There are “certain painters,” Frank Auerbach mused to me a few years ago, “who painted in a not very distinguished way, then at the point of turning toward abstraction, painted some distinguished pictures.” Kandinsky, Auerbach went on, was a “prime example” of what he meant. But when Kandinsky “crossed over” completely into abstraction, “the paintings became rather mediocre again.” So, the young Auerbach thought, “the thing to do is to cross that border again and again and again.”
He’s been doing so now for more than 60 years. This month a retrospective exhibition of his work opens at Tate Britain in London as well as at Marlborough Fine Art. It will present the work of an artist who, in certain ways, has been astonishingly consistent in what he has done and how he has done it. Auerbach, for example, moved into his current studio in March 1954, and has drawn and painted there virtually every day since. Famously, he hardly ever travels and is even reluctant to leave the corner of London north of Regent’s Park, where he has been established for six decades.
His subjects, too, are almost unchanging. They consist of landscapes, generally within walking distance of that studio, and a handful of people. Catherine Lampert, the author of an outstanding new book—Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting (Thames & Hudson)—began sitting for him regularly in May 1978. She still is, for one evening each week, all these years later. The other human subjects of his pictures—friends, family, and lovers—have been equally long serving.
Before his last retrospective, 14 years ago—the opening was on the evening of September 11, 2001—Auerbach reflected ruefully to me about the unremitting pattern of his life: “I couldn’t face the idea of being an employee in a job, but the freedom and the excitement of the activity [of art] have forced me into a far more rigid, seven-day-a-week routine than I would have been in if I had gone into something more sensible.”
Yet along with this restriction, there is great variety and suspense. Each picture, for Auerbach, is a struggle lasting months and years that he often doubts he will win. “It seems to me that one of the differences between interesting and uninteresting painters is that interesting painters start anew every time they paint a picture, and I try to do that.” The corollary of this policy is that it never gets any easier. Each work seems “totally impossible,” but he battles on “until some miracle occurs” (though he often fears that it never will again).
The reason it is so hard is that Auerbach is trying for something extremely elusive. His remark about Kandinsky’s “crossing the border” hints at what this is. So, too, does a comment quoted by Lampert. To her, Auerbach cited a phrase by Robert Frost about his own verse: “I want the poem to be like ice on a stove—riding on its own melting.” A great painting, Auerbach continued, is like that: “a shape riding on its own melting into light and space; it never stops moving backwards and forwards.”
In other words, he is attempting to capture something that is always sliding off in one direction into abstraction, in the other into a figurative image that is predigested, tired, and derivative. Or, as he once put it to me, there are “certain configurations on canvas that feel organic and alive and quivering, and others that seem inert.” When it’s said like that, one begins to see why Auerbach’s pictures are hard to do.
They are also difficult to comprehend. The subjects are not recondite: a naked body on a bed, a human face, a London street, or—in a series of works from the 1950s—the building sites of the capital. But the image is sometimes far from easy to discover, lost as it may initially seem in an immense thickness of paint (in his earlier works) or a flurry of angular brushstrokes.
Lucian Freud, the owner of a magnificent array of Auerbach’s works and a lifelong friend of the painter, once confided to me that he had initially found it hard to read Auerbach’s later pictures. After a while he had got it. I myself found that the paintings by Auerbach hung throughout Freud’s house—holding their own with others by Corot, Constable, and Francis Bacon—acquired almost hypnotic verisimilitude with familiarity.
At first, you might see only a gnarled tangle of pigment. Eventually, however, they produced an overpowering sense not of the surfaces and textures of things, but of their physical presence. This is one of the responses Auerbach is after. “If you are in bed with somebody,” he once explained to me, “you are aware of their substance in some way in terms of weight. I actually think that is the difference between good paintings and less good ones, in whatever idiom.”
The extraordinary aspect of Auerbach’s career, apart from its consistency and dedication, is how early he found himself. He began, through a terrible tragedy as a teenager, more or less adrift in postwar London. Born in Berlin in 1931, he last saw his parents when they said goodbye to him on the dockside at Hamburg in 1939. He sailed to England and was educated at Bunce Court, a progressive boarding school that sheltered a number of refugee Jewish children.
His parents were murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. At 16, on leaving school, Auerbach found himself effectively alone—and very quickly found his identity as a major painter. “I was born old,” he has said, “and I wanted to make a great, dignified, perverse image, a formal image.” His breakthrough was in the summer of 1952, when he was just 21. It came in two pictures. One was a seated nude done from Stella West, his lover for a number of years; the other, a building site near her house. In the former, because Auerbach was painting not an art-school model but a person he knew intimately, he had—as he told the late Robert Hughes—“a much greater sense of what specifically she was like, so that the question of getting a likeness was like walking a tightrope.” He had “a far more poignant sense of it slipping away, of it being hard to get.” Auerbach began the painting “relatively timidly.” Then, “I suddenly found in myself enough courage to repaint the whole thing from top to bottom, irrationally and instinctively, and I found I’d got a picture of her.” This was the template—in its slow gestation, then resolution in a crisis—for all his later works. It is tempting to connect Auerbach’s endless search for stability, his drive to capture the flux of life before it slips away, with the brutal trauma of his childhood. Tempting, but perhaps superficial. As an artist Auerbach is an individual, but he belonged—however loosely—to a group. His elders among postwar figurative painters included Bacon and Alberto Giacometti, both of whom he knew; Freud and Leon Kossoff were numbered among his close friends. For long periods Auerbach himself seemed out of fashion and out of step. Now, increasingly, it is becoming clear that, like Freud and Bacon, he is one of the truly great painters of this age.
First published by Blouin Artinfo