The Frank Auerbach Retrospective at Tate Britain, London
9 October 2015 – 13 March 2016
“Auerbach has won his long tussle with paint and reality, again and again. With this exhibition, he joins the masters.” The Spectator
The British painter Frank Auberbach’s retrospective at Tate Britain has been met with critical acclaim for the originality of both his impasto portraiture and landscapes. Given the contemporaneous exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art and its popularity at Frieze Masters, there’s a revived interest in his work across London. Despite the influence of painters like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud upon his work, there’s a fierce independence to his aesthetic, which sets him apart. Symptomatic of his style, Head of E.O.W II, 1960 was a deliciously thick mélange of ochre, peach and cream, which sooner resembled a dessert than a piece of figurative art.
In terms of Auerbach’s creative process, close inspection of the paintings themselves reveals his tendency to tear the paint from the canvas before layering it once again until it nears completion. Delectable beyond doubt, iconic portraits like Head of J.Y.M II, 1984-5, combine both sweeping brushstrokes and a density of paint that reflects his devotion to the works. As always, I was bewitched by the intensity of the grisaille colour palette and the sense of melancholia, which it evoked. Dare I say, there was even something spiritual about the painting, as if Auerbach had captured the suffering Christ throwing his head back in pain.
From a curatorial perspective, the works were presented as individual paintings rather than being organised thematically or by style. The collection spanned sixty years of his career, with nearly ten paintings for each decade, which was a perfect amount for the space. Works like Studio with Figure on a Bed II, 1966 stood alone with the shape of the figure suggested by paint so thickly applied that the layers of ochre, rose pink and scarlet might have melted from the surface were we not in autumnal England. Fascinating in their own gruesome way, the spherical splotches of paint almost resembled the slugs that appear after rainfall. So tempting were the textures that I watched his audience tracing every line and crevice with their eyes – a rare sight.
There was a sentimentality to his abstract landscapes as they offered us a view of Camden and Primrose Hill through his eyes. Poetically, Auerbach described how he sought to ‘record the life that seemed to me to be passionate and exciting and disappearing all the time.’ Although the landscapes like Mornington Crescent, 1985 were beautiful, I was more drawn to his portraiture, because despite the lack of defining features, the imperfections within their uneven surfaces brought his subjects to life. As declared by The Times, ‘at his best Auerbach is without doubt our greatest living painter because he captures the soul.’ This was illustrated by the intensity of the earthy violet and cobalt blue palette of Reclining head of J.Y.M, 1975. The brushstrokes were near translucent, resembling the delicacy of the ancient practice of marbling paper that I fell for in Florence.
Having spent the morning in the studio of emerging artists Jack Penny and Hugo Hamper Potts, it was promising to see the direct influence of Auerbach upon their work. It’s wonderful to see how a particular style can translate across different generations of contemporary British artists. Although, given both the technical skill and emotional intensity of Auerbach's work from 1950 to the present day, it’s unsurprising that he remains to be seen as a visionary by his young followers.
When you stand before works like E.O.W Half Length Nude, 1958, the density of the layers of paint suggests a sculptural quality, which creates almost a new medium of figurative art. It invites critique as it draws you in to reconcile this mountainous texture. It seemed that Auerbach drew from the avant-garde European artists of the early twentieth century, when we detected an air of impressionism within the piece Head of J.Y.M 1997. Decorated with a smattering of lilacs, laurel greens and cerulean blue like Claude Monet’s Reflection of Clouds on the Water-lily pond, 1920, it was a beautiful blend of organic tones. This portrait is the defining example of the unique confluence between a sense of serenity and movement, which Auerbach achieves across his work.
Even when standing in a crowded gallery you feel a wave of hypnosis sweep over you when standing before a painting like J.Y.M. Seated I, 1981. As I wandered around Marlborough Fine Art’s opening of their Auerbach exhibition after Tate Britain, I noticed once again that the audience instinctively let their fingers dance through the air as they imagined tracing the slopes of his painting's surfaces like a map. I'd highly recommend going to see Auerbach at Tate Britain, but you must also ensure that you glimpse the collection (of drawings, especially) at Marlborough Fine Art before the end of November to truly immerse yourself in his aesthetic.
Frank Auerbach at http://www.marlboroughlondon.com
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com