All Too Human at Tate Britain: Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and more scream into the existential void in this essential show

Steve Dinneen
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All Too Human at Tate Britain

In one room a baboon screams, a mad dog runs in circles and the swollen face of a dead man looms from the darkness.

Life is cruel and confusing, but on the plus side, at least you’ll eventually be dead. Tate Britain’s new exhibition brings together a collection of mostly 20th century works that grapple with the question of what it means to be human, an animal cursed with self consciousness by a cruel quirk of evolution, destined to crumble in a world it can never fully comprehend.

The link between human and animal is a recurring theme. Bacon’s portrait of Lucian Freud shows him with a grotesque, pig-like visage. In Freud’s Girl With a White Dog, a woman reclines with a breast exposed, awkwardly covering the other beneath her gown. Her eyes are blank, confused; it seems to ask whether there's really all that much separating her from the hound beyond the rolls of green material. The next painting, also by Freud, is a dead squid. Life, then death, with nothing very interesting in between.

Another pair of portraits by Freud are just as telling: a baby lies on a sofa. Nearby, a woman curls awkwardly into the foetal position; larger, sadder-looking, but essentially the same fleshy mass of cells. Michael Andrews broadens the scope, charting the anxiety of social interaction, with rooms full of people diligently observing the etiquette of a party, each one alone in the crowd.

Throughout the exhibition, the human form spills from the walls; the famous belly of Freud’s snoozing benefits supervisor Sue Tilley appears to extrude from the canvas; Stanley Spencer’s Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece is all exaggerated contours and blue-veined breasts; Jenny Saville’s close-up of a woman’s face has a bloodied lip that shines from the giant canvas like a wet cherry. Each one grasps for something solid in a transient world.

There are flashes of tenderness, like Paula Rego's The Family, showing a wife and daughter undressing a man with multiple sclerosis, which brought to mind the Flaming Lips unexpectedly uplifting lyrics: "Do you realise that everyone you know someday will die / And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know / You realise that life goes fast / It's hard to make the good things last."

But eventually even these moments are subsumed by madness and decay and the inevitability of death.

Have a great weekend, people.

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