This is a major show for the Tate Britain and it’s going to be hanging around for six months, but it feels very much like a missed opportunity.
The brief it has given itself lacks focus—“to tell the expanded story of figurative painting” in Britain from the early 20th century to the present.
Sometimes such a premise is an excuse to stage an exhibition on the cheap—drag neglected stuff out of storage, slap on a pretentious title, and charge an entrance fee.
But it doesn’t quite apply here, as only 30 of the 96 pieces are from the Tate’s own collection.
Within its ridiculously broad remit it manages to be extraordinarily short-sighted. It is not merely London centric, but central London centric.
So the likes of Hockney and Lowry don’t even get a look in. But at least it’s not a jingoistic show—their London does encompass several migrants and refugees.
What would have made it really interesting in the epoch of #MeToo would have been a rediscovery of the neglected women artists of the past century.
Some interviews with the (largely female) models depicted by the (largely male) artists would have been welcome too. A little of the latter is included, but you have to look hard for it.
The exhibition notes refer to the “male dominated field” of figurative painting, but then do very little to address the issue. This is particularly disappointing given it is curated by two women—one of whom is on the board of Feminist Curators United.
They could have had a field day with certain aspects of the work on display. For example, the employment of a sex worker as a model by Walter Sickert poses interesting questions. So does the dehumanising “analytical gaze” once championed by the Slade School of Art—and the kneading of pictoral flesh as if it were dough by Lucien Freud.
The curators can’t seriously think there were no women painters of interest in the 20th century.
Even within the official canon they could have included the likes of Maggi Hambling, Rose Wylie and Chantal Joffe, who have all been plugging away for decades.
Paula Rego does gets a room to herself, and the final room—“contemporary developments”—is given over entirely to women artists, but by that point it feels tokenistic.