An exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s 1950s paintings of London building sites opens at the Courtauld Gallery this month. Martin Gayford visits the artist in his north London studio to talk about his long engagement with paint. Portraits by David Dawson.
Frank Auerbach definitely does not believe, as Walter Pater famously did, that all art aspires to the condition of music. ‘I very definitely take issue with that.’ We are talking in his studio, a brick-built workshop hidden in an alley in Camden Town, north London, where he has been working unremittingly, day after day, year after year, since 1954: one of the great marathon efforts of art history (Figs 1 and 5). ‘Visual art’, Auerbach insists as soon as I bring up the subject of Pater and music, ‘is made with resistant matter and comes up against awkward rebarbative obstacles. Art aspires towards the condition of something altogether more material than music. It has grit in it.’
Of few pictures is that more true than those Auerbach himself painted half a century and more ago of post-war London. These works – which are gathered together for the first time this month in an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London – are images of excavation and reconstruction, scaffolding, drilling equipment and piles of earth. Their titles refer to familiar places: the Shell Building (Fig. 3), the Empire Cinema (Fig. 4). But what they show is flux, half-way between ruin and resurrection. They seem to be painted, if not with grit, then with thick, glutinous London clay and heavy riverside shale. These are paintings that don’t seem to be so much of the city as to contain its physical substance. A photograph from 1964 of Auerbach in his studio (Fig. 2) shows him spattered in paint as a construction worker might be in cement, handsome and powerfully built, his head resting on his arm in the pose of a thoughtful athlete by Michelangelo.