At 84, Frank Auerbach remains one of the art worldâ€™s greatest workaholics, and as his Tate retrospective shows, the beauty of his portraits is that theyâ€™re never truly finished
Frank Auerbach, one of Britainâ€™s, if not the worldâ€™s greatest living artists will be honoured with retrospective exhibition of his work at Tate Britain this October. A contemporary and friend of Lucian Freud, Auerbach is known both for his deep dedication to his work and the thick, visceral layers of paint that have helped define his style.
Back in 1939, Auerbachâ€™s parents put him on a train out of Germany to the UK so that he could attend boarding school in England, away from the Nazi regime. At eight-years-old, this was the last time he would see his parents, who were killed in Auschwitz in 1943. Later in life, having toyed with the idea of acting, Auerbach began his studies at Central St Martinâ€™s School of Art in 1948, followed by the Royal College of Art in 1952. It was around this time he met Lucian Freud, who became a friend and admirer of his work.
His technique has always involved copious lashings of paint, tirelessly reworked as he scrapes down the layers, restarting multiple times before finishing a painting. The artistâ€™s works, while often abstract, can too lean towards the representational. Although, even when the paint is at its thickest, almost sculptural in composition, and at its most abstract, the subject is often tangible to the viewer.
Auerbach is undeniably disciplined, painting 364 days a year, covering the same subjects repeatedly. The choice of sitters offers a window into his life, consisting mainly of friends and family. There are appearances from his one-time lover Estella Olive West (identified only as E.O.W.) a widowed amateur actress who ran a boarding house in Earlâ€™s Court and his wife Juliet Yardley Mills (again, named in the portaits as J.Y.M), who became Auerbachâ€™s â€˜mainâ€™ model from 1963 onwards.
Elena Crippa, curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art at the Tate, who worked on the eponymous exhibition, says the artist had two conditions which had to be met before he would agree to go ahead. One was that the show should travel to at least one other institution, and the other was that his long-time friend, subject and collaborator Catherine Lampert should curate the exhibition alongside the Tate.
The show opened in June of this year at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in Germany, fulfilling the first condition, and Catherine has worked in conjunction with the gallery on the set up as promised. â€˜She is someone who is very close to Frank but I must really stress that foremost we brought in someone who has incredible expertise and knowledge of the work and that was really remarkable,â€™ emphasises Elena. Catherine was responsible for the curation of a landmark exhibition of Auerbachâ€™s work at the Hayward in 1978 â€“ and she has sat for him on a regular basis for over three decades. â€˜Catherine still goes to sit for Frank every week, which means that he entrusts Catherine to take certain decisions,â€™ Elena explains. â€˜If there is an issue, rather than having to call him or, having to interrupt his work, he knows that once a week she will go and ask him a few questions â€“ about the layout of the catalogue for example.â€™
Aside from those closest to him, the other common recurrence in Auerbachâ€™s work is his neighbourhood of Camden. These â€˜London paintingsâ€™ span from the Post War landscape of bombed-out buildings to the changing cityscape as observed from Primrose Hill. â€˜I think his painting is an act of love, itâ€™s about wanting to create this image and be able to hold it in time,â€™ says Elena of his subjects. â€˜But at the same time there is an awareness that the image is never completed; itâ€™s something that exists in a moment but that person or moment changes and they constantly need to be re-appropriated, recreated. A portrait is never forever, it is contingent.â€™
This desire to capture the fleeting moments in his subjects, both people and places, conveys the complex power of Auerbachâ€™s work. Within the Tate exhibition, the dominant curatorial approach in its chronological section is to show the diversity of the work within a certain period of time. â€˜This is exactly what Frank is trying to achieve in this exhibition. He wanted to have the work very generously spaced, so all the emphasis is on pictures, the individual works and the encounter with the individual picture,â€™ explains Elena. â€˜I think this works well because part of the idea was that the pieces were as diverse as possible within the same decade.â€™
While he was building his career Auerbach taught for many years, mentoring, among others, the English artist John Virtue. John in turn taught the London-based painter Antony Micallef, who cites Auerbach as a key artistic influence. â€˜Looking at Auerbachâ€™s style taught me to work on an intuitive level. The thing with his approach is that itâ€™s a very direct way of working, where the mark making is paramount and itâ€™s all about instinctive decisions,â€™ Antony tells me. â€˜Imagine putting a continuous revolving sliding jigsaw puzzle together at speed while observing the human figure, where pieces donâ€™t necessarily fit while dealing with colour, form and composition at the same time.â€™
But as with many artists who admire Auerbach, it is his commitment to his practice that most inspires Antony Micallef. â€˜For a man to paint and dedicate his whole life to his passion is quite an amazing feat. I see his work like an obligation and a commitment to unearth the truth; constantly searching like an excavator in an archaeological dig, trying to unearth clues as to what it means to be human.â€™ Auerbachâ€™s legacy as a painter is a testament to hard work and consistency but also to love and intimacy.
At 84, there is nothing he would rather be doing with his time than painting. In the Tateâ€™s retrospective of 70 paintings and drawings, sourced for the most part from private collections, there is also a new and unseen work from the artist picturing his natural habitat, appropriately named In the Studio (2014).
As Auerbach himself has said, he starts every piece with a desire for it to be â€˜coherent, alive, new and trueâ€™; this exhibition is a chance to see a great living artistâ€™s body of work, put together with instruction from the painter; a man who has dedicated his life to perfecting his work.
Frank Auerbachâ€™s retrospective opens at Tate Britain on 9 October 2015 and will run until 13 March 2016, tate.org.uk
Words: Amah-Rose Abrams