All too human at Tate Britain

Francis Bacon, one of the key painters in this exhibition, took the critic David Sylvester to see the Soutine landscapes at the Redfern Gallery because they had shown him how he wanted to paint at that moment. Some of the links that matter most in this exhibition are intuitional and will burst upon you, not argue their way into your head. So the connection between Bacon and Soutine, who inhabit adjacent rooms in the layout, is there in a visceral love of paint, though Soutine’s is thick and Bacon’s is wonderfully thin at this point; is there also in the abruptness with which they broach emotions, Bacon with a howling maw that is also a cultural reference (to Eisenstein), Soutine with faceless animal carcasses (flesh of a terrible directness). Flesh is the subject, encountered in a treed baboon (another awful view of teeth inside the head) and a cornered dog.

Flesh appears too in the strongest F. N. Souzas, like the Crucifixion where Christ’s body is also the tree and the cross, sprouting thorns from legs and arms as well as its head. Two attackers, or more likely supporters, are also liberally thorned. In fact very little space is left on the surface for anything that is not thorn. Even Souza’s signature is prickly, something to steer clear of. The catalogue makes much of Souza’s outcast status as an immigrant, and he did eventually flee Britain for New York, but contextualisation can go too far, and coming after Bacon, we don’t find Souza’s an outlandishly alienated vision. There’s also an eerie link in their gravitation to Catholic themes (Souza’s family Goan and devout), only to distort them, of course.

Coldstream comes next, like an icy bath. I seem to remember that Souza sampled the Slade but it didn’t agree with him. If different ways of paying attention to the flesh are a thread running through the whole, Coldstream and his students represent an incredibly strange strand. For me his endless measurements trying to get sizes and relations exactly right, and marking each estimate with a little cross, produce some unusually dead results. A big nude in the exhibition is awkward overall, but full of interest when you focus on details. It is hardly credible that Coldstream thought he was serving truth by not moving pieces of furniture out of his compositions when they got in the way. He must surely have followed this principle selectively, and even then can you really call it a composition if it must obey prior placements as if they were divine laws?

His student Euan Uglow carried this idea of truth even further, and spent seven years on a painting of one of his students–in a sports jersey and pink tights–lying on and half-obscuring a bold pattern designed by Uglow. The result (finally finished?) is so bland we are fascinated by where all the careful thinking can have gone.

Next comes Bomberg, a rambunctious corrective. He is the first of three reprises that punctuate the exhibition, a brilliant way of startling us with a new role or a new approach to painting which would have less effect if Bomberg, Bacon and Freud had each been presented just once in the sequence. This is Bomberg the teacher, seen too in his students. There’s a violent landscape by Dennis Creffield, with an absurdly exact note of its location (The Isle of Dogs seen from Greenwich Observatory) which sets us scrambling to find all its parts. And a blotchy nude by Dorothy Mead, the nearest approach to Cubism in the show.

The most serious consequence of David Bomberg’s teaching, many would agree, is seen in the work of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, who in the immediate aftermath of the teaching took his idea of the spirit in the mass to extreme lengths in canvases where the paint lies so thick that it seems to thrust itself into the room and defies you to find distinct forms in it. Paint is the subject and content of these paintings, sensuous enough to feel something like flesh.

Paradoxically, when Auerbach gets further from Bomberg, the teacher’s influence becomes more visible, in urban landscapes centred around Mornington Crescent station.

In the largest room of all, Freud reappears, moving away from the smoothness of finish we saw around the time he taught with Coldstream, toward an equally exaggerated intensity of attention, now expressed in thicker paint and ultra-visible brushstrokes. Here are the famous nudes whose flesh goes on and on, changing colour monotonously, following what imperative–just to demonstrate fierce mental concentration, which will exhaust sitter or lie-er and viewer alike? The great example of the new, larger minuteness in this enormous room devoted to Freud’s production from the late 1970s to the 1990s is a maniacal portrait of two species of house plant which fills twenty square feet of canvas from top to bottom, and makes us perceive Freud in that moment as a close inheritor of the Pre-Raphaelites.

We’ve been set up to forget the fact that Bacon too suffered a great transversal of values in which his subjects became sensuous male nudes, or amputated sections of them, like sausages that have split their skins and begun spilling out. Paint is thicker, silkier, and runs on for longer uninterrupted.

Of all the painters in the exhibition Michael Andrews and R. B. Kitaj are least well served, partly by being forced into the same room. But Kitaj leads well into Paula Rego, present in five giant pastels, a big watercolour drawing and an older oil of great human interest.

The three Rego pastels ‘based’ on Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode have pride of place and fill a whole wall. Hogarth is exploded to many times his original size and introverted to domestic privacies where someone has turned over a stone and let the pullulating life spill out. Commentators have said that Hogarth’s humour is missing: instead, pure black comedy with monstrous men like babies, grandmothers full of venom and furniture that has the power to thwart, the only salvation lying in the brio (especially the bursts of colour) with which it is recorded.

In the last room of all, four impressive women, two of whom stand out: Jenny Saville with the sideways head of a gigantic baby, not really a baby but bald and pink like one and nightmarish to inspect close up; and Cecily Brown, new to me, the actual daughter of David Sylvester and the spiritual daughter of Willem de Kooning. Boy with a Cat does have a naked human figure of a kind and a whole background of cats, but it is really just an exuberant explosion of paint that leaves patient observation gaping helplessly.

The way to visit this exhibition is to let it unfold in front of you, even wash over you, not that it is a mindless journey or an assorted jumble, but that the paintings have more to say to each other than such collections usually do, and that some of the oddest conjunctions could turn out to bear the best fruit, not perhaps immediately. Both the sequence and the hubbub of the whole make it clear that British figurative painting of this period has not become old hat or lost its power to engage viewers deeply.