LONDON — Frank Auerbach has been described as Britain’s greatest living painter. With a flair for the abstract and urban landscape, he has worked out of his north London Camden Town studio for six decades, producing some of the most resonant and inventive art works of recent times.
“The way he paints is very uninhibited. He’s on his feet, using a lot of paint, muttering to himself,” says Catherine Lampert, an art historian and curator.
Lampert would know as she has sat for Auerbach as an art model in his studio at the same time for two hours every week since 1978.
Today, the roles have reversed as Auberbach, 84, is now the subject of a major new retrospective at London’s Tate Britain, which is exhibiting 73 of his paintings and drawings from the 1950s to the present day. Many of these works, from private collections, are seldom seen.
Unusually, a large part of the exhibition features works selected by Auerbach himself, with help from exhibition curator Lampert.
“He chose pictures that are distinctive and unique and not about particular moments,” explained Elena Crippa, a Tate curator. In fact, as Auerbach states in the catalogue, his hope is that each piece will be considered “as an absolute which works (or does not work) by itself.”
Running almost concurrently will be a smaller, month-long exhibition of the artist’s work at Marlborough Fine Art in Mayfair in central London.
Auerbach’s early work in 1950s is characterized by heavy, earthy colors. He has said that this lack of color palette was financial and that he could not afford to buy color paints at the time. But writer and art critic Sue Hubbard, speaking on BBC Radio 4, offered a different explanation.
“They’re all gray. They look as if they are made of ash, tar… they’re really, really thick, sculptural, they grow off the canvas…They have hollow eyes,” she said. “Although this is something he does not talk about… there’s no way that you can’t see these paintings as a child of the Holocaust.”
‘There’s no way that you can’t see these paintings as a child of the Holocaust’
Frank Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931, the grandson of a rabbi. His father was a patent lawyer and his mother had studied art. In 1939, prior to the outbreak of World War II, he — along with five other children — was sponsored by the writer Iris Origo and sent to Bunce Court, a school in Kent, south-east England.
Auerbach last saw his parents when they took him to Hamburg to board ship on April 4 of that year. In 1943, he learned that both his parents had died in a concentration camp.
Lampert, however, says Auerbach does not try and make direct references. “He looks forward, not back.”
By the 1960s, Auerbach started to work with brighter colors. One particular portrait from this early period is of his friend and fellow Jewish artist, Leon Kossoff. He and Auerbach often sat for each other and both men were students of David Bomberg (1890-1957), who was regarded as one of the 20th century’s most significant artists and teachers. Kossoff was, and still is, influential on his art.
Staring at an Auerbach painting, especially his cityscapes, requires patience. They are not easy to interpret. Bold chaotic strokes in different colors and shapes move in different directions. He is known to paint and then scrape away what he has done before reapplying paint onto the canvas or board.
Lampert said that his pictures may look like squares and blocks of color but everything on the canvas has meaning for him, “whether it’s a corner in Mornington Crescent [where the artist lives] or a person two feet away from him.”
Auerbach is known as a local fixture in his neighborhood. He goes out onto the street in the early morning to draw before returning to his studio to paint what he has observed.
“This part of London is my world,” he has said. “I’ve been wandering around these streets for so long that I’ve become attached to them and as fond of them as people are to their pets.”
He likes to see the same scene everyday, notes Lampert, but then recreates something new out of it.
Lampert first met Auerbach almost 30 years ago when she had helped organize an exhibition about him at London’s Hayward gallery. He is well known for the lasting relationships he develops with his sitters and many of them — like Lampert — have worked with him for decades. This consistency has enabled Auerbach to capture the changes in the look and spirit of his subjects.
“He knows what’s going on in his sitter’s life. They may have told him or he can feel what’s going on,” Lampert says. “Sitting,” she adds, “is a great experience. I always come out in such a good mood. He’s such terrific company.”
Another one of his regular sitters is businessman, David Landau, who first met Auerbach in 1983. He had initially approached the artist with a view to commissioning him to paint a portrait of English historian, Asa Briggs, but Briggs was unable to commit the time that Auerbach needed. Instead, Landau offered himself as a subject. Since that first meeting, Auerbach has painted 45 portraits of him.
“Frank would paint while I’d think about other things. It became a kind of catharsis,” Landau has said about the experience. “Each one draws me back to the time it was painted.”
Other portraits included in the exhibition are that of Auerbach’s wife, Julia, and his son, Jake, who began sitting for his father in his late teens, after many years of no contact. Auerbach separated from his mother when he was a young boy.
Sitting was a way of getting to know him again and the process was good for both of them, Jake Auerbach has said. When asked if the father-son relationship in the studio differed from the one they have outside, he said he wasn’t sure.
“It’s not as if the painting isn’t about our relationship,” he wrote in the Guardian. “It is, it’s about everything.”
Lampert is uncertain how many portraits Auerbach has made of her, but believes there to be more than 60. Some critics have said that he captures the soul on canvas.
Lampert put it slightly differently, “There’s something about them. They capture a sense of life.”
Frank Auerbach at London’s Tate Britain runs through March 13, 2016.