Frank Auerbach is clearly one of the most important living artists in Britain today. Born in 1931 in Berlin, he has created some of the most resonant and inventive paintings of recent times. His portraits of people and urban landscapes painted near his London studio are synonymous with the progressive style of abstract work known as the School of London. In the artist’s 85th year, and nearly the last of his generation, a new exhibition, at Tate Britain, exhibiting 70 paintings and drawings from the 1950s to the present day will be the perfect vehicle to view and get to grips with this wonderful painter. The exhibition reaffirms Auerbach’s status as one of the pre-eminent painters of our age and will offer new insights into the nature of his painting.
Painting 365 days a year, Auerbach produces his characteristically tactile and visually dynamic work in the same studio he has occupied since 1954. For half a century he has worked in an uncompromising way, scraping back the surface of the canvas to start and re-start the painting process. He begins afresh for months or years until the single painting or drawing is realised in a matter of hours, having finally surprised him.
The depth, texture and sense of space in a painting by Auerbach makes standing in front of one a unique experience. The vast majority of works in the exhibition are from private collections and seldom on public display, providing a rare opportunity to see these important works in the flesh. It includes early portraits such as Head of Leon Kossoff 1954, as well as landscapes such as Building Site, Earl’s Court, Winter 1953 which come out of Auerbach’s identification with post-war London as a raw unpainted city rebuilt after bombing.
Large works from the 1960s include E.O.W, S.A.W. and J.J.W in the Garden II 1964 and The Origin of the Great Bear 1967-68, a mythological landscape set on London’s Hampstead Heath. Primrose Hill 1971 and Looking Towards Mornington Crescent Station 1972-74 also use expressive directional brushstrokes to suggest London’s foliage, street lamps and passers-by. Portraits of Auerbach’s longstanding model Juliet Yardley Mills, Head of J.Y.M. II 1984-85 and of his wife, Head of Julia II 1985 are also shown, revealing a freer, more fluid treatment of paint. Auerbach’s recent paintings of Mornington Crescent underline his identification with the area, such as The House II 2011, along with further portraits of the five sitters, Julia, Jake Auerbach, Catherine Lampert, David Landau and William Feaver, who visit his studio each week.
Focusing on this close group of sitters and locations makes Auerbach exceptionally aware of changes in the exact look and spirit of his subjects. He has an acute awareness of time gradually fading away, and has described how he has ‘a strong sense of wanting to pin experience down before it disappears.’
The curator of the exhibition, Catherine Lampert, has had a long relationship of working with Auerbach, having sat for him in his studio every week for 37 years. The realisation of the show brings together these two people – artist and sitter – and their two approaches; one concerned with looking at individual works, and the other selecting groups of works to reveal thematic and formal continuities over many decades.
Auerbach has suggested the form and the selection of the first six of eight galleries, looking for distinct works which are grouped by decades. The art historian Catherine Lampert, who has sat for the artist for thirty-seven years, has complemented this by concentrating on the continuity of subjects and Auerbach’s ability to absolutely avoid repetition.
Frank Auerbach: 9 October 2015 – 13 March 2016 Tate Britain, Level 2 Galleries