All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life was an up-and-down experience of dirty realism, stretching from the dirty underground of London in works like Walter Sickert's Nuit d'été to religious-iconography-turned-child-bride in Paula Rego's Bride. This was my first OCA study visit, and was a wonderful experience - both of seeing the art but, predominantly, of discussing it with other art students and our tutor for the day Gerald Deslandes.
The first room of the exhibit was something of a general overview of the first (main) part of the show - featuring work by David Bloomberg, Walter Sickert, Chaim Soutine, and Stanley Spencer. My overarching thought about the room was 'who is framing these works and why are they overframed'? Aesthetically, I felt that the framing conventions that these artist were working within (probably the domain of curators and gallerists rather than the artists themselves) were dominated by work that felt right framed in bold, often gilt frames. These did not.
My other main thought was that while the work in this room was meant to give something of a contextual overview for the whole show, it was a shame that so many visitors seemed to 'rush though' it - presumably to get to the Bacons in the next room. The guide comments that these works were meant to give 'a sense of the material qualities of their subject', and I felt this most viscerally in Sickert's 'The Studio: The painting of a nude' from 1906 (incidentally, last sold at auction in 1987 for £137k). It was the material presence of the artist in the composition - his shoulder dominating the left hand side of the work, with his arm extending down across the image - the sketchy nude woman clearly meant to be both primary and secondary to the work itself. The painting Sickert is doing in this painting is either a study of this scene from a mirror, or else not from a live sitting - the painting is not a painting of this woman, but also this woman. Although I am not keen to get into La Trahison des images [Ceci n'est pas une pipe] territory with this work, that conceptualism was clearly starting to infiltrate the artistic milieu - La Trahison des images was only 10-15 years off (depending of the dating of Sickert's work) and Duchamp's Fountain only 5-10. More than anything, it made me think about the role of the artist, the viewer, and the subject (who, in the paintings in this exhibition, often is not the subject at all).
Room two was basically All Bacon. There was one of Alberto Giacometti's elongated walking statues in the centre of the room, and I'm quite embarrassed to say I did not actually pay much attention to it. What I did look at was, perhaps obviously, Bacon's Study after Velázquez. This was not the one from this series of works that I (as many others, I'm sure) knew best - which is Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X. In that work, Innocent X is still recognisably religious, but in the work of this exhibition the obviously religious figure is turned business man. His face screams - the mouth, and straight white teeth, dominate the face, which it distorted by vertical 'lines' that erase the features, making the background into foreground. These juxtapose the long, thin red lines that dominate the background, forming a curtain behind the figure - bars? the American flag? The papal robes shed from the high-priest-turned-high-capitalist? At the bottom right corner, the otherwise white, straight lines that make up the plinth on which the figure sits, are broken though with several lines that writhe the wrong way, reminiscent of snakes - or perhaps the souls lost from following this false prophet?
Room three was dedicated to Francis Newton Souza's work, much of it with a distinct, and overt, religious subject. I found Souza's use of colour incredibly emotive and powerful - where the palate does not always match the subject itself, but does match - and more, evoke! - the mood that the seeps out of the painting. The flat, blue face of the figure in Negro in Mourning shows a man in mourning. This is enhanced by the drips of paint that spill down from his collar and tie. The man himself perhaps cannot bring himself to cry, but his clothing - his very being - is shedding tears.
I found Crucifixion and Two Saints (after El Greco) particularly moving (I can't find an image of the latter to link to, but this article on Souza's black-on-black paintings is worth a read). These were both painterly expressions of raw emotion wrapped up in a religious iconography that transcends (for me, at least) the socio-religious aspect of the works.
Crucifixion features a Christ with an exposed pulmonary system in the chest, along with an exposed and dissected trachea in the throat. The figure to Christ's right - wearing red (who I read as Roman) is wearing what looks like a mural crown. The other figure is eating a skeletal hand. There is a tangible visceral nature to this work, with emotions that launch off the canvas and drip onto the viewer - of Christ's steely eyed acceptance of the pain of his crucifixion, the linear nature of his face and distorted mouth with exposed teeth. This is read both as a tacit acceptance and active rejection of the trope of The Crucifixion, and of paintings of Christ and his life. Two Saints was a weird and beautiful monochrome study of two saints.
Room four was William Coldstream and the Slade School. To be perfectly frank I don't really remember too much about this room. I only wrote notes about the framing of Coldstream's Reclining Nude. The only work in the next room that I really felt attracted to was Dorothy Mead's 1954 Reclining Figure, which seems relatively obviously influenced by Bloomberg.
Mead's Reclining Figure features a relatively abstracted female figure who appears to be semi-nude. She lays back on a bed (or couch?) propped up on her elbow and aided by pillows. She is reading from an open book that is propped up under her exposed breast. The background appears thick and visceral, as though the shadows at the back conceal ghosts. The blanket that covers the figure's bottom half looks itchy and coarse, a peak of blue suggests a more comfortable blanket underneath. And, to me, that seemed to sum up the whole room. It was itchy and coarse - not tactile in a way that's nice or easy. That is not a commentary on liking or not liking the work displayed in this room, but that the work didn't really give me pause to ponder. I did not want to be wrapped up in it.
As a person who considers themselves a Londoner, but who is not British (I'm Australian), I found Room 6 immediately relatable. There was some of the grime of London, but also some of the hope (particularly in Leon Kossoff's wonderful painting Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon which captured something of the overbearing summers of London - you can feel the sound of an overfull local lido emanating from this picture.
Gerald and I had an interesting discussion in this room about what makes a painting 'feel' like London even when no particularly notable elements of London (say, St. Paul's, which featured in a painting in the previous room). There's a certain smoggy, waxy, glariness about London that the paintings in this room tended to exhibit.
Room 7 was all about Lucien Freud.
There were many good works in here that really demonstrated the way that Freud had developed as an artist from his earlier 'flat' works (which had been exhibited in room 4). Something that each of these 'periods' really demonstrates is a nearly unequalled attention to every detail. The backgrounds clearly have the same level of obsessive study as the models themselves. I heard Gerald say that there was a general understanding that sitting for Freud was an experience in itself. Many of the paintings in this room are portraits that are really about power - either the power of the painter, or the power of the sitter, or more likely a bit of both. But the painting that I was most drawn to was Sleeping by the Lion Carpet (shown above with my sketch). The painting shows a nude woman, slumped in a brown leather armchair, with a light bluish grey blanket thrown over it. Her eyes are closed and her face is resting, half covered, in the palm of her hand. Her other hand is on her thigh. The painting is at once beautiful and unflattering. There is a palpable boredom in the sitter, as though she does not really want to be slumped down in this chair. But this unflatteringness is aimed squarely, I feel, at the painter rather than the model. She is represented completely honestly, but the boredom is Freud's fault.
And this is what I got from this room in general. The works were of other people but they were really about Freud. This is a room of absent self-portraits.
Jenny Saville's huge, realistic, portrait of a young girl. She looks, to me, as though she's just been hit and has landed - nose bloodied, naked on the floor. A palpable and visceral violence and resilience emanates from this picture. I know - from both conversations I had at the time and conversations I overheard at the time of viewing - that this was not everyone's interpretation, and I wonder how much my own past has been put into the face of this girl. Unlike Brown's work, the memory-meld is going in the opposite direction: from viewer to painting.
I enjoyed the exhibition as a whole, but certainly found a small number of the works more inspiriting and inspiring than others. I wasn't particularly taken with the Bacon work - apart from his meticulous flat backgrounds - but Saville's painting was a shock that I carried with me.
There are reviews of the exhibition here and here. I will be writing about the rest of the study day, including the Lisa Brice exhibition, separately.