back to
back to
Lucian freud   girl with dog
All Too Human
Indira Dyussebayeva - Ziyabek
21 August 2018

Indira Dyussebayeva: My first question is about the title, All Too Human.  It is part of Nietzsche’s philosophy; was it the title of a book?


Elena Crippa: Many of the works in the exhibition, particularly those made during and following the Second World War, are very much connected to the philosophy of existentialism. All Too Human was the title of Nietzsche’s book of aphorisms. While Nietzsche believed that man’s ultimate task was to be a ‘free spirit’ and develop a superior consciousness, he also believed that this process required going back to the basic things that make us human, and all too human – to the simple, raw quality of our physical, everyday experience. This feels very relevant to the paintings selected for the exhibition, all of which embody a personal and subjective experience of life. 

ID: It is a very descriptive title; the selection of the works is so strong, so can you please tell me more about the selection of the artists?


EC: Early discussions involved the idea of organizing an exhibition on the ‘School of London’. The expression School of London refers to a particular group of London-based artists. That term was adopted by R.B. Kitaj and appeared in the famous essay that he wrote for an exhibition from 1976, titled The Human Clay. There were around forty artists who participated in the exhibition and their work was concerned with the human figure. In the text he wrote for the catalogue, Kitaj used the term ‘School of London’ to refer to this type of figurative works being made in London at the time. It was later adopted and became a kind of umbrella definition that was used during the following two decades as a sort of marketing tool, to bring together, give visibility and promote figurative painting made in London. Why? It might be useful to explain the context.


By the mid-1970s figuration was seen as being in competition with the major developments of abstract art in the USA, which was highly influential among European artist, as well as minimalism, post-minimalism and conceptual art. Paintings of the human figure and landscapes or cityscapes, were, for a very long time, seen as a belonging to a lesser category, which was producing interesting work but was not in touch with the avant-garde developments. The question ‘is painting dead?’ was particularly felt in the 1970s. Painting was perceived as a category that could not offer any more possibilities, compared with the developments in conceptual art, video performance and installation. I think that it is a much more recent development that, through a postmodern awareness, we do not have to make choices. We can appreciate the developments of new media, but we can also see that figurative painting is continuously producing something very interesting. We can appreciate this incredible group of painters who have engaged with figurative painting in a way that is not only historically relevant, but has also continually been pushing the possibilities of painting in new directions. I think the beauty of our contemporary time is that we have a much more open understanding of the world and are at better ease with its diversity. Different mediums can have relevance in the present. I think painting stands out because it has a very long history. Painters are working within that knowledge and are constantly trying to push this tradition forward.


The School of London is a category that became ossified into a narrow selection of artists primarily connected through friendship. The traditional narrative of British post-war painting is frequently related around the anecdote that Freud, Bacon, Andrews and Auerbach often hung out together in clubs in Soho. While this is an interesting story, there is much more richness in the type of British figurative painting shaped by the legacy of realism. On the one hand, with this exhibition, I tried to identify the thread that connects the artists traditionally known as ‘School of London’: I identified it in their capacity not just to register an experience of reality, but also to re-enact it, in a way that can be felt on the surface of our skin. This is achieved not only through the subject of the work, which is intimate and personal, but also through the way in which it is painted, its detailed observation and the vibrancy and sensuality of the paintwork. I also wanted to look at the works made by artists beyond the small circle of the usual suspects and see what other artists, who were working in a similar way, we could engage in a dialogue, as in the case of F.N. Souza and Paula Rego.


ID: The technique of putting layer after layer that Auerbach and Kossoff were working on in their oeuvre, giving it more of a physical presence, this sculptural feeling, was it an invention, a kind of new technique? Was it David Bomberg who introduced it? He was teaching them, right?


EC: I bring together four artists in one room: Dorothy Mead, Dennis Creffield, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, all of whom studied day or evening classes with Bomberg. What was fascinating about Bomberg is that he had an understanding of the artist’s mission as that of rendering what he himself defined as the ‘spirit in the mass’: the sense that we relate to objects and the entities of realities not just in terms of how they register on the retina, in a purely optical way, but through a holistic and physical experience. He spoke of the need to convey a blend of our visual and haptic experiences: one can only achieve this and convey their physical presence by rendering the mass of things and the structure that underpins this mass. He also encouraged his students to work with charcoal rather than pencil. If graphite as a medium lends itself to outlining, charcoal lends itself to the exploration of mass through layering. If we look at Auerbach’s drawings, for example, we can see that he even had to repair fragments of paper completely consumed by the application of layers of charcoal, which gives an idea of the process of accruing mass by building up the medium. Kossoff and Auerbach are extraordinary in having taken what they learned to a completely new extreme. In the 1950s, they used to paint every day over the previous, still wet layer of paint, progressively achieving a remarkable three-dimensional effect.


ID: How long did it take them to complete the work?


EC: An incredibly long time. And this is also the case of the work of other artists in the exhibition. Personal histories and time are literally inscribed in the work of Auerbach, Kossoff and others. You can see this incredible tension between a desire to express the mass, the physical quality of things, and at the same time render an experience as immediate. It might be difficult to understand this working process without thinking of the experience of the war and its destruction. Artists’ work was in many cases a desperate attempt to pin down, in a convincing way, the fleeting quality of life.


ID: In Room 2 there is a dialogue between Bacon and Giacometti. How do you think Giacometti’s work affected Bacon’s?


EC: Bacon was affected by Giacometti’s sculptures in the late 1940s. He sensed the power of the imprint of the artists’ hands on his sculptures, so that the figures are redolent of the artist’s being through his manipulation.  They became fragile and elongated beings, visualising the struggle of their making on the part of the artist. Of course, there were many other aspects that proved influential, for example, the relationship between the sculpture and the background. Giacometti’s figures stand solitary and detached from everything else and this is why they were so convincingly interpreted in existentialist terms: they are lonely, they seem to exist in a moment of pure presence and have to define their own existence in their own terms – in the absence of guiding principle, such as religion or the state.


What I think is beautiful about the dialogue between the two artists’ work is that we can appreciate influences and similarities and yet there are some important differences. Bacon’s figures are defined by a movement from inside out, a vital scream emerging from the figure. Several figures in the exhibition, from the Pope to the baboon, exemplify human existence as marked by loss and lack of meaning. On the other hand, Giacometti’s sculptures seem to represent a stoic endurance, standing against this turbulent background. This is also why I choreographed the room in the way I did – a solitary sculpture by Giacometti surrounded by Bacon’s paintings.


ID: In the next room, there are Bacon’s works in dialogue with Deakin. Why did Bacon use Deakin’s photography to make the portraits? Was it difficult for Bacon to work with a model?


EC: Yes, Bacon found it difficult to work from the model. For example, Freud was meant to sit for his first portrait painted by Bacon in 1951. The story goes that once Freud arrived, Bacon had already completed the painting and he did so using a photograph of Franz Kafka as a reference. Bacon explained that what he did when painting a figure, through the gestural quality of the act of painting, effectively felt like an act of violence against the person he was painting. He simply could not work freely in the presence of a sitter.


Although he preferred to work from photography, Bacon said that what he tried to do was to reanimate the image, imbuing it with a sense of the organic passage of life. This is the sort of beauty which I tried to show by bringing Bacon and Deakin together. I think their work share something very interesting. As a photographer, Deakin tried to express the vital presence of his sitters. He achieved this in different ways, for example by asking sitters to hold particular gestures or poses, that communicated pain or tension, or by using an exposure that created a contrast between foreground and background. He also used double exposure to create the sense of overlapping moments in time, which provides the work with a vibrant quality. Another example is the image of Isabel Rawsthorne wearing a veil, which helps Deakin create a sense of fragmentation and movement of the surface of her skin. So, in Deakin’s photographs there are all these ways of capturing the living presence, which I think explains why Bacon was so drawn to his photography and commissioned particular shots that he took as a starting point in the making of his works.


ID: What about George Dyer, Bacon’s lover? There are many works depicting him. Did Dyer ever sit for Bacon’s portraits of him?


No, Bacon painted him from photographs. In the exhibition you can see some of the fragments of Deakin’s photographs that he used repeatedly. Of course, he used a variety of other sources, for example, Muybridge’s pictures of bodies in movement, because they offer a sense of reanimating mechanically reproduced images.


ID: I wanted to ask you about the analytical gaze. There is an interesting relationship between the one who is observing and capturing and the one being observed. Could you please elaborate on this in relation to Freud’s work?


EC: Freud’s early works are rooted in drawing and drawing remained hugely important to the artist. His process involved long sessions of painting exclusively from life, always in the presence of the sitter, and sitting in very close proximity to her. In this process, the sitter and the painter are locked in a very intense, emotionally charged connection over long periods of time, so that a certain degree of psychological discomfort becomes part of the making of the work.  The tension of the gaze is very much present. In the portrait of Girl with a Kitten we can feel it, in the sitter’s enlarge eyes, the electric quality of her hair. As a result, this very sense of proximity and discomfort turns into the subject of the works.


ID: Did Freud paint someone he was in close relationship, right? Lovers, friends?


EC: He worked on commissioned portraits, but most of his subjects were his wives, women he was in a relationship with, his mother, children and fellow painters like Frank Auerbach.


ID: He also changed his position into a standing position, which obviously affected his work. Could you please explain how?


EC: By the late 1940s Freud had become well-known for his detailed way of painting, using fine brushes and sitting in proximity to the sitters. Herbert Reed, who was a very important critic and poet, described him as the ‘Ingres of existentialism’.  This pertained to both the incredibly detailed quality of his work and its psychological connotation. He was still very young when he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1954, alongside Francis Bacon and Ben Nicholson. At some point in the 1950s there is probably a desire or need to reinvent himself – partially because, while still being so young, he had established a reputation for working in such a specific and detailed way, and partially because of his own ambition to explore new possibilities. He started exploring a different way of painting and there were two particularly significant changes. He began to use larger brushes and experiment with a much more gestural and loose brushwork. He also decided to paint standing. Standing inevitably leads to a way of working that is more dynamic, because there is more physicality in the act of painting. Freud moved away from his flat, frontal, static and detailed manner of working and began making much more animated paintings, with more evident brushwork. He also looked at the model from different angles, and this is why we are not looking at the subject so frontally, but often from a higher viewpoint.


ID: Can you tell me about the relationship between Auerbach and Kossoff?


EC: They studied at the same time in the same art schools, at St. Martin’s in their formative years and then at the Royal College of Art. They also attended evening classes with Bomberg and sat for each other’s paintings for quite a few years. It was expensive to pay for a model and they spent long periods painting one another. They were certainly very close in the 1950s and then they went on separate ways and developed very different styles. At the same time, one could see a shared approach in their work. They painted London more than any other and they did it in a very intimate manner, so that their London is not idealised, it is the city they knew well and they lived in. They often painted the area where they had a studio, so their pictures reflect their everyday life.


ID: Was their work an expression of trauma?


EC: They certainly belonged to a generation that was deeply affected by the war. For example, during the war Kossoff was evacuated to Norfolk, where he lived with another family, and then returned in 1943 to a bombed London. In the years following the war they were inhabiting a completely new landscape, dramatic and yet in a way very exciting. Why? Because there were all those building sites and the city was being slowly reconstructed.  Romantic artists had painted an idealised version of the ruins, as metaphors of death and transience. In contrast, Kossoff and Auerbach painted what was in front of them. Building sites were about destruction, but also reconstruction. It is no coincidence that they chose this theme, because it encapsulates their experience of loss as well as a desire to build anew. They are wonderful paintings about the physical condition of the capital, the psychological effects of loss and the slow process of healing.


There are many other memories. For example, Christ Church, the church in Spitalfields that Kossoff painted many times: we are exhibiting here a stunning example from 1990. It shows the artist’s special relationship with the church. This is the area of London where Jewish families settled over centuries, including Kossoff’s parents, who came from Russia. Kossoff regularly went back to this area, which was connected to his own family memories and that has changed so dramatically since he was a child. Kossoff has said that what defined Christ Church, this wonderful baroque church, was the sense of unimpeded flight into the sky, its vertical ascending movement, which has been threatened by all the tall buildings being erected in the area, as part of its gentrification. Returning to paint it over time, Kossoff seems to want to preserve the nature of the building, as well as the history and memories connected to his family and culture.


ID: Was there something that you found especially interesting during the research of the exhibition? Some interesting facts?


EC: What is extraordinary about this exhibition is that each single painting has a story that is linked to a moment in the life of the artists. I was always curious about the sitters of the painting and the places depicted. Once the pictures started coming into the gallery, I became even more obsessively interested in the life of the sitters and wanted to know more about who they were, what they felt. One of the sitters of Uglow was a woman named Georgia and it is also the title of one of the painting in the exhibition. She was very helpful in finding photographs of Uglow’s studio and she gave a wonderful account of sitting for the painting, which took nearly five years to complete. The artist chose every single element in the making of the painting, which in turns is a wonderful record of the period of time artist and model, who were in a relationship, spent together. There are lots of stories and people who became very important to me.


ID: Let’s talk about Paula Rego, a woman artist whom you have selected. Was there a particular period you wanted to focus on? It was a post-war period, of course, but at the same time she had a personal trauma of her husband’s disease that they were struggling against. Was she studying in London as well?


EC: Paula Rego studied at the Slade under Coldstream, as other slightly older artists in the exhibition did, like Michael Andrews. Rego also met her husband Victor Wilding at the Slade.


At the Slade she was trained in drawing and painting from life and she returned to a life painting towards the end of the 1980s. It was impossible to show works spanning the entire career of the artists selected for the exhibition, because they had very long and productive careers. I wanted to map out a loose chronological progression as one walked through the exhibition. I felt it was the best moment for Rego to appear, the first painting selected, The Family, dating from 1988. This is not only because this was the time when Rego gained major prominence in this country, with an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, but also because she was returning to drawing from life. Two years later she became an artist-in-residence at the National Gallery.


Rego went through a very interesting period of re-engagement with the work of the masters, while at the same time testing history and having a full new range of female characters appearing in her work. I felt it was the perfect moment for her work to appear in the exhibition, towards its end, because it is very much in a dialogue with everything we have encountered earlier in the exhibition. There is a clear connection with Freud, Uglow and many other artists. At the same time, Rego is doing something completely new. She is depicting very powerful and diverse female characters, which is completely new and different compared to what we have encountered until then in the exhibition. There is also something really liberating, a sort of naughty female sensuality that she is not fearful to investigate. She shows different drives and desires that shape one’s personality, so there is a sort of explosion of the female world. Importantly, Rego also recast painting as a category that could be reappropriated by the female artists.


ID: At the end of the show, you have included young artists’ works, so can you tell more about the selection?


EC: What I wanted to do with this last section, was to show that this incredibly rich tradition of a particular type of figurative painting, which reflects an intense experience of life, is still thriving. And so I felt that it was important to have this last, more contemporary room.  When I set myself to work on the selection, I started with a much larger group of artists and gradually I reduced it down to these four artists: Celia Paul, Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. I feel there is something they share, which is very interesting and relevant to our time, the way they revisit human presence. They continue to explore the possibilities of oil painting while their work is in tune with a broader, contemporary exploration of a sense of self, and how this is shaped by the relationship with others. Their work, from psychological group portraits to gaudy erotic scenes, is also about the experiences and encounters that define one’s existence and identity. I feel that these works take forward the exploration of human subjectivity in a more polyphonic way, that speak of humanity as something less monolithic, more fluid.






Share this post