is possible to be.

One recurrent cliché or trope of this styleis to depict a woman mostly wearing clothes but revealing one slack, white, veined breast in the most unappealing way possible. We see Stanley Spencer establishing this tradition in room one.

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

(There’s a lot more to Spencer than his full frontal nudes, as any visitor to the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham or even to the 1910 room in Tate Britain will discover – but for some reason it’s always the saggy-boobed and flaccid-penised nudes which feature in exhibitions like this, never the scores of paintings he did of the cheerfully clothed men and women of his native Cookham.)

Anyway, saggy blue-veined boobs was a motif picked up by young Lucian Freud fifteen years later.

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Freud makes his first appearance as a pupil of art school teacher William Coldstream in room four, and then has the largest room in the show – room seven ‘Lucian Freud: In the Studio’ – devoted to him, with 13 big paintings.

It is interesting to learn that Freud’s mature style was the result of his switching from the small brushes which produced the smooth finish of paintings like the one above, to using bigger, coarser brushes which produced a more modern, slightly blotchy style. And that he moved away from the sitter – instead of being close and smooth, his portraits become more distant, more mottled.

Those changes by themselves, however, don’t account for the drastic change from the smooth, light palette of the painting above to his fascination with all the hues of brown, orange, grey and white which result in the characteristic blotched skin of his mature work.

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

The Freud room is full of paintings which revel in the ungainliness and the sheer ugliness of raw, naked, gawky, livid English bodies. Feet with their corns, legs with varicose veins, the tanned face and chest contrasting with the rest of the pallid body, the livid puce of this man’s flaccid cock and balls. In all of Freud’s ugly nudes I get the feeling the painter is daring you to come out and say how disgusted you are. Just how ugly can he make his people, before the viewer cries ‘Enough!’

Recognisably in the same tradition of ‘English ugly’ are the paintings of Jenny Saville although, unlike Freud, for reasons I can’t quite define, I’ve always loved Saville’s work.

Saville broke through in the fabulous Sensation exhibition of 1997, with paintings of grotesquely fat people who seemed to be pushing right up against the surface of the canvas, squeezed and compressed right into your face. All her works are awesomely big.

For some reason, although Freud’s blotchy nudes with their hairy penises and ragged vulvas make me feel like I’m in a butcher’s shop, I find Saville’s work visually thrilling and exciting. But it’s still from the very English ‘school of ugly’.

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

A little light

Is there any light in this gallery of murk, madness and tormented flesh? Yes, some.

I’d never heard of Michael Andrews. In line with the general vibe two of his paintings here are of gloomy roughly-sketched interiors in Soho, namely the notorious Colony Club where Bacon et al. hung out, drank and bitched. But there is also this surprisingly touching outdoors scene.

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

It was admiring the grace and tenderness in this painting which brought home to me how much the qualities of gentleness or grace are missing from almost all of these paintings – certainly from all the screaming Bacons, blotchy Freuds, oily Kossoffs, murky Auerbachs and mad Regos.

And for that matter, scenes simply set outdoors are few and far between in this show: there are none in the Bacon room, none in the Freud room. Even when there are supposedly outdoor scenes, as in the Auerbach and Kossoff rooms, you wouldn’t really know it, so buried are the motifs in layers of industrial thickness sludge.

No – happy, light, outdoor scenes are conspicuous by their complete absence, as is the depiction of the human body as a thing of beauty. Think of Aubrey Hepburn. Think of a ballerina. Think of Lionel Messi nutmegging a defender. Think of a hundred images of people in outdoors settings, laughing at cafes, walking through woods, gardening, sunbathing.

All of that, almost all of actual human life, is consciously excluded from this parade of horrors and corpses.

It’s odd that anyone takes ‘Art’ as being in any way representative of the actual life of its era when it is quite obviously the opposite – the product of a cloistered, hermetically-sealed world which almost makes a virtue of not capturing or depicting the actual lives of the people around it.

The only room which provided a relief from torture and turpitude was room four, devoted to the teachings of William Coldstream at the Slade School of Fine Art. Coldstream developed a process for marking out the canvas with precise grids to help construct a realistic image, deliberately leaving bits of grid visible to hint at the geometric framework beneath the ‘reality’.

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

I liked the precision of his draughtsmanship and the way you can see original lines of the sketch showing through the oil colours. That sense of outlines and shape. Three or four of Coldstream’s relatively light and airy works are included, alongside some by his pupil Euan Uglow.

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

In the flesh, up close, you can see traces of the lines of the grid which Uglow created across the canvas and many of the little crosses formed by the crossing of lines remain visible through the paint. I like that sense of the mechanical or mathematical emerging from the picture – or the sense of the work being unfinished, a work in progress.

As to the actual image, it’s another unsmiling person. In an exhibition devoted to the depiction of human beings over the past 100 years of English art not one person is smiling, let alone laughing (apart from the mad mother in the Paul Rego painting).

All confirming that ‘Art’ is a bloody serious, sombre, tragic business, you know.

Contemporary artists

The eleventh and final room is devoted to works by four younger or contemporary artists, all four of them women – including Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown and Celia Paul (all mentioned and illustrated above).

The Saville I loved, the Brown and Paul a lot less so. And, alas, as so often with contemporary artists, their work turns out – according to the (female) curators – to be all about sexuality and identity.

In their representations of figures they explore what it is to be human from a contemporary perspective. Throughout their work, they investigate and stretch stereotypical views on femininity, masculinity, race and many other categories that define and constrain identity.

Last word for Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, born in 1970 and so, along with Saville, the youngest artist in the show. According to the wall label she knocks out her paintings in a day of rapid and intense work. I liked both her pieces on display here, because I like disegno, the ability to conceive and carry out accurate line drawings. Both her works here display extremely skilled draughtsmanship, a handy way with oil paints, and the ability to create mood and expression.

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Still, though – very dark aren’t they? Britain is for much of the year a dark and gloomy place which, at least according to this exhibition, has inspired a lot of dark and gloomy art – and the sombre palette of Yiadom-Boakye’s work fits right into that tradition.


The promotional video

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Reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Fighting History @ Tate Britain

The title is slightly misleading. It, and the poster of British redcoats in a battle, suggest the show will be about depictions of war (a thorough investigation of how artists have depicted war would have been very interesting) – but it isn’t. There are some depictions of war scenes and there’s an entire room dedicated to the so-called Battle of Orgreave during the 1984 Miners’ Strike, but there are as many or more depictions of non-war-related, if dramatic, scenes from history and literature, and an entire room dedicated to the Biblical flood – neither of them involving fighting or battles.

Like a lot of Tate shows in recent years, this show takes a provocatively eclectic, pick’n’mix approach to the subject which, ultimately, leaves the visitor more confused than when they arrived. There are good and interesting things in the jumble, but the visitor is left, again, with the strong impression that Tate has to find themes or topics to justify displaying lots of second-rate paintings (usually kept in its enormous archive) and livened up with a handful of greatest hits to pull the punters in.

Word of this must have got around: when I arrived (Friday 10.30) there was one other visitor in the whole show; when I left this had shot up to four visitors. People must have read the reviews (see below).

There are six rooms:

1. Radical history painting

The first room points out that history painting, considered the peak of artistic achievement in the 18th and 19th centuries, fell out of favour in the Modernist 20th century and became widely associated with conservative, old-fashioned, patriotic tendencies. But the exhibition seeks to show that artists can still ‘engage’ with historical subjects, with ‘anti-establishment’ events, demonstrating ‘resistance’ to established authority, in ‘radical’ ways. In other words -history painting can be cool.

  • Dexter Dalwood – The Poll Tax Riots (2005) I watched this riot on TV and was caught up in a poll tax riot in Brixton around this period. I see the cleverness of imposing the Berlin Wall on either side of Trafalgar Square and this painting is very big, but I don’t find very appealing, powerful or persuasive.
Dexter Dalwood, The Poll Tax Riots (2005) Private collection © The Artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London & Hong Kong

Dexter Dalwood, The Poll Tax Riots (2005)
Private collection
© The Artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London & Hong Kong

  • Jeremy Deller – The History of The World (1997-2004) Placed in the first room to maybe deliberately subvert the visitor’s expectations of a show about history painting, this instead confirms the visitor’s expectations that this will be another Tate show designed to display the curator’s eclectic vision and street-cool radicalism. Connected to the art work, Deller made recordings of a brass band playing acid house tracks, a fun idea though it seems a bit dated now.

2. 250 years of British history painting

History painting in the 18th century involved taking a pregnant or meaningful moment which demonstrated heroic virtues and patriotism, figures were grouped to create a dramatic tableau (and to highlight the artist’s knowledge of anatomy) with stylised and symbolic gestures, the whole thing often referencing classical predecessors to add artistic and cultural authority.

In fact remarkably few of the 12 paintings in this room reflected any of that, only the last three really fit the description.

  • Richard Hamilton – Kent State (1970) Image of one of the four students shot dead by State troopers taken, as was Hamilton’s Pop practice, from a TV still.
  • Walter Sickert – Miss Earhart’s Arrival (1932) I’ve never liked Sickert’s murky, muddy style.
  • Richard Eurich – D-Day Landing (1942) Superficially realistic, this painting apparently used diagrams, maps and charts of the landing to create a slightly more schematic image.
Richard Eurich, The Landing at Dieppe, 19th August 1942 1942-3 Oil paint on wood Tate

Richard Eurich, The Landing at Dieppe, 19th August 1942 (1942-3)
Oil paint on wood
Tate

  • Stanley Spencer – The Centurion’s Servant (1914) Early Spencer, an example of standard English anti-Romanticism/naive style. Not that attractive.
  • Sir John Everett Millais – The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870) A lollypop. A greatest hit. An Abba classic. Churlish not to love it.
  • Henry Wallis – The Room In Which Shakespeare Was Born (1853)
  • Steve McQueen – The Lynching Tree (2003) McQueen was scouting locations for his movie 12 Years A Slave and came across this still-surviving lynching tree, surrounded by graves of the black people murdered on it.
  • Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – A Silent Greeting (1889) I like the ‘Olympians’, the group of late Victorian artists who painted scenes from the classical world. Alma-Tadema was often compared to the painters of the Dutch enlightenment eg Vermeer, for his attention to the detail of quiet domestic scenes.
  • Charles Holroyd – Death of Torrigiano (1886) The commentary points out that the death of Torrigiano was taken by Protestant Brits as an example of the repressiveness of Catholicism, which prompts the thought that this is a vast subject -you could probably fill an exhibition on the theme of the fighting Protestantism of British identity since the Reformation – which goes almost untouched in this exhibition about British history.
  • Johann Zoffany – The Death of Captain Cook (1798) Not a good painting, though demonstrating the arch and stylised gestures to be found in ‘history painting’.
  • Colin Morison – Andromache Offering Sacrifice to Hector’s Shade (1760) An episode from Virgil’s Aenieid, with badly-painted classical figures arranged artfully around the canvas engaging in stereotyped expressions of emotion.
  • Benjamin West – Cleombrotus Ordered into Banishment by Leonidas II, King of Sparta (1768) A stylised simplicity of gesture and lack of decoration which anticipates the French neo-classical painter, David.

3. Ancient history

Antiquarians and painters interested in history transferred the dignity of setting and classical attitudes to myths and legends of ancient Britain, lending the aura of classical authority to our island story.

  • Sir Edward Poynter – A Visit to Aesculapius (1880) Poynter was director of the National Gallery and an important theorist of late Victorian painting. The gestures of the women seems modelled on statues of the three graces, but are also saucy naked women which eminent Victorians could view without moral qualms.
  • Sir John Everett Millais – Speak! Speak! (1895) Millais was a painter of genius as various recent exhibitions of the pre-Raphaelites have highlighted. This appears to have been an entirely invented situation: the male figure reaching out is hand is corny, but the figure of the commanding woman in white is majestic and haunting when you see the actual painting, reminiscent of other late Victorian powerful women eg John Singer Sargent’s extraordinary painting of Ellen Terry playing Lady MacBeth.
  • James Barry – King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia (1786-8) Once taken deadly seriously, this looks like a cartoon now.
  • Gavin Hamilton – Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1765) Another chaste, neo-classical canvas, the unrealistic figures displaying stylised gestures. I think the purpose is to emphasise wifely fidelity and humility, neither of which strike a chord in our times.
Gavin Hamilton, Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1765-72) Tate

Gavin Hamilton, Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1765-72)
Tate

4. British history

The trouble is there is a lot of British history, an enormous amount. This selection is so random, such a miscellany, that it’s hard to extract any meaning or ideas from it.

  • Allen Jones – The Battle of Hastings (1961) A bracing doodling semi-abstract, jokey 60s-style.
  • William Frederick Yeames – Amy Robsart (1877) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, stood a strong chance of marrying Queen Elizabeth, the only problem being he was already married. He conveyed his wife, Amy Robsart, to a country house and there his servants asphyxiated her with a pillow then threw her down the stairs as if killed by an intruder. This painting shows the killer and other servants coming across her body. I like the simplicity of the painting and the simple but effective trick of having the innocent woman illuminated by a glow with the murderous servants in gloom at the top of the stairs.
  • Michael Fullerton – Loyalist Female (Katie Black) Glasgow, 3rd July 2010 (2010)
  • Richard Hamilton – The Citizen (1981) Taken, as was Hamilton’s practice, from a still of a TV documentary about the ‘dirty protesters’ in H block. A large, striking and, I think, very successful painting due to its composition, the balance of the two panels, the abstract swirls (made out of the inmate’s faces) and the haunting Jesus-like figure of the prisoner, Hugh Rooney.
Richard Hamilton, The citizen (1981-3) Oil paint on two canvases Tate © The estate of Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton, The citizen (1981-3)
Oil paint on two canvases
Tate
© The estate of Richard Hamilton

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds – Colonel Tarleton (1782) A wonderful composition showing what a genius Reynolds was as the posed portrait.
  • John Singleton Copley – The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, 7 July 1778 (1779) To be admired for the sweep and flow of the composition and the use of light to highlight the heroic figure of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, who made a great patriotic speech against granting America its independence, and promptly collapsed and died. Apparently, Copley exhibited the painting privately and charged visitors a shilling a view.
  • Philip James de Loutherbourg – The Battle of the Nile (1800) It was displayed with a key naming the ships depicted, which the guidebook to the exhibition usefully quotes.
  • Malcolm Morley – Trafalgar Waterloo (2013) Modern construction piggybacking on two famous portraits of Nelson and Wellington.
  • John Minton – The Death of Nelson (1952) Though obviously a modern recasting of the vent, it’s interesting to see how Minton uses the same highlight effect to focus on the hero as all his predecessors.
  • John Singleton Copley – The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (1783) French forces tried to invade Jersey. Peirson was in charge of the British defenders, refused to give way, and was shot dead by a sniper. It’s notable how contemporary many of these history paintings were, depicting events still fresh in the public memory.
John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (1783) © Tate

John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (1783)
© Tate

5. The Battle of Orgreave

An entire room dedicated to the 1984 miners’ strike, focusing on the so-called ‘Battle of Orgreave’ coal mine. Part of the room is showing on a permanent loop the 62-minute documentary reconstructing the battle with eyewitness accounts and interviews, produced by artist Jeremy Deller (and directed by Mike Figgis) in 2001. The shouting and the angry Northern accents are very penetrating and spill over into the surrounding rooms, distracting me from thinking about the Battle of the Nile or Trafalgar or any of the subjects in the preceding room.

I felt sorry for the poor security guards who must have to sit here and listen to the same angry Northern voices hour after hour, day after day. It must drive them mad.

For me the fact that every shot in the documentary was a reconstruction fatally undermined it, no matter that many of the re-enactors had been there. It’s 31 years ago now. A friend at school’s sister was going out with a policeman who told her how much fun they were having: spirited away from boring trudging the beat, to live in barracks, with exciting opportunities for fighting on a regular basis and getting paid triple time – perfect!

Next to the video is a room whose wall is covered with a comprehensive timeline of the miners’ strike, as well as display cases of journals, diaries, newspapers, a police shield, a big map of the UK with coal mines and power stations indicated, a TV showing a video of Confederate re-enactors in the US (?), a shelf of books about Thatcher and the strike.

If you want to relive those bitter days and the crushing sense of defeat many people felt at the eventual capitulation of the miners, it’s all here to wallow in.

Jeremy Deller, Jacket from The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to one is an Injury to All) (2001) Tate. Commissioned and produced by Artangel, film directed by Mike Figgis. Presented by Tate Members 2005. The Artangel Collection at Tate © Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller, Jacket from The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to one is an Injury to All) (2001)
Tate. Commissioned and produced by Artangel, film directed by Mike Figgis. Presented by Tate Members 2005. The Artangel Collection at Tate
© Jeremy Deller

6. The deluge

The final, very large, room is dedicated to the subject of the Deluge, the Biblical flood, nothing – you might think – to do with history or fighting. It was interesting to be told that, as a subject, it gained a new relevance in the mid-19th century with new discoveries in Geology which shed light on the deep history of the planet, with a school of scientists using the story of the Flood to explain the presence of fossils of seashells on the tops of mountains etc. All the paintings in this room were poor – big, yes, melodramatic, yes, and a bit silly.

  • William Westall – The Commencement of The Deluge (1848) Rough thick Constable-esque crests of white paint. Looked better from the other end of the room.
  • Francis Darby – The Deluge (1840) A powerful, smooth, heroically bad painting.
  • JMW Turner – The Deluge (1805) A bad Turner.
  • Dexter Dalwood – The Deluge (2006)
  • Winifred Knights – The Deluge (1920)
Winifred Knights, The Deluge (1920) Oil paint on canvas Tate © The estate of Winifred Knights

Winifred Knights, The Deluge (1920)
Oil paint on canvas
Tate
© The estate of Winifred Knights

The commentary gives the room a bit of factitious ‘relevance’ by claiming that, with scientists warning of sea level rises due to global warming, the subject may be taking on a new relevance.

Not really – warming won’t produce the flood which these paintings all depict, it will be slow if inexorable. If it happens at all. Rather than a sentence in the guide it would have been good to have an actual work making this connection. For example, one of Maggie Hambling’s sea-related works, the You are the sea installation or the Wall of water paintings which I reviewed in April.

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