Fine art: The artists who buried the Pre-Raphaelites

Paula Rego’s The Betrothal, after Marriage A-la-Mode by Hogarth (1999)

There are different types of beauty. If you only appreciate the lithe, long-haired, perpetually youthful ethereal beauties of Burne-Jones and Rossetti, the works of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud may not immediately appeal. But there is a beauty also in the hard, sometimes lumpy reality of the real human body, in contrast to the idealised perfection of the Pre-Raphaelites, which must have been part of what these raw, realist 20th-century British artists were reacting against.

Freud and Bacon are at the heart of the Tate Britain exhibition All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life, with 17 paintings by Freud and 12 by Bacon. Freud once said, “I want the paint to work as flesh does” – as good a description of their work as you’ll find.

This exhibition has some rare and fascinating pieces – Bacon’s portrait of Freud is being shown for the first time since 1965 – but it seems a little unfocused. The only connecting theme is that all the artists were painting in Britain, and all but the last half-dozen works are 20th-century.

To say, as the catalogue does, that these artists concentrated on “the human figure and the everyday landscape they inhabited” is far too broad a brush; that could include most art. The heavy cityscapes of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, while powerful in their own way, have little in common with Freud’s intensely personal nudes.

Usually, putting an art movement into context is helpful, but in this case it muddies the waters. Yes, the hard reality of Walter Sickert’s paintings of prostitutes in the first room sought to portray, in his words, “the sensation of a page torn from the book of life”, but they’re not in any way stylistic forerunners of Bacon, Freud and their kin. As for the last room, with recent paintings by four female artists, it shows little if any connection with the work of Freud, Bacon or anyone else in the exhibition; the artists could have been influenced by anyone.

The great value of exhibitions like this, covering a period rather than an individual artist, is that they introduce us to artists we might not have encountered before. Francis Newton Souza’s Indian-influenced religious art is startling and compelling – though again, stylistically, it seems out of place in this exhibition.

The real revelation is the Portuguese artist Paula Rego. Painting in the 1980s-90s, she focuses on the lives of women in a patriarchal society; her paintings tell stories; her subjects, usually in family groups, are perhaps suffering, perhaps trapped, their faces resigned, often hardened. This is reality, she’s saying through her distortions; this is what it is to be human.

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is at Tate Britain until August 27