Frank Auerbach, “one of the greatest artists working today,” takes inspiration from Euclid's theoremsby Jay Elwes / July 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Head of Jake, 1998: “the head seems to materialise out of a storms of lines and colour, giving a sense of psychological intensity.”
Frank Auerbach, now 81, has painted at his studio at Mornington Crescent in London for more than 50 years, to a strict daily schedule. His close friends, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, dominated British and international painting. Despite his lower profile, Auerbach’s work has been in great demand. In June, eight of his paintings fetched £2.5m at a Bonham’s auction. In June 2010, a portrait of his long-term lover, Estella Olive West, was sold for £860,000.
Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, describes Auerbach as a master of the medium of paint, saying that “his work will continue to resonate with generations” of artists. Barnaby Wright, curator of 20th century art at the Courtauld Gallery, says that “Frank Auerbach is one of the greatest artists working today.” He is part of a tradition of painters, “stretching back through at least five centuries of European art, who have dedicated themselves unwaveringly to the medium of paint. I think of Cézanne, Turner and Rembrandt especially.”
Auerbach is the archetype of the “pure” artist. He has always worked without concern for aesthetic trends, but it seems mainstream art is returning to Auerbach’s vision of the mysterious power of painting. Even Damien Hirst has tried—although failed—to prove himself in this medium.
Auerbach’s paintings are the result of an intensive process. He applies thick striations of paint in bold, angular strokes, and upon these adds yet more paint, building layers on the canvas in a dense crust of colour. He has few subjects—London scenes such as building sites, occasionally the interiors of buildings, and most famously, portraits of heads. Models sit for Auerbach for months, yet he often scrapes a canvas clean and starts over. “I repaint the pictures again and again and again,” he says, claiming that the process of painting is “very much a question of finding something that is locked in—in a way like one of Euclid’s theorems.” When pressed on what he means by “locked in,” Auerbach explains, “I think there’s an underlying secret structure to things and I’m trying to get to it, I’m trying to burrow towards it.”