Paula Rego, The Family, 1988, acrylic on canvas-backed paper, 84 × 84". From “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life.”

Paula Rego, The Family, 1988, acrylic on canvas-backed paper, 84 × 84". From “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life.”

“All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life”

“John Minton committed suicide because ‘Matisse and Picasso had done everything there’s to be done in art.’ Unfortunately he had not heard of me,” boasted Indian artist F. N. Souza. At Tate Britain, curators Elena Crippa and Laura Castagnini corroborated Souza’s point—sort of. Spanning more than a hundred years, and featuring slightly fewer than a hundred paintings, their exhibition proclaimed the so-called School of London to be the natural heir to the figurative legacy of the “School of Paris.” Although Souza himself was not presented as London’s answer to Picasso—the show’s title made amply clear that Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud were neck and neck for that slot—he did have an entire room to himself. There we met Souza’s celebrated Black Nude, 1961, whose rictus grin recalls that of Kali, the dark-hued Hindu goddess of death, and his sad-eyed Negro in Mourning, 1957, whose emaciated, blue-black figure evokes the racial tensions that were rife at the time (as the Notting Hill riots of 1958 exemplified). Hence, though the museum’s extravaganza included the usually acknowledged British “greats”—Bacon and Freud occupied its core, while the predictable male mainstream figures William Coldstream, Walter Sickert, and Stanley Spencer received prominent placement—it was also spiced with unusual, international flavors: Along with Souza, we got a peek at Alberto Giacometti and Chaïm Soutine too, thanks to their sojourns in London.

The theme of “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life” was the coming-of-age of modern British art—and its steadfast loyalty to figuration. Viewers beheld the immense influence that Coldstream and David Bomberg, art teachers at London’s Slade School of Fine Art and Borough Polytechnic Institute, respectively, had on their students in the 1940s and ’50s: One can detect an echo of Coldstream’s beige-gray figures in Freud’s Girl with a White Dog, 1950–51, for instance. The layout of the display—where rooms often encompassed miniretrospectives of a given artist’s oeuvre—allowed viewers to spot the similarities between practitioners. We discovered the resonances among Soutine’s early animal carcasses; the bloodlike corrugated surfaces of Frank Auerbach’s Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, 1962; and Freud’s Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, 1996, in which a woman’s heavy slumber emphasizes the sagging folds of her mottled flesh. Cleverly, the curators installed Bacon’s agony-ridden offerings in the room before the one dedicated to Souza’s dark visages. Thus, Bacon’s writhing, screaming protagonist in Study after Velázquez, 1950, anticipated the advent of the cadaverous, charred Christ of Souza’s Crucifixion, 1959.

It might be tempting to dismiss “All Too Human” as a straightforward flexing of British muscle, but to do so would be to miss the point. The show may well have valorized the art Britain is famous for—figuration allows the country to hold its own against America’s twentieth-century mastery of abstraction, after all—but if it was nationalistic posturing, it was done in the service of righting art-historical wrongs. In days gone by, the School of London would not have admitted the South Asian Souza into its ranks—indeed, after the commercial and critical failure of his 1966 “Black Art and Other Paintings” at London’s Grosvenor Gallery, he fled the city—and might have hesitated to give a whole room to Portuguese-born Paula Rego’s disconcertingly androgynous damsels. In keeping with the spirit of this inclusivity, the exhibition guide explained that Cecily Brown, Celia Paul, Jenny Saville, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye concluded the exhibition because they “investigate and stretch stereotypical views on femininity, masculinity, race.” If the idea of a bighearted Britishness was laid on a bit thick in this last room, where too many styles clashed, we should be forbearing, remembering that in the post-Brexit world, anything that renders Britishness more inclusive is commendable.