Manchester Art Gallery

To be Human

Featuring mid-20th-century portraits from our permanent collection, this exhibition explored what it is to be human.

Manchester Art Gallery
Saturday 9 January 2016–Sunday 26 June 2016


Throughout history, artists have painted portraits to capture a likeness, often idealising the appearance of the sitter – this was particularly the case when the sitter also commissioned the portrait. However, as this collection of paintings demonstrated, capturing the individual characteristics and personality of the sitter was not the only aim: many of the artists were seeking a way of expressing visually their experience of, and relationship with, the sitter. In so doing, the artists explored expressions of human emotion common to us all – love, desire, frustration, grief and loneliness. The portraits have become more than simply depictions of individuals, but a starting point to investigate human relationships generally, and the extent and limitations of emotional intimacy and isolation.

Creativity, conversation and our capacity to experience and reflect upon our emotions are often thought to be what define us as human. Here, the paintings prompted us to consider the construction of identity, and the gulf between the way we present ourselves and the way we are perceived and in turn perceive others. In this exhibition The Imitation Game (13 February – 5 June) machines attempted to recognise, imitate and respond to human emotion, in order to forge connections with us. In seeking to build a machine that can compare to a human, do we first need to see, know and understand ourselves better? If so, what does it mean to be human?

Portraits by

Frank Auerbach

Francis Bacon

William Brooker

Robert Colquhoun

Evelyn Dunbar

Lucian Freud

Alberto Giacometti

David Hockney

Robert MacBryde

Amadeo Modigliani

Marie-Louise von Motesiczky

William Roberts