FRANK AUERBACH (B. 1931)
Study for Morington Crescent
Charcoal and oil on paper
Executed in 1970
Sheet Height 25.1 cm., 9 7/8., Width 31.4 cm., 12 3/8in.
Floated in a black, polished pearwood, ‘L’ section frame
Frame Height 41 cm., 16 in., Width 47 cm., 18.50 in.,
People used to talk about the aleatory and luck and so on and chance in painting, well it’s all chance if you go out and draw, you don’t know anything’s going to be… buses come across and people move and then you do more drawings and all sorts of sensations about pace and speed and the plastic coherence of the material that you’re dealing with, and people walking across begin to appear in space and you just make these drawings and take them back to the studio and it gives you an impetus.
Frank Auerbach in an interview with John Tusa, BBC Radio 3, October 21st 2001
FRANK AUERBACH (British, German born, 1931)
Alongside Bacon and Freud, Auerbach is regarded as one of Britain’s preeminent postwar figurative painters. His work typically portrays either one of a small group of mainly female models, or scenes around London, especially Camden Town.
Auerbach was born in Berlin of Jewish parents; his father was a lawyer and his mother a former art student. In 1939 he was sent to England to escape Nazism. His parents, who remained behind, died in concentration camps. He spent his childhood at a progressive boarding school, Bunce Court, at Lenham near Faversham, Kent, a school for Jewish refugee children. During the war years the school was evacuated to Shropshire. He attended St Martin’s School of Art, London, from 1948 to 1952, and studied with David Bomberg in night classes at Borough Polytechnic. It was during this period that he developed a friendship with fellow student Leon Kossoff. Auerbach studied at the Royal College of Art from 1952 to 1955.
Auerbach moved to his first studio in Camden Town, North London, in 1954 and has painted there ever since. The urban landscapes of the surrounding area have been a constant source of inspiration. Recurring subjects in his Camden landscapes are Mornington Crescent (located nearby, between Camden and King’s Cross) and the adjacent Art Deco former Carreras cigarette factory and nearby Camden Palace dance club (originally a music hall); the most pastoral setting is nearby Primrose Hill. In his portrait work, he has used three principal models throughout his career: his wife Julia, who first posed for him in 1959; Juliet Yardley Mills, a professional model whom he met in 1957; and his close friend Estella West, the model for most of his nudes and female heads prior to 1973.
Auerbach does not prepare underpaintings, nor does he use outline sketches for portraits, and he relies on his sitters being able to reassume the same pose session after session. In contrast, he sketches landscapes in the field and brings the sketches back to the studio, sometimes using as many as 200 sketches for a single painting.
His work might broadly be described as expressionist. Many of his paintings display an extremely thick impasto, something which he was criticised for at his 1956 Beaux Arts solo show, where some of the paintings were displayed flat rather than hanging, for fear that the paint would fall off from its own weight. The impasto, which grew even heavier over the next decade (but later decreased, as he began scraping down his paintings more as he worked), is sometimes so heavy that the paint seems to have been sculpted rather than brushed on.
A similarly sculptural aspect can often be found in his drawings: Auerbach layers multiple sheets of paper as much as half an inch in thickness and in some parts of the drawing he may erase so heavily as to go through several sheets. This can be readily seen in the area surrounding the upper part of the head in his 1960 Head of Julia. The extreme predominance of earth colors in his early work was largely a matter of budget: a £1,500 annuity from the Beaux Arts allowed him to broaden his palette, which can be seen in his works once he resumed painting. Colors such as aquamarine and cadmium red began to appear in his paintings. The gallery guide to the 2001 Royal Academy retrospective says that “The physical effort required to produce the large works is enormous. Painting the ultimate version of the composition, laid over the scraped-off remains of so many predecessors, frequently demands six or more hours of intense activity.” Similarly, in discussing one of his paintings of Primrose Hill, “Reading an Auerbach painting is an energetic experience… Furiously worked pink vibrates in a different way to swift interlinked zigzags of red and green, while a marbled sky offers an area of tranquility.”
The dealer Helen Lessore at the Beaux-Arts Gallery, London, gave Auerbach his first solo show in 1956. He was criticised for his thick application of paint, but found support from the critic David Sylvester, who wrote of ‘the most exciting and impressive first one-man show by an English painter since Francis Bacon in 1949’. Sylvester countered remarks by various critics that the artist’s work was closer to sculpture than to painting: ‘in spite of the heaped-up paint, these are painterly images, not sculptural ones, have to be read as paintings, not as polychrome reliefs, and make their point just because their physical structure is virtually that of sculpture but their psychological impact is that of painting’ (Sylvester, ‘Young English Painting’, The Listener, 12 January 1956). Kossoff later echoed these sentiments: ‘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’ (in Frank Auerbach, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, Hayward Gallery, London 1978, p.9).
Auerbach exhibited regularly at the Beaux-Arts Gallery until 1963. From 1965 he exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery. The first major retrospective of Auerbach’s work was presented in 1978 by the Arts Council of Great Britain for the Hayward Gallery, London, and then toured to the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh. Other major shows have included “Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1977–85” at the British Pavilion at the XLII Venice Biennale (1986), where he shared the Golden Lion prize with Sigmar Polke. A solo exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam, 1989. “Frank Auerbach at the National Gallery: Working after the Masters” (1995), at the National Gallery, London, presented drawings made over a thirty-year period from paintings in the National Gallery’s collection. A major retrospective at the London’s Royal Academy in 2001. Many of his works are in the permanent collection of the Tate Gallery.
The two most comprehensive retrospectives of his work — the 1978 Hayward show and the 2001 Royal Academy retrospective — were curated by Catherine Lampert.
This post was written by joecollinson