Since prehistoric humans etched scenes from their lives on to cave walls, artists have been grappling with how to evoke the complexity of human experience in art. “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them… leaving its trail of the human presence… as the snail leaves its slime,” Francis Bacon once commented of his work, which featured tortured figures that slithered and contorted across the canvas – mangled and monstrous, an embodiment of the internal conflicts of the mind.
This ‘human presence’ was heavily informed by a fascination with butchered meat (“We are potential carcasses,” Bacon once remarked). Across his work, animal corpses intermingled with human flesh, evoking the horrors of the two World Wars that punctuated Bacon’s life.

“Sexuality, human emotion, everyday life, personal humiliation… violence is part of human nature,” he said. “Even within the most beautiful landscape… under the leaves, the insects are eating each other.”

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Feb 19th 2018

Similarly, Lucian Freud, a close friend of the artist (before a feud brought the relationship to an end), shared a belief that the visceral realities of the body offered an insight into the truth of human experience.“As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as the flesh does,” Freud once remarked. His richly detailed paintings obsessed over the bodies of his subjects, with every subtle tone or fold of skin recorded in a laborious process that contrasted with Bacon’s faster, more spontaneous flourishes.

From February 28, Tate Britain is bringing together the work of the two contemporaries (along with a portrait of Freud by Bacon, which is displayed for the first time since 1965) in a blockbuster exhibition that explores how artists have rendered life’s experiences in art. All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life will incorporate everything from Walter Sickert’s vignettes of everyday life to Alberto Giacometti’s isolated, stick-thin figures, offering a rich overview of figurative art during the 20th century, and investigating what gallery director Alex Farquharson has described as, “how artists have captured the intense experience of life.”