Best known for his depictions of North London’s urban landscapes and portraits of a regular cast of friends and family, Frank Auerbach’s paintings are brimming with colour, texture and fraught emotion. To call them paintings is almost misleading, as the sheer amount of oil paint he piles onto one canvas means the pieces often resemble sculptures more than two-dimensional works. Either way, he has a deserved reputation as one of Britain’s great living artists.
Head of E.O.W. I, 1960
Tate Britain’s current exhibition of his work, curated by his close friend, sitter and artist Catherine Lampert, is an interesting and comprehensive insight into the artist. It comprises eight rooms, each representing decades in his career, and is influenced very heavily by the artist’s own wishes. The only room that is left untouched is the final room, over which Lampert had full creative agency. This room is presented as the climax of the exhibition, although to my eye it was rather underwhelming – viewers are merely reintroduced to pieces exhibited earlier, and it is quite easy to skip through without paying much attention.
Despite the chronological layout of the exhibition I found the lack of emphasis on his development as an artist and personal relationships quite refreshing. Rather than learning about each aspect of the artist’s work and life one formulaic step at a time, the viewer comes to appreciate Auerbach’s work and life as a whole: his relationship with his beloved London; his inner turbulence and sense of loneliness; his intense and deep appreciation of the human condition; his unique energy and intuitive understanding of colour…
Probably as a direct result of how involved Auerbach was in the curatorial process, the emphasis is not on how he came to achieve greatness, but instead his great pieces. The timeline encountered as you exit the exhibition is presented as a mere afterthought that draws the exhibition together (you learn, for example, the specific years that Auerbach worked with the model and his former lover, Estella (Stella) Olive West (‘E.O.W.’) and when his artistic relationship with his wife Julia began). By eschewing the conventional biographical context in the curation, I was more able to connect with Auerbach’s pieces more directly.
Often insisting that his subjects sit for him weekly and for prolonged periods of time, he is known to have produced dozens of portraits of the same person, each slightly different. As one of his most frequent sitters, David Landau remembers, ‘he has now made 45 portraits of me. Each one draws me back to the time it was painted. He is a tremendous friend: the only person, apart from my wife, who I’ve seen so consistently for so long.’
E.O.W. on Her Blue Eiderdown II, 1965
Many of his sitters can recognise themselves in Auerbach’s portraits of themselves. Due to the level of abstraction in his paintings, I was initially very sceptical… It’s entirely likely, however, that these sitters are not just recognising themselves but a more general aspect of human feeling, something which Auerbach is able to pinpoint and express exactly through paint. As Jonathan Jones explained: ‘He depicts not people as such, but the human condition. How they suffer, and how he suffers with them.’
As suggested by the weekly sitting with his muses, the process that Auerbach undertakes to create his sculpture-like paintings verge on the laborious. Often working on a single piece for years on end, he continuously edits his work, scraping back the surface of his canvas and re-starting the painting process daily, in an attempt to achieve the exact emotional state or perspective that he perceives and wants to communicate. Strangely, the final iteration is often finished in just a day, if the months and years that were so readily and almost instinctively erased prior are to be discounted. What struck me most about Auerbach’s paintings was the paradox between this time-consuming process, and the impression that you get, as a viewer, that his paintings transport you to only a specific and very brief moment or perspective in time.
Winter Morning, Mornington Crescent,1999
Mornington Crescent, Looking South, 1997
Mornington Crescent, 1965
In this way, my favourite pieces are from his series based on his home and life in Camden, North London. Painting the parks, the crescents, the squares, the views from his apartment more times in the last 50 years than he could probably remember, each depiction brings out a different perspective and point in time. The earliest painting, for example, of Mornington Crescent, in between Camden and Kings Cross, was done in 1965, whilst his most recent is from 1997. Living in the capital for over 50 years, the London he knew was constantly changing, as it still does today, from minute to minute – something which I can entirely relate to. As he said, ‘what I wanted to do was to record the life that seemed to me to be passionate and exciting and disappearing all the time.’ Whilst obviously relating to the ever-changing architecture of London, as brought to attention by the predominance of scaffolding in many of his paintings, I love how he observes and communicates how one’s perception of a place can change every time you see it, depending on your mood, the season or recent events.