Friday 6 April 2018

All Too Human
Tate Britain 26 Feb - 27 Aug 2018

Jenny Saville; Reverse 2002-3

The show is a survey, if necessarily incomplete, of what the catalogue deems to be 'painterly' approaches to the human figure by artists in Britain from Walter Sickert through to Jenny Savill, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown and LynetteYiadom-Boakye (which last room, apart from the marvellous Paula Rego then covers the lack of women and diversity, apart from F N Souza, elsewhere), the exhibition dips its feet into Sickert and Stanley Spencer, Chaim Soutine (is he an artist in Britain?) and, slightly oddly R B Kitaj, whose presence I welcome partly because he tends to get a bad press now for reasons I'd like to explore in the light of this show and partly because I was a fan of his work as a young working artist myself.

Putting aside Bacon for now, the major figures to emerge are Freud and Rego, with Bomberg, Auerbach, Kossof and Michael Andrews in the rank immediately behind, though Jenny Saville's enormous single work, Reverse, is major enough to guarantee a prominent place for her among the others in the exhibition. I have never been able to develop a serious liking for either Ewan Uglow or William Coldstream whose concentration on recording simply doesn't engage or move me.

The pre-eminence of Freud and Rego is based upon their mastery in drawing with paint, and their unerring sense of the potential of the human figure. The human figures, in their work, are subtle but profound articulations of our condition. In Freud it is as if flesh and paint were the same thing. He seems actually to be making the flesh before our eyes. In that respect the artists he shares most with are the later Rembrandt, Rouault and Soutine, who must  be in the exhibition only because his treatment of flesh and paint bears some relation to Freud and Auerbach's use of the medium. The condition in Freud is essentially a raw animality that is emphasised by the inclusion of dogs. 'We are such stuff as dogs are made of' is the underlying perception. We are vulnerable animals with basic appetites: we are made of the same paint. It is a deeply haunting perception.

Rego's figures are products of will and muscle. They are seldom if ever relaxed because should they ever relax they would immediately become victims. The price of life is constant tension. This, like Freud's, is a version of people in animal terms but their engagement in life is not purely through the body but through psychological perceptions. The paint in Rego is not quite like Freud's in becoming total nakedness: it is essentially descriptive but the description itself has a fearsome physicality. Rego's great predecessor in terms of drawing is Goya, her figures short, feet firmly planted, heavy-bottomed, fully earthbound, pressing against the ground. There are also hints of Beckmann and Balthus in terms of draughtsmanship and the handling of paint, but she stands clear of them.

The big difference - and this is why I am writing the blog - lies in the use of narrative. Rego's works are, and have from the start, been based on narrative. The pictures tell stories, not overtly, not in clearly traceable referential terms, but with personal fields of reference, in personal retellings of preceding, iconic stories. Freud's do not present narratives. The studio is the narrative. People enter, remove their clothes and slob out without ever quite relaxing. That is the story. They slob out in their different ways, imposing different presences on us, but they do not invite a more detailed speculation. They are existential figures inhabiting an existential space.

The twentieth century critical preference has been towards the non-narrative, the kind of painting that does not refer to events outside the painting or, if they do so, do it in obscure, metaphorical terms. The public has tended to feel different. They are not purists and like a story, so Grayson Perry suits them to the ground. So, for similar reasons, does Rego. The sneer at art schools in a certain period was that some particular painting was not art but illustration. It was like programme music as against symphonic form.

In an age of deconstruction and theoretical reading the narrative has made something of a come-back, at least in political terms, and there is less elevation of what seem to be abstract values. The new narrative reading is not based on the popular idea of narrative-as-anecdote (it will never want to be popular in that way) but it still wants to use image as text.

I am putting Francis Bacon aside as he is his own constant interpreter. After the war, in the immediate shadow of the bomb, the sense of mere physical existence - man as a poor bare forked animal - had come to the fore. Flesh was disturbing in its vulnerability and its own tendency to horror. Bacon focused on the horror and the physical, fleshly, caged beauty of that horror.

Bomberg, Auerbach and Kossof use paint like soil and press it this way and that so you feel they are trying to emerge out of a morass by sheer force, constructing the world as blunt, deep, flawed matter. Narrative-as-story or anecdote is of no interest to them. It is the physical world that has to be remade after so much violent unmaking. Michael Andrews grows more on me at every viewing. There is a sadness and glow to his best work that I find appealing.

Celia Paul should be  much better known. She emerges out of Kathe Kollwitz and Gwen John in my mind. She is on the Freud side of the equation not the Rego or Kitaj.

Kitaj has suffered the worst of both the anti- and pro-narrative critics, chiefly because his narratives are relatively clear, high-serious, and literary and that combination associates him with a would-be-significant sort of 'illustration'. Some of that may be true but I don't care. What he is looking to articulate seems to me important and the ways he does it are intriguing. Besides, after roomfuls of narrow palettes based on earth and flesh he is a wonderful blast of colour.

Interesting to note, in the light of our struggles with nationalism, how many of these artists were either not born in Britain or came from immigrant families.

What I am Losing by Leaving the EU 3

I am not in any position to consider the economic repercussions though I should say I feel none too assured by those who would assure me in the heartiest tones. Good. I hope it works. I hope there is no growth in unemployment, no great rise in prices (er, there already is), no jobs that can't be filled for lack of those willing to do them, no hospitals denuded of EU citizen staff (85% of those tending to me at Papworth were EU agency staff). I hope that the atmosphere of hostility to foreigners does not intensify towards non-Europeans, that there will be no rise in hostility to Commonwealth, African and Asian citizens. I hope for all the good those promising good hope for, bar of course the extensive privatisations some have in mind.

I feel pretty sure I am losing the confidence of European friends who live here and European friends elsewhere. Those who are leaving are disappointed. Some are wrecked. Some are having to break up families. This is not some calamitous vision of the future. It is happening now. And when I go there, with my brand new patriotic all-singing all-dancing blue-black passport (and possibly my visa) I will come as a member of the divorced side of the family. We sued for divorce, we got it, we weakened you, where is my warm welcome and big hug? We told them we would be so much better off without them. They are civilised people of course and will be polite enough but something a little awkward will follow our progress.

And what sort of England will be left? I say England because that is where I am, not Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. A little smugger, a little more on the defensive, a little more likely to be hostile, to be living out the tail-days of its imperial history with an uneasy mixture of guilt and pomp.

I will continue to love it for all it has been to me. I will be counted among those who will defend it against wilder accusations. I will be prepared to perform the foreign anglophile role because, in many respects, that is exactly what I am.

But it will be more work and a little hollower because what I loved was the England I have grown up in. I never loved it because it was the seat of all virtue. I loved it because it seemed - and was - accommodating, slow to anger, not prey to demagoguery, and actually rather humane and kindly in its personal dealings whatever its offices or corporations did. Those seemed worthwhile qualities. I am curious to see what will happen to them.

What I am Losing by Leaving the EU 2

That loss, not just for me, but for many other Remainers I expect, is essentially symbolic but it has political, social and economic aspects.

We live in a globalised world in which global powers - some national, some supra-national, some sub-national - exercise great influence. Very few conflicts of interest or conflicts generally can be restricted to the local turf on which it is fought. Even a regional conflict, broad as that may be, hasrepercussions very quickly felt beyond itself.

Europe may be one thing and the EU another but they are not entirely distinct: there is a considerable if hard-to-define overlap. Europe as the EU is a political entity as well as an economic one. There are common interests - some economic, some political, some cultural - represented in it. Europe, broadly speaking, is under the umbrella of NATO and, less formally, the USA but the USA has its own interests and NATO may not be as effective as it was in the old dispensation with the old technology. Some form of solidarity is more than desirable; it is vital. Europe as a political entity is weakening and becoming worryingly fragile in the east, is unstable in the south and is now losing us in the west. I understand all kinds of security arrangements may continue to exist after we leave but they too will be more fragile, more fraught, more vulnerable. Are we stronger, better and more secure divided? No one ever is. Whom might we be divided against? You name it, any of the great powers would do, as would - thanks to technology - some fairly minor ones.

Brexit, from a geopolitical perspective, looks like part of a process of decadence and self-delusion to me. This is where the nostalgia brigade - the WW2 imagery, the Churchillian rhetoric, and the references to traitors and mutineers - seem, well, quite mad to me. As the song in Ghostbusters went: Who you gonna call? The empire? the Commonwealth? Yankee Doodle Dandy (the most likely, possibly only candidate)? Good luck with that Buccaneering Boris, D-Day Davies, and Roaring Rees-Mogg. Let's get those Captain Mannerings into shape!

What about you, Jez? If we are nice to everyone (except Israel of course) will everyone be nice to us? Not my experience, comrade.

What I am Losing by Leaving the EU 1

I thought I had better ask myself this question if only that I might articulate it to myself more clearly by articulating it to others.

In some respects, possibly in the mostly important respect, it is a symbolic loss. Symbols matter because they concentrate a set of related meanings into something concrete. And because that is what a poem does let me begin with a poem (originally a set of three).


I am citizen of an overdressed republic
that knows itself as more than an illusion
and will keep donning clothes and moving on.
Sometimes I think I too am overdressed.
I think I should strip naked, walk the street
with nothing on, and face the filthy weather

we emerge from. I think I is another
as we all are. I think it’s getting late
and dark. It’s hard to see. I smell the dust
that’s everywhere and settles. I know it mine.
I am in love. I am standing at the station
waiting to board. I’m not about to panic.


The notion of Europe is a matter of identity - a complex 'overdressed' identity. That identity is far from a model of virtues. Europe has both a dark and bright history and my family and the people to which that family belongs - Central European Jews, rootless cosmopolitans - has experienced plenty of the dark side and will probably never be at complete ease with it. But neither are we - my family, my people - models of virtue. We are no more virtuous or innocent than any mortal. But the history is that we have been obliged to move from place to place, from country to country, often by force, sometimes deadly force. So nationalisms - that naturally exclude - always worry us. British nationalism no less than Hungarian nationalism than the nationalism of any nation. No sooner have we decided to assimilate and resolve to be of the nation than the nation wants us out and, it turns out, has always regarded us with suspicion.

Nor is the dark side of Europe entirely restricted to those who are already part of it. Through empire building and colonialism it extends far further. But - and this is important - not AS Europe. Colonialism was never a common European project. It was competition between nations drawing on commonly available resources. European ideologies certainly played a part but nations did not act in concert, in the name of Europe.

Europe in general, however, has usually - not always - offered us - and here I return to my specific tribe - alternative homes. It is a terrain we recognise, to which we have contributed and with which, therefore, we feel an affinity. Without Jews no Christianity. Besides, we are, traditionally, people of the book, and the book represents culture. We are part of it: it is part of us. Products of hand and mind are shared. When we are loyal to the nations in which we live we understand that the nation is not, culturally, an island. It has many specific characteristics, no doubt, characteristics that also become part of us. These local streets are our streets too, our fields and our institutions in that they represent us. They are quite specific objects of love and concern. But we know that at any time they might decide to throw us out.

So, to some degree, our - I should now say 'my,' though I am not religious, not of a religious community, and very rarely consider myself as distinct entity separate from any that might read this page - attachment to Europe is a matter of insecurity.

I grew up with Europe as well as with England. I have grown through Bach, Mozart, Beethoven as well as with Vaughan Williams and Elgar and popular music and all the hybridities of literature, art, craft, any culture comprises. In football I support England and Norwich because that is where I live now. If I lived in Scotland I would possibly support Raith Rovers simply because I like the sound of the name, just as I also support Manchester United because of its historical associations. I am - like most people reading this - both local singular and universal multiple.

But I admit the insecurity. I feel am losing something valuable and vital to my personal existence in Europe. I am being torn from it.

The EU is not the same as Europe of course, I realise this, but the referendum was never about the technical issues of EU membership. It was about much more. It was also about love, or a certain love relationship, a being-in-love relationship with an idealised object as the poem implies at the end.

[to be continued]