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; is there really that much separating her from the hound beyond from those rolls of green material, it seems to ask. The next painting, also by Freud, is a dead squid. Life, then death, with nothing much 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, apparently sadder, but essentially the same. Michael Andrews broadens the scope, charting the anxiety of social interaction, with people blankly 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 veins; Jenny Saville’s close-up of a woman’s face has a bloodied lip that shines from the giant canvas like a wet cherry.
Genius skulks around every corner – Auerbach and Uglow and Souza – all grasping for something solid in a transient world, moments of sympathy and tenderness overshadowed by the inevitability of madness and decay and death.
Have a great weekend, people.