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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Two exhibitions in Chichester

 

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The distinguishing feature of Chichester cathedral is a collection of modern art, meaning mostly pieces from the period 1957-77 when Walter Hussey was Dean and patronised living artists. These are scattered around the building like the hidden prizes in a children’s game. They make an unorthodox focus for a visit and aren’t picked out on the free guide distributed at the entrance, or known to the friendly volunteers who each recommend their own favourite features to visitors.

Ian Nairn wrote the West Sussex half of the Pevsner for Sussex where he claims that Chichester is the outstanding example of a typically English cathedral. Of course Nairn is famous for finding irreplaceable uniqueness in ordinary buildings, a fruitful kind of delusion that his readers willingly fall in with. Chichester is quintessentially nondescript, but it is his. He describes its steeple looming over the surrounding landscape with the devotion of a native.

But he is wrong: the beauty of this cathedral as a background for twentieth century art is its self-effacing ordinariness. In the neutral setting the works count as they never could in Lincoln or York. Hussey’s favourite artists are still figurative — modernists who straddle an important divide, but remain thrillingly heretical in a Gothic building.

Hans Feibusch is a fascinating figure, a Jewish refugee from Nazism who made his name with large murals on religious subjects in Christian churches bombed in the war, where his weird colours make the familiar subjects into conflagrations. Feibusch’s Baptism of Christ by the font in Chichester is painted on canvas instead of the wall and isn’t big enough to take charge of the space.

I have to do some detective work to see a Graham Sutherland at the end of the aisle ahead of me, too small to catch my eye the first time round. I find a postcard of it in another building, the shop, and retrace my steps, crossing a quad to find it. Because I now know what it looks like, I can see it staring me in the face. It’s a Noli me tangere which Sutherland has twisted into his characteristic brand of grotesque by putting Christ halfway up a stair clinging to a building and Mary Magdalene contorted on the ground but craning upward. Like Feibusch Sutherland brings colour harmonies wonderful in themselves, but improbable in the context, to dislodge expectation.

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The retrochoir at Chichester is the one real architectural inspiration here, a perfect space lurking between the choir and the Lady Chapel and functionless for centuries, until the cult of the local saint was reinstituted with the help of some modern art in the twentieth century. This includes a large German tapestry on the theme of St Richard. There’s a very good label explaining it as full of symbols, all made unrecognisable by representing them as fragments of rock crystal, art hiding its spiritual teaching in ambiguous forms. I thought it mainly a crowd of angels with plant shapes at the sides and exploding flowers, all forms that had to force themselves into being. I didn’t detect the sea or the lotus or the fire until they were pointed out, or the serpent climbing the cross. It took a long time to produce and it mesmerised me.

DSC00479.jpgIn a corner of the space was a little model of a piece of very Baroque sculpture whose swirls of drapery were hard to pick out against the dark background. Improbably high overhead stood the sculpture itself. Can the sculptor have had any idea where his finely wrought work was going to end up? Without the model to point you toward it, would anyone ever notice it?

As time went on your eyes got better at picking out the newer art concealed among the architectural shrubbery. The main goal of the day was an exhibition in a museum, and it just happened that the cathedral lay across the path to the real goal and the true museum. In retrospect the cathedral’s kind of display came to represent nature, or offered something like finding rare minerals washed up on a beach, objects camouflaged just enough by the way they partook of their setting to let you think that you were their discoverer.

The cathedral, framed on one side by its own wilderness, was joined abruptly to the town on the other side, whose West Street ran right along the whole north flank of the building. It was a miniature model of a city left intact by time, which seemed very normal and which only experience taught you to recognise as miraculous.

The museum lay in the heart of a quadrant of the regular town that replicated the form of the whole, scaled down a stage or two. Like the cathedral the gallery was a strange hybrid, the grandest eighteenth-century house in Chichester (i.e., not that grand) yoked to a modern extension by a Scandinavianly-inclined architect (not that modern). It was a discord that grew on you until it seemed a harmony.

It could almost function as a definition of childishness to be unable to wait a decent interval for something you want, or until, say, its time came round naturally in the calendar. I knew that the Bomberg exhibition I had come here to see was going to arrive in London before very long anyway, but after chafing for weeks, I finally decided I couldn’t wait. The only rational excuse, a flimsy one, was a little display of Paula Rego’s drawings which ran alongside Bomberg, certainly not enough by itself to justify the commotion of this trip.

Maybe the imaginary nature of the journey made it almost metaphysically necessary. I started with the Bomberg, which didn’t disappoint, enhanced by the unlikelihood of finding this very urban, Jewish artist in Chichester. The exhibition made sense of some of his least accessible works, like Jujitsu, which was shown as if occurring in stages, first in a geometrical tangle which remained a three-dimensional space, like some labyrinth of Hebrew thought, before it turned right before your eyes into the flat pattern of the later painting, which preserved a clue to its source in the absurd name Jujitsu, pointing you to the gym in Whitechapel where Bomberg had made the first sketches.

I broke the exhibition in the middle, for even a small display can seem big, or too big for devouring all in one go, if you are looking too hard. With hindsight, I see I was lucky to break it where I did (though in a sense I had no choice) because late Bomberg is another universe and ideally requires a starting over.

My holiday from Bomberg was not rushing outside for real air, but more paintings, the permanent collection at Pallant House, all British or even English, all from the twentieth century, beginning with Sickert and carrying on to painters like Kitaj, Michael Andrews and Peter di Francia, anathema to me until almost this very year now. Imagine liking the 1940s 50s and 60s best of all! What has come over me? Something about the local and the inconspicuous, about things that all belong together and would almost prefer to be overlooked so that they could get on with the business of looking. At Pallant House they are often small scale, the Sutherlands for instance, a gnarled crucifixion, or even more wonderful, a Thorn Head like Blake’s magnified cross section of the head of a flea with the biting machinery exposed, like a Christ who has internalised the crown of thorns, inviting his suffering inside, appropriate in Chichester and in Walter Hussey’s own collection.

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The Chichester gallery calls itself a collection of collections. So far for me two of the collectors stand out, Hussey and Colin St John Wilson, architect of the British Library, one of my favourite 20c public buildings. Sandy Wilson (as we learned to call him when he was external examiner at the architectural school where I taught) also designed the bold (for Chichester) extension to Pallant House (no longer big enough, I heard just the other day). I try to imagine how Hussey and Wilson might have got along. Their collections accord wonderfully well, like the two buildings that don’t look as if they are going to at first.

Wilson’s pictures are larger; the biggest room in the extension was purpose-built for them, where they hang like the masterpieces in the big gallery at the Wallace Collection. One of the most interesting pictures here is a big Kitaj of Wilson and his wife (also an architect) called ‘The Architects’. Does one like this intermarriage of the building, the collector and the collection? Does anyone find it claustrophobic, as my wife did Chichester when we brought students here ten years ago? Then I liked the place well enough, but didn’t appreciate it the way I do now, as something that keeps modestly cross-referencing itself to make a perfect little realm of art.

At this point I realised that to catch the last daylight for a walk in the town I needed to escape from the gallery into the streets and onto the walls, scaled down remnants in this human-scaled place. Even so, I was too late for the Octagon Chapel, an architectural curiosity, and for the grounds of the Priory with their own captive section of the town walls. Dusk was a show for my benefit and gave me just time to get back to the Gallery for the last part of Bomberg with its disturbing explosions of colour and form, and for the mildly disturbing apparition of a well-known critic many years my junior, who appeared twice looking pretty senior, and nervous before his lecture. I was the truant whose only responsibility lay with the paintings, so I got on with looking.