Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain (2016)

The recent exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s work at Tate Britain presented the viewer with a comprehensive overview of painting and drawing from his early career, right up until that produced recently. He remains one of the most significant British painters of the postwar era, who’s work possesses an extraordinary emotional and physical presence.

Auerbach is both innovative yet consistent in output and has always created on his own terms. Working to pretty much the same (almost ascetic) routine established early on and in the same spartan studio he’s occupied since 1954, the artist has spent a lifetime producing ‘variations’ on his chosen subject matter, without any sense of repetition. Often Auerbach works on a painting over a very long period, scraping off layer after layer, until he arrives at some kind of ‘realisation’. A picture can hang around for ages, and then be finished quickly, sometimes in a matter of hours.

The incredible variety of the resulting work is plain to see. The landscapes consist of places in London, near to where Auerbach has lived and worked for decades; whilst the portraits are of the same models and sitters who have sat for the artist without fuss, in some cases regularly, for over half a century. His longtime model is Juliet Yardley Mills but other regular sitters include Catherine Lampert, David Landau and his wife Julia. Several pictures of these subjects were on show in the exhibition.

Its fair to say when face to face with a painting by Auerbach, one is immediately struck by it’s directness of expression. In order to capture the essence of his subjects, the artist evolved a gestural ‘hands on’ application technique of paint to surface. In early pieces especially- although not distracted from representation by the process itself- this took extreme form as Auerbach employed a dramatic impasto that somewhat blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture.

In terms of presence, Hannah Rothschild recently described “how the paint on his canvases never seems to dry and ossify but remains vibrant, fluid, jewel-encrusted, fizzing with energy and mystery”. This feature I think also gives the work a certain timelessness. Looking closely at these tactile and delicately wrought surfaces, you can see the fingermarks and impressions of the artist as if just made.

Generally speaking, Auerbach’s paintings possess the physicality of sculpture; combined with a spontaneity, lyricism and dynamic visual impact in terms of their composition (In the accompanying interviews to the exhibition, he talked about what makes a picture visually interesting).

It is also important to point out that the artist’s technique never leads the observer into any conventional ‘Trompe l’oeil’ illusions or obscures the subject’s substance. You don’t forget that it’s a painting in front of you.

Several remarkable images that demonstrate the above characteristics took pride of place in this exhibition. Portraits of ‘E.O.W’ from the early days really show the artist’s mastery of the stuff of paint and it’s capacity to make present the absent subject. Later works may have less paint on the canvas, but are no less insightful or emotive. I personally found the portraits very moving.

In all his paintings, through their complex construction and intensive reworking, Auerbach has captured the intimacy of each subject and it’s relationship to the immediate environment. Accurately describing the physical presence of a sitter or a place that is constantly changing, the artist is acutely aware of the passage of time. He has described a ‘strong sense of wanting to pin experience down before it disappears’. One of the artist’s major influences was the English Impressionist Walter Sickert. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, take a look and you’ll see why.

In terms of the marks he makes, Auerbach has that rare facility for constant inventiveness. He is able to find exactly the right kind to perfectly evoke and hold precise measurements of volume, weight and even light, on a two dimensional surface.

Auerbach’s way of seeing also has the power to enchant us. He manages to reveal a subject within a given space, whilst at the same time enhancing its elemental mystery. The same is true of the artist’s drawings. Several were displayed at the Tate that I found particularly powerful.

In many paintings, the artist makes ‘solid’ the spaces the subject occupies. In a painting like ‘Primrose Hill, Spring Sunshine 1961-2’ (1964), the transfigured landscape is pushed up against the picture plane. This gives such images added compositional clarity and drama.

Auerbach’s landscapes are derived from the urban environment around London. Although originally a child refugee, he has spent most of his life in the capital and was witness to both the bombed out city after the war and it’s subsequent reconstruction. In pictures of places like Mornington Crescent in Camden, Earl’s Court, Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill, we often see images of intense activity and transition. Sometimes, slight figures seem to be immersed in, or overwhelmed by, the severe angular geometries of buildings under construction. Or trees and architecture appear to demarcate and divide the surface of the canvas. In terms of composition and how the artist evoked forces of movement and tension, I felt the landscapes recalled those of Monet or even Mondrian. The dynamic visual influence of the Vorticists can be detected, which is hardly surprising as Auerbach’s most inspirational teacher was David Bomberg, who exhibited with the London Group in 1914. Finally I couldn’t help noticing a certain apocalyptic element present in these paintings.

In addition to many other insights, this exhibition revealed how so many of Auerbach’s paintings are full of vivid colour. Previously, I tended to think of him using mostly earth tones. A good example then of why it is essential to view a painting, rather than relying on reproductions.

In conclusion, I felt that each picture in the show was well selected and hung so as to give the general public a good insight into the artist’s work, without overwhelming them. Auerbach himself actually suggested the form of the first six galleries and the works were grouped by decades. It was also helpful to have an additional space in the show, dedicated to explaining Auerbach’s art. The filmed interview with the artist I thought especially revealing.

A stimulating and rewarding exhibition.

(C) Gideon Hall 2016.