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Exploring Frank Auerbach
[ Artist in Focus )
Gallery guide Michaela Cranmer discusses the fascinating work of artist Frank Auerbach.
When I first began as a guide at Pallant House, around 8 years ago, the artworks that stood out for me then, still capture my attention whenever they are on display in the gallery.
These pieces include both abstract and figurative compositions but I have a particular fondness for the paintings of Frank Auerbach, especially his portraits, Head of Julia II (Portrait of Julia II), 1985, and, Reclining Head of Gerda Boehm, 1982, both currently on display in Room 8. These form part of a collection of works by Auerbach at Pallant House Gallery which also includes urban landscapes and figure sketches.
Reclining Head of Gerda Boehm (1982), is perhaps the painting I would choose if I had to choose just one to look at every day. At first glance it appears to be a cluster of exuberant dashes of white oil paint on a blue/black background, with a dash of complimentary orange. The paint has been thickly applied, its creamy texture helping to create a tactile, undulating surface.
Step back a little and the image begins to reveal itself, the white paint depicting the head of Boehm, Auerbach’s aunt. She appears to be resting her head on something, and is depicted at an angle with her nose pointing towards the top left of the image. Each time I view this work I can’t decide whether the figure is in repose or is feeling uncomfortable, but either way, Auerbach has conjured an image from just a few brushstrokes.
The glass that covers all of Auerbach’s works facilitates the need to step back a little, to see the image as a whole. Francis Bacon encouraged him to place his oils under glass, not just for protection, but for precisely this reason.
When I first saw Auerbach’s paintings, I spent some time looking at them from as close up as I could. Like many people seeing his work for the first time, Auerbach’s paintings struck me as very sculptural. However, he is very much a painter and both the critic David Sylvester and fellow painter Leon Kossoff, have placed his work firmly in the realm of painting, emphasising its psychological impact. Viewing the paintings from a slight distance, whilst helping to resolve the image, also flattens them somewhat, reiterating the two-dimensional surface on which they were created.
Reclining Head of Gerda Boehm came to Pallant house through the Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, the gallery’s founding collection.
The other portrait painting, Head of Julia II (Portrait of Julia II), is currently on display at Pallant House courtesy of the Wilson Loan (2006). It depicts Auerbach’s wife, Julia, facing the viewer, in a typical head and shoulders portrait format.
Auerbach’s depiction of Julia, like Head of Gerda Boehm, is created from thick oil paint, but in this image, he has used earth tones with added thick black lines to define the outline of her head and face. As with Reclining Head, Auerbach is able to create a powerful impression with a limited number of brushstrokes. In an interview with Michael Peppiatt in 1998 he said ‘ I have always had a predilection for economy, where one mark will stand for twenty sensations rather than where twenty marks stand for one sensation…I do find it more exiting when something complex is expressed more economically’.
Auerbach works across the whole surface of his paintings in any one session, spending days, weeks or even months on a single image and works every day, except when he is ill. The finished works are not accumulations of his painting process but represent his efforts to capture his subject ‘accurately’.
He achieves this by scraping down the surface of whatever he is working on at the end of the day and starting anew the next morning. The finished surface may have been painted over dozens of times. As soon as they are completed, Auerbach’s paintings are sent to his gallery, Marlborough Fine Art, to be allowed to dry, then photographed and framed. The thick layers of oil in his paintings can take weeks to dry.
Auerbach has been described as an expressionist painter but does not tend see himself as such. He is not trying to express his feelings towards, or about a subject in paint, but rather represent the sitter and their relationship to the world, aiming to capture a kind of truth about them. He has described what he attempts to capture as ‘what you feel when you touch someone next to you in the dark’.
Auerbach’s paintings contain distinct echoes of the work of David Bomberg, whose Borough Road drawing classes he attended for a number of years. Bomberg, also did not see himself as an expressionist, suggesting that in his portraits he was trying to capture ‘the spirit in the mass’.
An additional figurative work in the collection at Pallant House is Reclining Model in the Studio I, 1963. This work, accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by HM Government from the estate of MJ Long/Wilson, was allocated to Pallant House Gallery in 2021.
Technically not a portrait (the model in this work is unidentified), it is more elusive than the works already discussed. The image the viewer is presented with, a nude reclining figure, head towards the left-hand side of the image, is at first not easily resolved. The paint in this image is particularly thick and typical of Auerbach’s earlier works as are the earth tones that dominate the palette.
As well as portraits, Pallant House has three urban landscapes, painted by Auerbach. To the Studios, 1977, depicts the entrance to his studio in Camden Town where he has lived since 1954. This work forms part of a series of works focusing on the same subject, created between 1976 and 1978, and was among a selection of works chosen to represent Auerbach in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1986.
It is painted using a vivid palette of reds and blues in the same style as his portraits. Oxford Street Building Site, is an earlier work, created in 1960, using thickly applied paint in earth tones. It depicts post-war London as a work in progress and highlights Auerbach’s architectural interests. A third work in oil is a miniature, Camden Palace which forms part of the Pallant House Model Art Gallery (2000).
Frank Helmut Auerbach was born in Germany in 1931 to a Jewish family. He was sent to Britain through the Kindertransport scheme in 1939 and never saw his parents again (they both died in Auschwitz).
He attended a progressive school, Bunce Court in Kent, and began his art school training in 1948, attending David Bomberg’s classes at Borough Road whilst simultaneously attending St Martin’s School of Art followed by The Royal College of Art. It would be easy to read Auerbach’s paintings solely through the prism of a traumatised childhood but his relationship with his past appears more complex.
Whilst in an interview with Laura Hynd, Auerbach acknowledged that ‘absolutely bloody everything feeds into my work…someone can annoy you. It all feeds in’, he also said, in reference to his childhood ‘I never look back. I block out everything and just carry on.’
Auerbach met fellow artist Leon Kossoff at St Martins School of Art and it was Kossoff’s former studio in Camden that Auerbach began renting in 1954. They frequently worked together, sketching London’s building sites or painting each other, both artists using thick layers of paint. They also worked together in Kossoff’s family bakery in the East End of London, the income from which helped pay for Auerbach’s art training.
By the late 1950s his friends included Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, who were, like Auerbach and Kossoff, primarily figurative painters when abstract art had a strong influence on British painting. These painters (along with Michael Andrews and R.B. Kitaj) came to be referred to as The School of London in the 1970s – a term disliked by Auerbach. Like many of the School of London artists, Auerbach initially struggled to make a living and did not begin to feel financially ‘comfortable’ until his late 40s.
Auerbach has used a limited number of models throughout his career, preferring to paint friends and relatives. Three of his most significant models are Julia Yardley Mills, a professional model he met in 1957 (referred to as J.Y.M. in his paintings), his wife (also Julia) and his close friend Estella (Stella) West (referred to as E.O.W). All three have sat or sat for Auerbach for a number of years.
Two other regular sitters were the art historian Catherine Lampert and Ruth Bromberg, a specialist in the prints of Walter Sickert (a teacher of David Bomberg). Pallant House Gallery, has two works on paper depicting Ruth, Ruth I, 1994 and Ruth II, 1994, both etchings with aquatint. These were acquired by the gallery in 2000 through the Gift of James and Clare Kirkman, and are significant as the first examples of Auerbach’s use of aquatint, a technique that produces tonal effects. They are currently on display in the exhibition Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking at Pallant House Gallery.
In both works depicting Ruth Bromberg, an image of the sitter, her head discernible on the upper right-hand side, resolves from a pattern of incised lines when viewed at the right distance. Auerbach’s images of Ruth share something in common with the drawings of Alberto Giacometti (whom Auerbach met in 1965) but feel more frenetic, less contained.
Giacometti and Auerbach have shared similar aims in their approach to portraiture, both using a limited number of models, and both trying to capture the essential nature of the person in front of them. Giacometti once summed up his aim as ‘not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity’. A sentiment that could equally be applied to the portraits of Frank Auerbach.