In Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002), Peter Ackroyd traces the “London imagination” as far back as Chaucer’s contemporary William Langland (1332–86). In the 1370s, Langland wrote Piers Plowman, his portrait of a rural visionary, in “a hovel on Cornhill,” near the modern Bank of England. Langland saw Gluttony and Sloth toping in a London tavern, Blake the golden pillars of Jerusalem in the fields of Marylebone and St. John’s Wood. “To hear the music of the stones,” Ackroyd writes, “to glimpse the spiritual in the local and the actual, to render tangible things the material of intangible allegory, all these are at the centre of the London vision.”

In 1976, six hundred years after Langland’s visions, R. B. Kitaj curated an exhibition called “The Human Clay” at London’s Hayward Gallery. Kitaj detected the existence of a “substantial School of London.” He meant it in the geographical sense, rather than the stylistic one. Post-war London was home to a large and significant group of figurative painters, including Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Bomberg, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Leon Kossoff, and Kitaj himself. It also boasted Victor Pasmore, who in the late 1940s exchanged Whistlerian Romanticism for spare abstraction; Richard Hamilton, who made Pop Art before Andy Warhol did; and Bridget Riley, in whose Op Art a Classical austerity almost obscures a debt to the sensuality of Seurat’s chromatic palette. But it was the figurative painters that Kitaj had in mind for the School of London, and it is the figurative painters who are the subject of Tate Britain’s “All Too Human.”1

Paula Rego, The Family, 1988, Acrylic on canvas backed paper, Marlborough International Fine Art.

While the flesh becomes inert, the inert comes to life.

Anglo-Saxon style, Peter Ackroyd notes, was “inspired and modified by Continental models.” The insular idiom “developed precisely in relation to the Mediterranean art of the same period.” The foundations of the School of London were laid after 1905 by Walter Richard Sickert, who imported the urban realism of Degas and Manet. The turned hip and shadowed face and breasts of the nude on a bed in Sickert’s La Hollandaise (ca. 1906) recur in Francis Bacon’s Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch (1965). Though Bacon lacks the tightness of pictorial organization that Sickert learned from Degas, he manages to make the woman’s genitals the fulcrum of the image, as Sickert had shown.

In Sickert’s Nuit d’Été (1906), the half-light touches with lilac the dense flesh of the reclining nude and the rumpled sheets on which she rests. There is a subtle trickery here, one which Lucian Freud would later exploit. Sickert staged his nudes in grubby rooms where the light and the flesh have a laudanum sluggishness. Freud’s models were said to grow cold and sleepy because he worked so slowly. While the flesh becomes inert, the inert comes to life.

Sickert worked as though painting from life onto a dark canvas. But Sickert worked from and onto drawings, transferred onto a mid-toned canvas. When we peer around the bedroom screen, or crane our necks up at the balcony of the music hall in Noctes Ambrosianae (1906), it is as though we are seeing what should not be seen. This intimacy suggests life at its most immediate. But Sickert achieves this effect by his tricks of staging and filling-in. He was a painter of images, creating paintings of things. Through his teaching, Sickert retains a patriarchal centrality in the School of London. Its development reflects his split legacy.

Sickert’s most influential students, William Coldstream and David Bomberg, fall into the typology of the painter of images and the painter of things. Coldstream, who attended Sickert’s lectures at the Slade School of Art, worked from fixed-point perspective, assembling an ostensibly objective image through the accumulation of detail. Bomberg, who studied under Sickert at the Slade and was expelled for stylistic experimentation, became a quasi- Vorticist, and then—after the trenches of Flanders had disabused him of the romance of mechanization—an English Cézanne or Soutine.

Euan Uglow, Georgia, 1973, Oil on canvas, The Estate of Euan Uglow.

Coldstream (1908–87) was the privately educated son of a country doctor who was able to turn from teaching to painting full-time with a subvention from Kenneth Clarke. Bomberg (1890–1957) was a mouthy working-class Jew from Birmingham by way of Whitechapel, which at that time had more Jews than Warsaw, and a no-less-assimilable Young Socialist League. Guess which of these two ended up the Principal and Professor of the Slade, with a knighthood and the honored status of Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and which ended up dying in utter poverty, his work almost entirely ignored by all but a handful of students. Then guess who was the better painter.

Ackroyd defines the traits of the “London style” as “aggression, and a measure of latent cynicism . . . also the need to impress, in a milieu where everything and everyone competes to demand attention, as well as an appetite for extravagance and theatricality.” In which case, Bomberg’s Self-Portrait (1931) is the quintessence of this London style. In a magnificently stagey brown hat from the wardrobe of Dickens or Zangwill, he raises his pugilist’s chin, lifts a single eyebrow as though feigning interest in what he already knows, and gives us the cool Cockney eye. The paint is flamboyant in the architectural sense— intricate and elaborate, vibrant and vivacious, confident of its elegance and virtuosity. Not since Gainsborough was carried out by the handles had an English painter slashed the brush around like this.

Bomberg did elegant and meaty variations on Cézanne in his sojourns in the Palestine Mandate and in southern Spain, but the Blitz prompted Bomberg’s finest hour as a landscape painter. In the charcoal drawing St. Paul’s and River (1945), which is unfortunately not included in “All Too Human,” everything is scorched. The bombs have reduced the buildings to angles and empty spaces; even Wren’s dome is occluded by smoke, as if from the previous night’s raid. The exhibition does, however, include Evening in the City of London (1944). From high above, we look across the canyons of bombed-out buildings and broken streets towards St. Paul’s. The sunset touches everything with dirty flames of brown and yellow.

In the ruined city, the clay becomes humanized.

Bomberg begat Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Auerbach said that London after the war was “a marvelous landscape with precipice and mountain and crags, full of drama formally.” His Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square (1962) is a mud-bath transected by blood-red girders. Kossoff’s Building Site, Victoria Street (1961) is like falling into the pink womb of the Earth. His Early Morning, Willesden Junction (1962) applies the sculptural narratives of a Renaissance plaquette to a suburban railway yard. Auden wrote that “Art’s subject is the human clay.” In the ruined city, the clay becomes humanized. In their physicality, their grit, mud, and blood, these paintings show Sickert’s “gross material facts,” a city turned inside out like a Soutine carcass. What remains is the quality that Langland’s age knew as quiddity, the empirical “whatness” of things.

Installation view, “All too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life” at Tate Britain.

Ackroyd argues that the literalism of English observation strains for “superlatives and over-statements,” a “striving after effect” that leads to a delight in caricature over character, and richness of spectacle over depth of feeling. While Auerbach and Kossoff wrestled with paint as architecture and autobiography, Francis Bacon, a painter of images rather than things, stole the limelight. “Painted castles, naked children, fountains gushing with wine,” says Ackroyd of the medieval pageants. “Champagne for my real friends, and real pain for my sham friends,” cries Bacon, painting his naked prisoners into their translucent dungeons.

Bacon is not a master technician. He is a suburban swinger who has installed a torture chamber in the cupboard under the stairs, and stocked it with materials from the garden shed—a piece of rubber hose, a pair of pliers, a can of machine oil, an old car battery, and some rusty jumper cables. His images are preceded by their literary atmosphere and photographic sources. The atmosphere is a hopeless replay of medieval mysticism, the Existentialist wedding of T. S. Eliot and Joseph Goebbels. Yet Bacon parlays his weak line, his uncertain brush, and his emotional over-statements into something horrific by tracing the caricature and exaggeration to sources in deeper anguish. In Triptych (1974–77), Bacon’s dead lover George Dyer, a drunk and failed thief, writhes on a sunbed as though on fire, then staggers towards a black door. Instead of the redeemed soul floating free of the body, George’s shadow is a puddle of purple goo on the floor. “And from Thee, O Lord,” Augustine writes in his Confessions, “unto whose eyes the abyss of man’s conscience is naked, what could be hidden in me though I would not confess it? For I should hide Thee from me, not me from Thee.”

Francis Bacon, a painter of images rather than things, stole the limelight.

This brutal seeing, and being seen as brutal, are the trademarks of the unlovable but admirable Lucian Freud. He begins with the paintings of images—when Coldstream ran the Slade, Freud was a teacher—but ends with the empiricist painting of things. There is a Surrealist tinge to work like Still Life with Squid and Sea Urchin (1949), but as early as Girl with a White Dog (1950–51), Freud is moving towards the more-than-real quality of Stanley Spencer. By the end of the 1950s, Freud is digging into the paint, and creating an emotional presence in the object. The body and the space around it become a single tactile plane. We are back in Sickert’s interior, but Sigmund’s grandson exposes the relationship of sitter and artist to a floodlit interiority.

The exhibition should have included some abstracts too. Apart from doing justice to the fecundity of the School of London, this would have illustrated its innovations, and attested to the skill with which its members wove back and forth across the frontier between figuration and abstraction. Instead, much space is given to the undeserving Francis Newton Souza, who came to London from India in 1949. Here, Souza appears to have wandered into the wrong gallery, and to have picked up some bad habits from Bernard Buffet on his way. On the positive side, “All Too Human” pursues the figurative theme through the Hogarthian velleities of Paula Rego, past the entertainingly grim Celia Paul, and on to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (born 1977). Her portraits of fictional people return us to the allegorical and harmonious elements of Ackroyd’s “London imagination.”

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Coterie Of Questions, 2015, Oil on canvas, Jack Shainman Gallery.

Yiadom-Boakye was born in London to Ghanaian parents. Sickert was born in Munich. Bomberg and Kossoff were the children of Jewish immigrants. Bacon fled from the fallen world of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Auerbach and Freud came from Berlin as Jewish child refugees from Nazism. Kitaj, also Jewish, exiled himself from Ohio, and extrapolated from his Americanness a “diasporist” identity. Michael Andrews came from Norwich, which is in England, but not taken seriously, and Hockney comes from Yorkshire, which might as well be another country. Yet their work in “All Too Human” could have come from no other city. Ackroyd speaks of “the imperative of place.” London, with its milky light and gritty air, its fast and flippant people, its show and sentimentality, is a school for Londoners.

1 “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life” opened at Tate Britain, London, on February 28 and remains on view through August 27, 2018.

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