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The Art of Frank Auerbach

1.

Frank Auerbach is one of the most admired artists working in England today. Perhaps if his career says anything about “the art world,” it confirms its irrelevance to an artist’s growth.

Auerbach entered a London art school forty years ago, as a teen-ager. Since then he has done nothing but paint and draw, either from the posed model or from quick landscape scribbles done outside, ten hours a day, seven days a week, in the same studio in northwest London. Most of his paintings are of people who pose for him in London or are of places in London. He has hardly any social life beyond his contacts with a small circle of other artists in London: Leon Kossoff, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, R.B. Kitaj. He does not teach. He has traveled very little. To be on any kind of international circuit is and always has been alien to Auerbach: the museums he has not been to would include the Prado, the Hermitage, the Uffizi, and all American ones except—during two brief visits to New York in 1969 and 1982—the Metropolitan, the Frick, and the Museum of Modern Art. He has been to Italy twice, the first time for a show of his work in Milan in 1973, the second for his exhibition in the British Pavilion at the 1986 Venice Biennale. The first visit took a week and the second four days, including a trip to Padua to see, for the first time, Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel.

On the other hand, Auerbach’s attachment to the National Gallery in London is deep and almost fanatical; throughout the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies he and his friend Leon Kossoff kept up what struck other artists and students as the quaint habit of going to Trafalgar Square at least once a week to make drawings from certain paintings there:

My most complimentary and my most typical reaction to a good painting is to want to rush home and do some more work…. Towards the end of a painting I actually go and draw from pictures more, to remind myself of what quality is and what’s actually demanded of paintings. Without these touchstones we’d be floundering. Painting is a cultured activity—it’s not like spitting, one can’t kid oneself.1

Auerbach’s feelings about the museum have nothing to do with the exploitable reverence, the idea of the museum as a secular cathedral, that has contributed so many grotesqueries to our institutional culture. He treats it as a writer treats a library: as a resource, a “professional facility.” “Your correspondents tend to write of paintings as objects of financial value or passive beauty,” he protested in a letter to The Times of London in 1971. “For paintings they are source material; they teach and they set standards.”2 There is perhaps no living artist more wholeheartedly in accord with Cézanne’s dictum that “the path to Nature lies through the Louvre, and to the Louvre through Nature.” Auerbach does not believe that modern art made a radical break with the past.

From Giotto until now it’s one school of art and I don’t think that necessarily the most radical twist occurred around 1907…. Géricault, Delacroix, Corot, Courbet, Ingres, Daumier—they came up with languages of a hitherto unknown disparity.3

These languages are alive to him, as the inherited languages of his or her medium must be to any serious artist. An interviewer in 1986 who incautiously asked what artists had influenced him got a Borges-like list of more than fifty names off the top of his head, of whom no more than a third had worked in the twentieth century and only two (Leon Kossoff and Francis Bacon) were alive. With some, one sees the affinity at once. The internal glow that works its way out of Auerbach’s heads is partly the result of long meditation on Rembrandt. There is much in common between the overloaded surfaces of early Auerbach paintings and the pelleted, molded skin of Giacometti’s bronzes, which were in turn fed by the harsh impacted blobbiness of Daumier’s tiny clay sculptures, Les célébrités du juste-milieu; and all three have in common a fiercely sustained remoteness as things-in-the-world, a disdain for the merely expressive. The way a single brush stroke turns, slaps, and becomes an autonomous sign for chin or cheek in Auerbach’s portraits of J.Y.M. in the 1970s puts one immediately in mind of the radical abbreviations in Manet and, even more, the twisting faces in the foreground of Goya’s Pilgrimage to San Isidro. The geometrical grids of Auerbach’s cityscapes of Camden Town have Mondrian in them, and his landscapes of Primrose Hill pay homage to Constable. But Whistler? Gainsborough? David? Vermeer?

In fact, the sign of an educated artist is his ability to get something out of other art that has nothing overtly to do with his own; that “something” is the sense of quality, of eloquence and precision within the matrix of a different style, epoch, and idea. The sense of the museum as one’s natural ground—not just a warehouse of motifs to be “appropriated” but rather the house of one’s dead peers from whose unenforceable verdict there is no appeal but with whom endless conversation is possible—this has never left Auerbach, as it never left Giacometti; it hovers behind even the most abrupt and ejaculatory of his works. “When I see the great pictures of the world paraded in my mind’s eye,” he remarked to the art historian Catherine Lampert, one of his more frequent models,

they are great images which don’t leak into other images, they are new things. I could name them, or try to name 20 of them—the Kenwood House Rembrandt is pretty close, the Picasso of the pre-Cubist period called Head (Femme au nez en quart de Brie) seems to me to be one of them. There’s a blue cut-out late Matisse, Acrobats. There’s the Dürer with the bent nose (Conrad Vernell), a Philips Koninck landscape View in Holland. One hopes somehow to make something that has a similar degree of individuality, independence, fullness and perpetual motion to these pictures. But actually one hopes, though of course one won’t achieve it…to surpass them.4

2.

Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931; his mother, a Lithuanian, had been an art student; his father was a well-to-do patent lawyer. Exiled to England at the age of eight, orphaned by Hitler soon afterward, Auerbach is possessed by filiation, by the mystery surrounding his connections with forebears. He has transposed the wound of parental loss into the realm of art making, and sighted in with awesome concentration—the attentiveness of instinct, rather than of formal art-historical analysis—on how past art might speak to, and through, images made in the present. We do not choose our parents. A painter is drawn to his or her ancestry by a homing impulse that works below “strategy.” In this he is both free and not free. This is not like shopping around for a style to adopt. It is deeper and more compulsive. It is to know one’s heritage, its limits, the challenges these present. Each bloodline entails responsibilities. Auerbach’s is squarely in the “great tradition” of figure painting. He was taught by David Bomberg, who had been the pupil of Walter Richard Sickert, who was the friend and best English interpreter of Degas, whom Ingres begat. He still regards the posed human figure as the ultimate test and unweakening source of a painter’s abilities.

Fifteen years ago this put Auerbach beyond the pale of fashion: he was considered a murky “Jewish expressionist” whose small gnomic renderings of the human figure in abrupt scrawls and pilings of thick pigment were very far from American “postpainterly” abstraction, let alone the iconic brashness of Pop. He was after heavy, sculptural, tactile form, the exact reverse of the “optical” color and agreeable clarity of profile valued in the Sixties, from Kenneth Noland to David Hockney. Moreover, Auerbach was not just unironical—his painting bluntly rejected the possibility of detachment. In the 1960s and into the Seventies irony looked like a fresh approach: a bright, undeceived way of looking at a culture in transition, of feeling out the tingly shudder of the loss of reality occasioned by mass electronic media: “Nothing is real / Nothing to get hung about / Strawberry Fields forever.” The ease with which the times rejected intense feeling, inner states of any sort, did not favor a sympathetic reading of Auerbach’s work.

Today, of course, that innocence has gone and is replaced by something worse—a soured relativism, rising from our media-fixated social environment, that in the name of “irony” derides almost any attempt at deep pictorial authenticity as a trap or an illusion. Irony of that kind is merely the condom of our culture, and it does not help much in understanding an artist whose ambition has always pointed to exacerbation, doggedness, courage, rawness, and the slow formation of his own values. And “newness,” too: the peculiar freshness of unmediated experience.

The idea of newness has intense significance for Auerbach. But it has nothing to do with that exhausted cultural artifact, the idea of the avant-garde. Auerbach’s “newness” means vitality, the seizure of something real from the world and its coding—however imperfect and approximate—in paint. It does not mean a new twist of syntax:

There is no syntax in painting. Anything can happen on the canvas and you can’t foresee it. Paul Valéry used to say that if the idea of poetry hadn’t existed forever, poetry could not be written now. The whole culture is against it because language is always being worn down and debased. But painting is always a fresh language because we don’t use it for anything else. It has no other uses. It isn’t mass persuasion.5

Nor is “newness” a matter of style:

The idiom is the least important thing. If a painting is good enough the idiom falls away with time, and there’s the object, raw and immediate. Think of young Pierre Matisse in The Piano Lesson: a horrible, resentful little boy—knowing, precocious, sly. It’s all there. Or think of Madame Matisse having tea in the garden, the garden furniture, the ceremony of thé á l’anglaise: he couldn’t have done it like Monet, because it wouldn’t have been real. He had to do it new, and make it real.

For Auerbach’s “newness” depends on risks taken, not on stylistic variation:

I do not want them [the works] to be alive, and they don’t come alive to me in ways that are full of clichés or if they seem incomplete or not coherent…. I think the unity of any painter’s work arises from the fact that a person, brought to a desperate situation, will behave in a certain way.

Stress produces constants and these constants are the style. “That’s what real style is: it’s not donning a mantle or having a program, it’s how one behaves in a crisis.”

  1. 1

    Catherine Lampert, “A Conversation with Frank Auerbach,” interview in exhibition catalog of Frank Auerbach (London: Hayward Gallery, 1978), p.22.

  2. 2

    March 3, 1971.

  3. 3

    Lampert, “A Conversation,” p. 22.

  4. 4

    Lampert, “A Conversation,” p. 10. The correct title of the Dürer is Contrat Verkell.

  5. 5

    Unless otherwise indicated, quotations are taken from conversations with the artist recorded between February 1986 and January 1987.

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