There are two main characters in this big show: the human body, and London. Both of them come across as lonely and isolated; bitter, violent and lost. This is an exhibition of figure painting through the twentieth century – a time of upheaval and pain – and the art made in response to all that is as tortured as you’d expect, and hugely influential.
There’s plenty to love here. There are incredibly dark, sombre, miserable Walter Sickert nudes; a mesmerisingly thick and gloopy Leon Kossoff vision of a teeming swimming pool; the most obsessively overdone and precise reclining portrait by Euan Uglow. Amazing stuff.
Then the show crescendos with a vast room of Lucian Freud paintings that leave you swimming against a tide of tired, undulating flesh. His perspective forcing you up high with all these elongated bodies floating beneath, gargantuan heaps of limbs in the abyss.
Then there are the Francis Bacon paintings, vile throbbing portraits of twisted beings, screaming for eternity, their spines and mouths writhing in pain. Whether it’s a baboon or a lover, Bacon captures all the inner noise of living and sets the volume at maximum.
But the show’s a mess, really. It’s just hard to figure out what the hell it’s all about. There’s landscape painting, posed nudes, still lifes, painting from photos, work done in London, work done in France. If it’s meant to just be a show of 100 years of figurative art, that feels too broad. If it’s meant to be about the artists of the London School (Freud, Bacon, Kitaj et al), then it drifts too far off course. It needs narrowing, focus. You wish they’d just picked one thing and celebrated it instead of chucking every figurative painting they’ve ever seen at some walls and hoping for coherence.
But there’s still a lot to love here. Painting in particular comes out of this really well. It’s depicted as a sort of fist through history, a battering ram relentlessly punching at life to beat some meaning out of it. These artists are violently trying to squeeze some sense out of the world around them. These walls are full of the results of that pugilistic aesthetic endeavour. That no answers seem to emerge proves that there’s a lot of life left in painting yet.