Frank Auerbach, “one of the greatest artists working today,” takes inspiration from Euclid’s theorems
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.”
The idea that beneath surface reality there lurks a set of formal relations that must be sought out by the painter is at odds with the more subjective character of popular contemporary art. But Auerbach also holds that the precise nature of this secret structure resists easy discovery. “Francis Bacon used to say ‘if you can think things clearly you can say them clearly.’ It absolutely isn’t true,” says Auerbach. “Ballet dancers think clearly, carpenters think clearly, and they don’t think in words, they don’t think of saying; they do. They act directly according to their sensations and there’s no interposition of words at all, so it is a wordless zone.”
Born in Berlin in 1931 to Jewish parents, Auerbach was sent to England in 1939, as part of the mass emigration of Jewish children from central and eastern Europe known as the Kindertransport. His parents were deported to a concentration camp in 1942; neither survived. A stipend from a relative enabled him to attend school in Kent, followed by St Martin’s School of Art and eventually the Royal College. However, he credits David Bomberg, the unconventional artist and teacher at the Borough Polytechnic, for impressing upon him the importance of delving into the essence of a subject, rather than being distracted by its surface qualities.
Auerbach describes a fascination with the physical quality of painting. “If you look at a Giacometti or a Matisse or a Picasso, or de Kooning, you certainly get the sense that what they’re not doing is describing the outward experience of something but describing their involvement with it, identification with it… And if you identify yourself with something, you try it, you’ll be identifying with your whole body, not just with your eyes.”
On leaving the Royal College, his first formal exhibition took place in 1956 at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London. As the critic William Feaver says in his book on Auerbach, the curator David Sylvester pronounced this debut show “the most exciting and impressive first one-man show by an English painter since Francis Bacon in 1949.” Auerbach showed five exhibitions there before he moved to the Marlborough Fine Art gallery in 1965, where he remains still. It was here, in the small office at the top of the building, that Auerbach agreed to meet.
It had not been an easy meeting to arrange. People at the gallery had stressed the importance of Auerbach’s ordered routine and how unwilling he was to deviate from it. “You have fitted rather nicely into my day,” was his comment when a slot was secured in his timetable.
Auerbach would make a good subject for one of his own paintings. He has a young face with alert, bright eyes and smooth skin, an intense air but a generous smile. He wore a green corduroy suit over a thick, grey roll-neck jumper, and stout black leather shoes crusted with dirt.
One of his favourite subjects is the human head. In these depictions, the head seems to materialise out of a storm of lines and colour, giving a sense of psychological intensity and internal activity. Energy seems to flash around and out of his figures, which seethe with energy and movement. But why the desire to paint the head? “Sometimes some very trivial remark that somebody makes and is forgotten, lodges with one. I was in David Bomberg’s class… he’d say anything, he was a man without a mask, he’d say whatever came into his head, and managed to offend almost everybody he ever came into contact with, apart from me. He said ‘well anybody can paint a clever composition, but it takes a real painter to paint a head,’ and I don’t know why, it must have touched something in me.”
Yet he is not a straightforward figurative painter. “I don’t think I’m a figurative painter in the sense of trying simply to record things,” says Auerbach. “I hope to make new images, although we all know that it’s a subtle thing.” Does this make him an avant-garde artist? “Lucian Freud is a radically original artist, going totally against every possible tenet of modernism,” responds Auerbach. “That seems to me to be a sort of avant-garde of a more profound sort than joining a movement or an army.
“These things settle down over time but, what seems like a great breakthrough done 50 years ago often becomes a respectable, solid picture—but the respectable, solid picture done 50 years ago becomes totally dead.” It is telling that, for Auerbach, the highest accolade for art is, as he sees it, to be adjudged “respectable,” and “solid.”
His voice is soft, but considered, with occasionally a non-British cadence, a reminder of his origins. He has a tendency not to look backwards, preferring neither to analyse his own work, nor to look at it very often. The art critic Willliam Feaver, who has sat for Auerbach, explains that he has “pursued his art at an oblique not to say obtuse angle to the thrusts of conventional modernism.” Auerbach warns that it is important for an artist to stay away from an obsession with style. He later offered, by email, the aphorism that “when one has subtracted everything that matters, what remains is style.”
That is another reason why Auerbach’s work does not sit well with the postmodern preoccupations of much contemporary art. His essentialist approach can seem too earnest, too un-knowing; some would recoil from his view that “if you try to push yourself as far as you can, what you’re finally left with is the raw person.”
Unlike younger artists influenced by conceptual art, Auerbach does not plan his work. He starts with the aim of achieving a certain effect, but without knowing precisely how the piece will turn out. Barnaby Wright describes Auerbach’s process as “an epic struggle with paint which only ends when he has wrestled the material into something that satisfies his experience of his subject matter and gives life to the painting itself.”
“When I see a Picasso, it feels like an owl blinking, its eyes coming into the light,” says Auerbach. “He’s made this thing in his imaginative private mind and there it is and it’s captured the world. That’s what people want to see, they don’t want to see something they know about already, they don’t want to have a programme presented to them of something they believe in or approve of, they want this amazing thing they haven’t thought of before.”
Asked whether art that worked towards a preconceived conclusion was in a sense dead, he responded “I totally agree.” This is the closest he comes to passing judgement on the work or methods of others. He is reluctant to be drawn on the work of younger artists; when asked about the state of British art, he replied, “I never think in those terms.” But Shaun McDowell, an artist whose work is shown at the Hannah Barry Gallery, is clear that Auerbach’s influence is pervasive. “I’ve heard many young artists talk about being influenced, inspired and seduced by Auerbach’s use of paint,” says McDowell. And though current artists are influenced “in a direct sense” by his marks and use of paint, McDowell believes Auerbach “exerts a seductive influence on anyone who sees his work.”
Auerbach is one of the last of his generation. His great friends Freud and Bacon have died. (Their work continues to fetch huge sums; in 2008 a Freud was sold for $33.6m and a Bacon for $86.3m, both to Roman Abramovich.) Bomberg is also dead and Hockney, who long ago left Britain for the United States (and whom Auerbach admires greatly) is a very different proposition—a master of light and surface in a way that Auerbach is not. “Since I knew all these people well, I find that it has a certain charm for me to see their qualities in their pictures,” says Auerbach. “Including for instance ones that are not obvious—like the bit of playfulness in Lucian Freud, which is not the 25th quality that anybody would mention in relation to him, but it’s there. And it’s just they were friends, and some of them I fell out with, some of them not. But I see them in the work and the reason I see them is because they pushed it far enough for them to be in it.”
And what might someone see in an Auerbach? “It’s not my cast of mind to think about the viewer,” he replies. A painting that succeeds, he says, is one that shows the viewer “something new about it every time they get to it.” But he rejects prescriptions for doing that. “I don’t have a programme, and I become slightly impatient if it’s suggested that I’m for thick paint or for figurative painting, anything like that. It’s got nothing to do with that. I’m doing, entirely selfishly, what interests me and I hope that the sort of selfishness of a de Kooning or a Monet, which I feel is there in their work—that they’re not wondering what anybody’s going to make of it—is in some sort of small way, present in my work as well.”
His contention that there is a core, unsayable element to art is not a philosophical novelty. What makes Auerbach unusual is that, although inspired by an unfashionable philosophy, his work remains critically and commercially successful. He is an anomaly in 21st century art, where egos and self-promotion are the norm. The best an artist can hope for, he says, is to be remembered for having produced “respectable, settled” work.