There is often a very fine line between the greatest modern art and messy daubing, as
artists have rejected the idea of a painting as a representation of a seen image and sought to depict other, deeper truths.
One artist who is closest to this boundary between sense and nonsense is Frank Auerbach, one of the greatest but also one of the most difficult living British artists. His art is concerned with process, with change, with a constantly shifting city and seasons, and the problems of capturing a person's essence in a portrait, of finding equivalents in paint of life. His art represents the constant attempt to capture all this in the static medium of oils, to pin down the moment in a fixed image.
Auerbach is a member of the so-called School of London, along with Leon Kossoff, R. B. (Ronald) Kitaj, Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews, and Euan Uglow. The school is part of a tradition of realist painting that focuses on urban life, and all these painters have sought to depict the human figure, the city, and the natural landscape. Influences on the group included the English Impressionist painter Walter Sickert, Vorticist artist and writer Wyndham Lewis, and Paul Nash, although Auerbach's influences run far wider.
He was born in 1931, in Berlin, of Jewish parents, and he was sent to England in 1939 to escape the Nazis; both his parents died in concentration camps. His father was a lawyer, and his mother went to art school. He boarded at Bunce Court, a progressive school for Jewish refugee children in Kent. During World War II, he was evacuated to Shropshire. From 1948 to 1952, he attended St Martin's School of Art in London, where Leon Kossoff was a fellow student and friend. At the same time, he took night classes at Borough Polytechnic with David Bomberg. He then studied at Royal College of Art, London, from 1952 to 1955.
His first solo show was held in 1956 at the Beaux-Arts Gallery, London, and received early support from the critic David Sylvester, who called it "the most exciting and impressive first one-man show by an English painter since Francis Bacon in 1949". More recent exhibitions have included a 1978 retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, London; a display at the 1986 Venice Biennale; and another exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam in 1989. He still lives in London, using the same studio he has used since the 1950s.
When asked for his early influences, he replied:
I think that the very earliest influence was a horror of having to work in a bank or an office, a desire for a free and
creative life. The writings of - for instance - William Blake, John Cooper Powys and Joyce Cary. This has finally resulted in my working every day in a rigid but self-imposed schedule. Then, at school, random influences, for instance, Paul Klee, Edward Burra, Viaminer, artists who I found it possible to imitate. Later, first Picasso, then Rembrandt and virtually the whole of art history. (Quoted in Booth)
He has listed as influences a huge range of artists, from the masters of the European tradition, to Mexican art
and a number of lesser-known figures like Albert Pinkham Ryder
, Gerald Wilde
, and Antonin Artaud
Frank Auerbach's main work is a series of repeated paintings of the faces of a small number of friends, and a collection of cityscape and landscape paintings of the same few locations near his studio: Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill in Camden, London. These portraits and landscapes are executed in thick layers of oil paint on board.
The main subject of his city paintings is the area around Mornington Crescent, an anonymous road intersection near his studio. Many of his paintings of this area were done 1965-1970, when the area was being renovated, full of scaffolding and builders. Auerbach had a regular working method for these images: he would sketch in the early morning, and then return to his studio to work in paint. He was very familiar with the subject matter of all his paintings, and his landscapes were similarly found close at hand, typically at Primrose Hill near his studio. He depicted the parkland numerous times in different seasons, rendered in an often unrecognisable fashion. His landscape and cityscape paintings are always ambiguous, often structured around a network of bold lines; and also based around reworking, which fits in with the area being rebuilt, the role of history, captured with dynamism and free strokes of the brush.
For me his landscapes are at times almost incomprehensible, a network of random lines that bear no obvious relation to the features of conventional scenic painting, and when he becomes more scenic he slips closer to Leon Kossoff's occasional cuteness. However, his portraits are more obviously powerful. While his paintings of scenery are done in the traditional working practice based upon field sketches reworked in the studio, his protraits are immediately formed out of oil paint. What strikes you first is the thickness of the paint, as though it has been applied with a trowel, almost as thick as sculpture. They have a spur-of-the-moment appearance, paint thrown thickly onto the canvas, whole tubes forced out to form a line and huge blocks with almost sculptural import like a relief. However, they often take months to create. The sitter comes in every day, always having to assume the same position, because he uses no drawing or photograph to work from. He applies himself directly to his canvas, layering paint on thickly, and scraping it off as he tries to capture some essence of the subject, often starting anew day after day.
The main subjects of his portraits are his wife Julia; the professional model Juliet Yardley Mills (known as J.Y.M.), and Estella (Stella) West (E.O.W.). However, to those unfamiliar with his work, they are unrecognisable likenesses. Early on in his career, he used mainly earth tones because they were cheaper, but later he varied his palette, some works in monochrome shades of grey and others with bright strokes of red. Often there is nothing more to mark them as faces than a dark pit for the eyes, a slash for the mouth, and half-formed shapes around. They are less paintings of subjects than of attempts to capture the subject, to pull it out of the paint. The way the paint is applied and removed suggests a constant struggle to represent anything, an artist fighting with his materials. The final effect is less a representation of a person, than of the sublime or ineffable, of the impossibility of art.
His friend Leon Kossoff compared him to Turner:
In spite of the excessive piling on of paint, the effect of these works on the mind is of images recovered and reconceived
in the barest and most particular light, the same light that seems to glow through the late, great, thin Turners ... an
unpremeditated manifestation arising from the constant application of true draughtsmanship. (Quoted in Riggs)
The critic Robert Hughes
wrote in his monograph
on Auerbach, probably the greatest work on the artist:
The work is full of observed facts of posture, expression, stare, the configuration of the head in all its parts, the
tenseness or slump of a body, alertness or boredom, light and shadow: the endless drama of the I and the Other. The brush
does not so much 'describe' these as go to inquisitorial lengths in finding kinetic and haptic equivalents for them. A dense structure unfolds as you look. The essential subject of the work, however, is not that structure as a given thing, but rather the process of its discovery. (Quoted in Revolution)
Both the portraits and the landscapes seem to come from a common source, the struggle to capture a modern reality in paint. Painting subjects repeatedly over and over recalls the Impressionist
s, such as Claude Monet
. His work seems to represent the difficulty of his task; he lives his life by a self-imposed routine with a clear notion of the role and place of the artist, and of the history of art. At his best, his work conveys a sublime beauty, a richness of feeling and a complex mingling of perception and work.
Richard Booth: Are you very self-critical of your own work or do you find yourself comfortable with what you achieve?
Frank Auerbach: I am profoundly uncomfortable with what I have, as you put it "achieved". (Interview by Booth)
A selection of his work can be found at Tate Online at http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ArtistWorks?id=784
This article was particularly inspired by the exhibition of Frank Auerbach's paintings in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Road, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, in February 2002. Any further information or opinions on Auerbach would be gratefully received by msg or email. I've not read the Robert Hughes book either; maybe some day I'll have time.