The Art of Frank Auerbach

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.

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.” There is perhaps no living artist more wholeheartedly in accord with Cézanne’s dictum that “the path to Nature lies through the Louvre, and …

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