Frank Auerbach at
Tate Britain

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”
― T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land and Other Poems

From the young painter who, in July 1948, sold his canvases from the pavement in the LCC ‘Open-Air Exhibition’ on the Embankment Gardens, Frank Auerbach has become one of the most important and challenging painters on the British landscape. Despite his great friendship with the priapic and party loving Freud, Auerbach has, by comparison, lead the life of an aesthete; a monk to his chosen calling. He hardly socialises, preferring the company of those he knows well.  He drinks moderately, wears his clothes till they fall apart and paints 365 days a year.

Though he rarely gives interviews and does not like to talk about his work, he has said of painting: “The whole thing is about struggle”. As Alberto Giacometti contended it is “analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness”…”the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it”.

It is out of this creative darkness, this complexity and unknowability of the world and the self that Auerbach has conjured his series of extraordinary heads, nudes and landscapes. Whilst the past for him may be a foreign country where they do things differently, one that he doesn’t choose to revisit – “I think I [do] this thing which psychiatrists frown on: I am in total denial” – it’s hard to walk around this current exhibition at Tate Britain and not feel that his dramatic early years had a profound influence on his work.

Born in Berlin in 1931, the son of Max Auerbach, a Jewish patent lawyer and Charlotte Nora Auerbach (who studied art) Frank was born into the maelstrom that was to be the Third Reich. In 1939 he, with five other children, was sponsored by the writer Iris Origo and sent to school in England. Though he’s never enquired exactly what happened to his parents (they perished in a concentration camp) Auerbach claims that he was happy among the collection of refugee children and offspring of conscientious objectors at Bunce Court, which had been started by a German Jewish-Quaker. There has, he says, never been a point when he wished that he had parents.

Yet it’s difficult not to see the monochromatic, thickly layered paintings of the 50s as being touched by the loss and the legacy of the Holocaust. In the charcoal Head of EOW of 59-60, the eyes are hollow, the face heavy with sadness, and there’s a strange rectangular patch on the forehead that appears to cover some hurt or wound. In the 1955 head, also of EOW, the paint is so heavy and dark that it seems to have been mixed from earth and ash. In EOW nude on bed 1959 the prone form doesn’t read like a living, sentient body but something mummified or in a state of rigour mortis that recalls Sickert’s dark Camden Town paintings. While the extraordinary, Building Site, Earl’s Court Road, Winter, 1953 is so tar-like that it might have been painted with London smog. Looking at it I couldn’t help wondering if Kiefer had studied early Auerbach.

Giacometti, Beckett, Art Brut, Existentialism – the 50s was a period culturally overshadowed by the legacy of war and by questions about the futility and meaning of existence. “Life has no meaning”, wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, “the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.” Yet Sartre and Camus also believed that the absurdity of life could be given meaning through a freedom of will and the process of creativity.

Although associated with that lose group The London School, Auerbach’s sensibility is essentially mittle- European. It’s no coincidence that he was taught at Borough Polytechnic Institute by the Jewish painter David Bomberg. Along with Freud and Kitja in London, and Rothko and Barnett Newman in the States, his work is imbued with a Jewish-European melancholy, a rabbinic need to ask questions.  “The object of art”, as Giacometti wrote, “is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity”.  This could be Auerbach’s credo. He has never been interested in producing pictures – the world, he says has enough of those already. His project is to be visually aware moment by moment, as the light changes and the subject shifts and breathes, to move from picture and illusion and to translate the experience non-verbally through the medium of paint.

By the 60s and 70s there was an explosion of colour – the citric yellows and futurist zig-zags of reds in Primrose Hill, Autumn Morning, 1968.  There is huge energy as if he is wrestling with nature, trying with the umbrella spokes of the bare branches in the foreground of Winter Evening, Primrose Hill 1974-5 to fix and pin down the landscape. The winter light, with its juxtapositions of deep crimsons and greens is atmospheric, dark and moody, abbreviated only by the white blobs of the distant street lamps that pierce the gloom.

Auerbach has said that that the marks on the surface of his paintings are “never something of their own interest”. They are never graphic, not ‘descriptive’ but a process of liquid thinking. His marks and gestures are only of interest “in so far as they suggest something else.” “Painting”, he has said, “never wants to be like music.”

It is perhaps his portraits that present many with the most problems for they are very seldom a likeness of the sitter. They are difficult but profoundly intelligent and require time. Standing in front of Catherine Lampert’s 1997 profile, suddenly, something of this woman I’ve spoken with many times emerges from the apparently random swirls and marks – an essence, a presence.  Auerbach demands that we see, really see, as a process of thinking, as a form of philosophical debate. Beauty is not the point but a reaching towards truth is.  Painting and drawing are his way of exploring and attempting to make sense of the world. All his subjects are simply a jumping off points, the start of a process, of a series of propositions, an existential argument about existence conducted through the language of paint.


Building Site, Earl’s Court Road, Winter 1953

Oil on hardboard
915 x 1220 mm
Private collection
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

E.O.W., Nude on Bed

Oil paint on board
775 x 610 mm
Private collection, courtesy of Richard Nagy Ltd., London
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Mornington Crescent 1965

Oil paint on board
1016 x 1270 mm
Private collection, courtesy of Eykyn Maclean, LP
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Head of J.Y.M ll 1984-85

Oil on canvas
660 x 610 mm
Private collection
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Published in 3 Quarks Daily


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