Francis Bacon’s quote ‘A kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction’ may not trip off the tongue like his ‘Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends’. But this statement about his work, as told to art world bigwig David Sylvester in the 1960s, is the springboard for White Cube Bermondsey’s mega painting show, curated by US art critic and poet Barry Schwabsky. What it boils down to (though the temperature is more sous-vide than violent simmer) is how – and why – paintings of people and things have continued to exist, thrived even, in the century or so since abstract artists such as Piet Mondrian came along with their lines and squares of colour to wipe that particular slate clean.
Featuring almost 50 artists, this is a show of big names (not just Bacon, but Picasso, Matisse, Lucian Freud, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp) as well as intriguing new ones – though discoveries such as Domenico Gnoli are bittersweet once you realise this isn’t a hot young thing to watch but a dead Italian whose intensely odd paintings of clothing and hair from the late 1960s were among the last he made.
The exhibition makes most sense when the artists included embody a tussle between figuration and abstraction. For example, at the end of the 1960s when New York abstract expressionist Philip Guston stopped making the lyrically brushy works he was famous for and started painting abrasive cartoon-style images, critics were aghast and many of his contemporaries turned their backs on him. Guston, represented here by a pair of still lifes that resemble bleak hinterlands, carried on regardless, as if his life depended on working through a doomy arsenal of trash cans, hooded klansmen, cigarettes and wine bottles.
By contrast, in today’s pick-and-mix world, where images, styles and methods can be tried on and discarded at leisure, far less is at stake. In fact, there are so many artists in this show, so many mindsets and approaches, that it soon becomes a skip through the myriad ways in which anything goes.
You can spend hours pondering the show’s inclusions, as well as its omissions. However, the quality is impressively high. And it’s always a thrill to stumble across paintings, even small and relatively minor ones, by Picasso and Matisse. Not that either artist would have cared much for the curatorial hoopla or been flattered by the company. They didn’t bother with tightropes, they just flew.