Frank Auerbach – Tate Britain (b. 1931)
I have been reading snippets in the art press, on Facebook and seen short videos on YouTube about Frank Auerbach for several months now and was intrigued by this semi-reclusive artist and his way of working. He was also one of the selection committee for 2015’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, which I didn’t have the opportunity of seeing. Last Thursday at our portrait class, we were chatting about his work and methods as another student had been to the exhibition before me. He wasn’t impressed by the portraits although liked a few of the Mornington Crescent paintings. I decided to keep an open mind and was quite excited about seeing the show – I haven’t really experienced this kind of painting before and appreciated that the real thing was going to be very different from seeing reproductions in books and on-screen.
The exhibition was roughly set out in decade order, although it was noted right at the beginning that FB hoped each work would stand alone in its own right. The first room had mainly portraiture and figures displayed. Right from the start I could see that each work would need time to look at and absorb it.
The painted portraits of E.O.W. were extraordinary – the depth of the paint was at least 3cm in places and I could see clearly where it had been scraped back and restated many times. Some were quite disturbing as the layered strings of paint gave an impression of the head/face decaying before your eyes, particularly where the colours were dark. Being more comfortable, initially, with more representative work, I was particularly taken with the charcoal self-portrait. Here it was still clear that much rubbing back and scrubbing out had been part of the process. There were many patches of repaired paper that added to the texture and interest of the surface.
I found that to really appreciate each work, it was necessary to look closely, stand back and squint my eyes as well just look hard. Having said that, with the Camden walks I found just by emptying my mind and looking in almost a meditative way, objects came into focus and made sense. This was particularly the case with Mornington Crescent 1963 – it reminded me of the Channel 4 logo on TV where the viewpoint of the camera swings round and shows the figure 4 clearly coming into focus. This made me smile and was a method I repeated with other paintings. With The Origin of the Great Bear 1967-8, I found the blocks of buildings on the river and from there made sense of the rest of the painting. I found that often, I needed to find one anchor point in a painting and everything else followed. I don’t know if this is a conscious process Auerbach had or if it’s just the way it worked for me, however, it opened up the paintings to me. Looking Towards Mornington Crescent Station 1972-4 also struck me in a similar way. The more I looked the more I could see the view, I knew it was a station even before I looked at the title – on first glance however, it was just abstract pattern.
Standing in front of Julia Sleeping 1978, I was strongly reminded of Manet’s portrait of Berthe Morisot, I remember the feeling, however, now I look at the reproduction in the catalogue, I can’t see it so much. I think that this may be that the physical paintings have a much stronger emotional pull than printed photographs.
Coming into the 90s and 2000s, the amount of paint Auerbach used is mostly reduced although still impasto with a variety of mark making. His morning walks still inform his views of Camden and I found it interesting that he made notes in his memory only and didn’t sketch from life. Maybe this is why the paintings are so compelling – his emotional response is deep within the marks he makes and is reflected right back at the viewer. He repeated the same subjects and sitters over and over again so they must have become deeply ingrained in his memory and subconscious.
The charcoal, graphite, chalk and oil pastel drawings of his sitters are fascinating, and although done from life, still have the emotive attraction. By not just drawing the outlines but squiggling, zigzagging and using broken line to describe shapes he gives more of his own reaction and life to the drawings. He also used a similar technique in his later paintings both portraits and landscapes – for example the painting and drawing of his son, Head of Jake 2008-9 and 2009-10 respectively. It is also interesting that untraditionally, he made the painting before the drawing.
Another remarkable painting is the very large work called E.O.W., S.A.W. and J.J.W in the Garden 1 1963. This is several square metres in size and from a distance looks almost like a tapestry with its predominantly horizontal paint strokes – I can’t say brush strokes because it’s so thick with paint he must have used something more like a trowel! I sat and looked at this for some time marvelling at it. The aerial perspective sends the end of the garden with its fence back and the background garden and neighbouring roof tops are cleverly rendered in such thick paint. I suppose it may be said that the proportion of the main figure (I assume is E.O.W.) is a little out but that doesn’t detract at all.
The final room did make me feel a little sad and retrospective as it seemed to me, a lot of the energy had faded – however, Frank Auerbach is now 84 so it’s to be expected I suppose. As a walk through his life and work this was a wonderful and fantastic yet moving collection.
On leaving the exhibition rooms, I saw a short film made by Jake Auerbach, the artist’s son, where Frank gave a short demonstration of the expression of objects. This was fascinating and was an insight into how he thinks and makes his paintings alive. It was worth watching as a warm-down from the frenetic show.
I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition and am glad I kept an open mind and gave each painting the time it deserved. It wasn’t as easy a view as would be say, a photographic display, I worked hard at looking and was rewarded. This was a timely visit too as I am currently studying different ways of applying paint.
Next, a long walk to the Royal Academy…