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Frank Auerbach (1931)

Venice Biennale participation

Group show
1986
Other exhibitions
1982 1993

As his models have testified, Frank Auerbach's finished paintings hide countless previous scraped-off versions, often still visible smeared around the edges of the canvas or board; a similar approach to the eight drawings shown at Venice meant thick, tough wads of paper. Something of the claustrophobic intensity of the studio set-up eventually arrives on the canvas:

It may be that people in a domestic situation find themselves telling hard truths when they are in a quarrel - and it may be that I find myself telling truths when I am finally with my back against the wall and don't care any longer what I do. 

'Real style', he's argued, 'is not having a program – it's how one behaves in a crisis.' The final image has a decisiveness that impressed Lucian Freud, a painter of the same generation of German Jews to flee Berlin:

 It is the architecture that gives his paintings such authority. They dominate their given space: the space always the size of the idea, while the composition is as right as walking down the street.

This makes a literal sense he didn't quite mean in To The Studios (1983) - Auerbach's eye on his London doorstep, seeing through buildings to mould them onto his canvas, and, on the left, adding in a blue figure on the stairs with downward strokes that pull it down towards the viewer. The paintings have this sense of the right thing happening at the right time, in the right place; partly through luck, and partly through the pressure of very, very hard work making it the only possible outcome. Richard Dorment reflected in The Telegraph that in 1986, 34 years after Freud's Biennale, this was pretty much what happened with Auerbach winning the newly-inaugurated Golden Lion prize alongside Sigmar Polke.

How delightful it must be to suddenly totter into fashion as a result not of any change in one's style - which has hardly altered over the past 25 years - but because critics in the 1980s, noting what many have seen as the exhaustion of conceptual art, have decided to re-evaluate the figurative tradition. 

Auerbach paints in this tradition directly because it's 'a field where an enormous amount of stuff has been done'. Though he has a healthy respect for artists who don't paint as he does, or even don't paint at all - his 'admirations go to quality rather than to idiom', he told John Tusa - there is what he calls a 'slightly naughty caveat'. In newer forms like video and installation art, he thinks,

in a sense you're in a provincial situation, this is still a very small world. You know, like being the greatest Cubist in Bulgaria.  

It's not the location of Auerbach's studio in Camden, North London, that stops it being 'provincial', but his desire to work himself in amongst his peers. These aren't necessarily those of the 'London School' of Freud, Leon Kossoff, and Francis Bacon that R. B. Kitaj started rumours of in 1976, but ones more ranging in time and place. London helps with this, though. In or out of his regular 7am-9pm schedule – 'it seems to me madness to wake up in the morning and do something other than paint, considering that one may not wake up the following morning' - he can visit the National Gallery's 'past paintings', as Freud put it, 'to vary and extend his obsessive subject matter'.
 
This dedication to work is, in the longer run, a kind of sociable impulse, a desire to take some part in the world, but one that has meant something like what most people would call isolation. Life models come by at regular intervals, though, living people he knows well - 

one has a life and the people one is involved with seem to me to be tremendously worth recording: there are these people whom one pays attention to, who will never occur again. I think people do start painting because of a sort of anxiety about time; one knows that the experience is going to go, one knows that the people are going to disappear, so one tries to pin them down.

This pinning-down had gone on in the same studio for 32 years by the time of the Biennale. In 1977, two decades after he'd found himself a 'very, very indulgent landlord' and moved in, Auerbach realised the attachment he'd developed. He 'began making paintings of its entrance', the sitter for the 1981-2 & 1984-5 Portraits of Catherine Lampert wrote in his Pavilion catalogue, 'as he put it, like Kai in The Snow Queen, eventually discovering beauty on his doorstep.' 
 
The Hans Christian Anderson analogy might come from the short, eight-year childhood Auerbach spent in Berlin, before his parents sent him to England; a private arrangement at the time of the Kindertransport, a prewar mass exodus of Jewish children from Germany. It conjures a world of normal folk wandering round with splinters of an evil mirror in their eyes, unable to see the things as they are, Auerbach staring directly in front of him in his grubby North London garret, delighted. It's way of seeing he developed under David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic, while he was enrolled as a student at St Martin's. Too difficult to stay long in Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist movement, and uninterested in coaching students to pass exams, Bomberg had been blacklisted by the major art schools, who specifically told Auerbach to avoid him. On Bomberg's own advice, he lied to his tutors, and carried on through 1947 & 8. The class's influence probably shouldn't be overstressed, as these were only two of the eight years Auerbach  spent in Higher Education, but Bomberg's 'Syllabus' was placing more and more emphasis on what he'd called in 1937

Bishop Berkeley on theory of Optics – proving that impression by sight is two-dimensional – that the sense of Touch and associations of Touch produce on sight the illusion of the third dimension. 

Berkeley was a friend of Alexander Pope, the poet to whom the British Council reached to name a touring exhibition of Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin, Freud et al. The Proper Study: Contemporary Figurative Paintings from Britain (1984) -

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
Essay on Man (1734-5)

In exactly the way the disciplined, eventually instinctive form of couplets like this freed Pope for his 'proper study', this study was freeing these gathered artists. One of them was Leon Kossoff, Auerbach's classmate at Borough, and at the Royal College of Art, where the pair had modelled for each other for alternate hours. This was out of necessity, the latter explained: 

who's going to sit for an art student you know, who does incomprehensible paintings and who can't pay you and who scrapes the thing off so often that it goes forever. It doesn't seem a very worthwhile project.

 In 1956 David Sylvester saw the results, and described them with a brilliant passage that, but for the end, could have come straight from Berkeley:

a sensation curiously like that of running our fingertips over the contours of a head near us in the dark, reassured by its presence, disturbed by its otherness, doubting what it is, and then whether it is, and still, in spite of the poignantly almost morbidly tactile quality and in spite of the heaped-up paint, these are painterly images, not sculptural ones.

Out of financial necessity these paintings tended to the monchrome; 30 years later Auerbach's 24 paintings at the Biennale ranged from the varnished-Constable khaki of Head of Gerda Boehm (1978-9) to Primrose Hill (1980), which used a similar palette to Turner's Scarlet Sunset (1832), as well as a similar zigzagged line to describe energy of seeing heat shimmer. This line is the work of someone who used to act - he met 'E.O.W', a long-term model and lover, on the cast of House of Regrets, Peter Ustinov's first play - but it records the presence of his expressively moving body for a while longer. 
  

Tom Overton, 2009.
 
Sources
Frank Auerbach interviewed by Richard Cork (c.1983-4), transcript, British Council Visual Arts Library.
 
Frank Auerbach interviewed by John Tusa, BBC Radio 3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/johntusainterview/auerbach_transcript.shtml
 
Richard Cork, David Bomberg (London: Yale UP, 1987).
 
Richard Dorment, 'Auerbach totters into fashion', The Daily Telegraph, 9th January 1987.
 
William Feaver, Frank Auerbach (London: Rizzoli, 2009).

Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach (London: Thames & Hudson, 1990).
 
Catherine Lampert, Frank Auerbach [Venice exh. cat.](London: British Council, 1986).
 
Colin Wiggins, Frank Auerbach and the National Gallery: Working after the Masters (London: National Gallery, 1995).
 
The Proper Study: Contemporary Figurative Paintings from Britain [exh. cat.](London: British Council, 1984).
 
R. B. Kitaj, The Human Clay [exh. cat.] (London: Arts Council, 1976). 

Images

Frank Auerbach and Bill Packer at the British Pavilion

Frank Auerbach and Bill Packer at the British Pavilion
© Clare Packer

  • 1986 Frank Auerbach with Primrose Hill, 1980
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