Royal Academy, London
The retrospective exhibition Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954—2001 at the Royal Academy of the Arts is the most exhilarating and brilliant exhibition I have seen for years. The extensive literature on Auerbach and the catalogue essays for this excellent show by Catherine Lampert, Norman Rosenthal and Isabel Carlisle enable the process that begins in front on the works themselves to continue beyond the initial visit. There is something extraordinary in the process of viewing that comes from the comprehensive nature of the show and the sheer scale of the exhibition. Michael Podro first wrote about Auerbach in 19692 and his review of this show for the Times Literary Supplement is one of the best. He describes the experience of the Royal Academy Retrospective:
There is a sense of momentum as one walks through the Frank Auerbach exhibition at the Royal Academy. Auerbach’s work has a constantly self-revising dynamic which never allows the subject to disengage from the distinctive properties of the painter’s medium, nor does it allow the relation between medium and subject to be taken for granted. This is a recurrent issue in modern painting. Kandinsky reflected anxiously in 1912 that, in depicting objects, one could never retain the vividness of their physiognomy; painting always weakened the resonance of things. Kandinsky’s response had been to diminish the represented subject in favour of what he conceived to be the expressive properties of the medium — the move to abstraction. Auerbach’s, on the other hand, has been to bring the physiognomic reality on the one to bear on that of the other. If complex abstract forms appear increasingly in the internal armature of the painting, they are never disengaged from the turn of the head, the posture of the body, the masses of a building, or the branching of a tree.3
Frank Auerbach arrived in England aged eight in 1939 from Berlin. In her discussion of the effect of Auerbach’s life on his approach to work Catherine Lampert writes:
Those who watch Auerbach from close to see him acting by instinct and conviction, definite about some things while guarding the reason. Although such autonomy contributes to his energy, it may be due in part to ill fortune. In the tragic circumstances of the Nazi era, his parents, urged on by friends and a promised patron, placed their son, nearly eight, on a boat in Hamburg bound for Southampton. Miraculously he arrived in a country and at a school that nurtured his temperament. Bunce Court, the Quaker-Jewish boarding school founded by Anna Essinger, located in Kent in 1939 and then removed to safety in Shropshire, was both a nearly self-sufficient community and a place for individuals. Many students and teachers there had had testing experiences — separation, loss of career, divorce, a change of language, bohemian neglect. An unusually high proportion of alumni excelled in inventive professions, from structural engineering to film-making and music’.4
Auerbach moved to London after completing school, in 1947 and became a temporary student at the Borough Polytechnic Institute where he was taught by David Bomberg. He in fact continued to attend Bomberg’s classes at St Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art. Like the other artists of his generation and slightly older (Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff) Auerbach spent a great deal of time drawing from the collection at the National Gallery. Of his lifelong dialogue with the old masters there he says, ‘To remind myself of what quality is and what’s actually demanded of paintings’.5 Of Bomberg’s role in his development he says: ‘actually to apprehend the weight, the twist, the stance, of a human being anchored by gravity: to produce a souvenir of that’.6 In his early work Auerbach chose the landscape of war-torn London and his friends. From the early work there is the development of a tragic air in a number of his portraits, an exploration of what the inner self was concerned with. In Head of Leon Kossoff (1954) the skull-like head pushes to the edge of the picture frame creating a great tension. The reduced palette is applied in thick and vigorous strokes; a Rembrantian gloom is achieved ‘The averted gaze, a feature of most of Auerbach’s heads, suggests an inner world of thought brought to the surface by long hours of sitting. The thickness of the impasto is testament to the efforts exerted by the artist.’7
David Bomberg was an important influence as well as Auerbach’s teacher. His views on art in relation to the development of self were particularly apt in the post-war art scene. For example, the gallery system was not considered by Bomberg to be the only way an artist could become established; there was the removal of an élitism in that he encouraged his students to exhibit alongside amateur artists at the Embankment Gardens in 1947 when the London County Council had its first open-air exhibition. Against Auerbach’s personal loss of family during the war, Bomberg’s words must have had a real poignancy for him at the outset of his career: ‘It is the example the artist gives of fulfilling himself in his work that is of social use to others; for the man who solves his problems thereby involuntarily helps everyone else’.8 Rosenthal believes that in ‘conveying a kind of existential fear, Auerbach’s paintings act as a therapeutic release’.9 Together with Leon Kossoff, he decided to paint the rebuilding of London and drew in situ every day, ‘In his paintings of building sites, he counteracted the abundance of mud and deep holes by deploying cranes and girders, as if they were pictorial lightning rods and ‘lances’.10 In response to the work of other artists he came into contact with in the immediate post-war years, Auerbach was dissatisfied. He stated: ‘I felt there was an area of experience — the haptic, the tangible, what you feel when you touch somebody next to you in the dark — that hadn’t perhaps been recorded in painting before’.11 Catherine Lampert, herself a sitter of Auerbach for many years, in her catalogue essay Auerbach and His Sitters, describes his work following four years of drawing classes as ‘bodies ferociously pinned down by drawn strokes, but emotionally remote, like primates. In the summer of 1952 he underwent a crisis that provoked the working practice of a lifetime’.
The person posing for me was someone I was involved with, not a professional model, so the whole situation was obviously more tense and fraught. There was always the feeling that she might get fed up, that there might be a quarrel or something. I also had a much greater sense of what specifically she was like, so that the question of getting a likeness was like walking a tightrope. I had a far more poignant sense of it slipping away, of it being hard to get. I had done the painting in some sittings in a relatively timid way, that is I’d tried to do one part and then another part, and save a bit. Then I suddenly found in myself enough courage to repaint the whole thing, from top to bottom, irrationally and instinctively, and I found I got a picture of her. And when I went into the College on the first day, I felt so disturbed at entering an institution that I went home at eleven o’clock and, provoked by this crisis, repainted the painting of the building site that I’d been working on at home.12
The painting E.O.W. Nude, 1952 is Stella West, his long-term companion, a widow fifteen years his senior with three young children. According to Lambert, the paintings of Stella, between 1961 and 1973 ‘move through a process of what psychologists (and art historians) call displacement. The liquidity of the paint is at the centre of something almost alchemical in its ability to express feeling; a process that Auerbach takes, by himself, into virgin territory during the 1980s. The brushstrokes, in contrast to mass, manage to convert us, almost like a stigmatism, to truth. Rembrandt and Titian’s late tonal paintings guided him, yet he began to act in a modern idiom, open to pungent attacks on our nerves as well as our acceptance of ‘disorder’.13 Auerbach’s painting is characterised by experimentation, astonishing dedication — he works for 364 days each and every year- and a courage that takes him into darkness, and the unknown. Through looking at his paintings an overwhelming emotion is survival and truth, the solitary path to acceptance. Auerbach makes struggle seem normal without in any way glorifying it or belittling the pain. His insights are like moments of truth. Using a paint that sometimes resembles ‘a strange ceramic or worm-eaten carving’,14 lines that are jagged and inexplicable in themselves, he works tirelessly to evoke human pain and suffering through pigment and mass. No other contemporary artist does it so well. It is a celebration of the creative act, the sanctity of life, survival through adversity. Rosenthal points out that Auerbach describes the feeling of survival after his experiences as ‘not joy, but sadness, but wrath and anger. I looked up once more and saw that a dark and menacing cloud had appeared in the sky. I felt that this cloud above us would never disappear, it would stay there all our lives’. Rosenthal continues ‘Auerbach’s paintings are expressions of love and attachment to their subjects, and yet there is always something slightly threatening about the atmosphere they convey’.15
Auerbach’s remarkable paintings; his decisive compositional devices, and his ability to pierce the object with a formidable investigative talent, are constantly informed by his drawing.
I go out each morning and draw. I can’t really start a painting in the morning until I’ve done a drawing….I feel dissatisfied with what I’m doing, so I go out and try to notice some fact I haven’t seen before, and once I’ve been provided with a reason for changing my picture, I can come back to the studio and change it…usually it is a new sensation of proportion or connection, often revealed by the light.16
Drawing is an essential part of his working method as well as an end in itself. He sketches in the landscape and in front of old and modern masters; in turn the drawings are taken back to the studio where they are used to solve compositional problems. A landscape painting may require as many as 200 sketches; paintings and finished drawings of people, however do not require any direct, preliminary sketches. In the studio, the landscape sketches recall ‘what it was actually like to draw there that morning…what I see is what I was looking at when I did the drawing and it reminds me of it. That’s what it was for. I see the sunlight and the trees and the hill so I paint from these by looking at the drawing… I’m looking at black-and-white drawings and the lines signal colour to me’.17 Isabel Carlisle writes:
The finished charcoal or pencil drawings that Auerbach has made of his sitters testify to the daily crises in his art. In some, such as Head of Julia (1960), the paper has been erased so often that it has completely given way and had to be patched. In almost all, the dust of the charcoal or graphite has sunk in too far to be eliminated, softening the light from white to silver, while the faint criss-crossing of unwanted lines brings a vibrant energy to the heads. More visibly than in the paintings, the final image is the summation of the many rejected attempts that make it possible. It is as if the crisis has to be provoked daily to move the art forward so that a new and previously unexpressed meaning can be forced from the subject.18
Auerbach is, as Rosenthal has observed, both modern and part of the classical tradition of portraiture and landscape painting. ‘In spite of his surface wildness and the thickness of his paint (or in the case of thinner canvases paint that has been scraped off where it has previously covered the surface), there is a sense of rightness that gives each mark, each stroke, an emotionally laden meaning that strives towards a truthful representation of the subject, an aim which Walter Sickert — another of Auerbach’s English heroes — called ‘the interpretation of ready-made life’.’19 Frank Auerbach is a truly inspiring artist and this exhibition at the Royal Academy does his journey and his genius absolute justice.