Tate Britain describes Frank Auerbach as ‘one of the greatest painters alive today’. Jack Watkins takes a look around the new exhibition devoted to his work.
Take up painting and the likelihood is that you’ll be hooked for life. Even for Sir Winston Churchill – thinker, speech maker, limelight-seeker and all-round hero – it was his art hobby that sustained him into his last days, bringing moments of serenity to a restless mind. It’s the same for professional artists, most of them seeming to go on until they drop. Frank Auerbach, aged 84, still works seven days a week in the same studio in north London – in which he also sleeps – that he’s had for over sixty years. Just for a change, he did once try taking a break for a day or two in Brighton, he told an interviewer recently. However, finding he had nothing to do, he became impatient and bored. Yet, he confided, “I can be alone working in London for days on end and feel completely happy.”
Auerbach is now one of the last of the major London artists who grew up in the War years and whose output has achieved worldwide acclaim. Berlin-born, both his parents died in Auschwitz in 1943, by which time he’d been sent to school in England to avoid the worsening situation in his homeland. He left school at sixteen and enrolled at art college, where one of his tutors was David Bomberg, one of the pioneering English Futurists of the pre-First World War era. The horrors he’d seen amidst the tanks and guns of the Western Front had shattered Bomberg’s earlier forward-looking enthusiasm for the ‘machine age’, so excitingly celebrated in Futurist art, and his style would become more reflective. The Second World War and its aftermath would have an impact on Auerbach, too, but not in the same way. Some of his most famous pictures have been of London bombsites, and the artist has said these works have a certain symbolism, both he and the City being great survivors of the ravages of the conflict.
Yet unlike Bomberg, it seems, Auerbach has never mellowed, and the heaviness of his approach, which seems to consist of piling on great mounds of paint in barrowloads does not seem to have moderated. And so the Tate Britain show isn’t so much an exhibition as an ordeal. This is the sort of gathering where you can easily feel small, inadequate and middlebrow. It’s a show that requires you to be Serious about Art, and I’m just not up to it. There are eight galleries displaying 70 paintings and drawings, none of which are explained or put into context, even though Auerbach himself has chosen all of them, save those in the final room. They are, more or less across the board, about as gloomy and shut-in as Camden on a grey, drizzly day. The artist asks that we don’t view them too chronologically. There is no danger of that. You either have an eye for this sort of thing or you don’t, but it’s a style that’s easily parodied. And so I spend minutes standing before the paintings seeking a way in, but they are so uncompromising that it is impossible.
There are many modern artists who are not exactly easy on the eye, yet you bow before their majesty and recognise that, in sometimes weird ways, the pictures undoubtedly work. Auerbach, though, to use baseball parlance, lobs you no easy pitches to get your eye in. Take me or leave me, he seems to be saying. He has no charm, and he’s unrelentingly grave. Even Primrose Hill, Spring Sunshine looks like a combine harvester accident in a field of oilseed rape.
Let’s widen the narrative out a bit, and see if we can get a few more leads into these dense, impenetrable daubings. The exhibition curator, Catherine Lambert, can claim unusually close insight, having sat for the artist every week for over thirty five years and curated several of his other shows. Her monograph on Auerbach was published this summer. When she sat for him recently she found him just as active, “in an extreme and strenuous way”, as she did when she first began sitting for him in 1978, when even then his reclusive tendencies were setting in. She writes in an article for the Tate magazine, Tate Etc, “With a portrait his aim is not exactly to convey likeness, more an experience: how the person looks (including under the skin): what’s going on in their life (and his), the conditions of that evening. Like an apparition, something totally unforeseen, possibly lasting for just seconds, may spring from making a few brush strokes.” Yet it’s a laborious process. After each session, he scrapes off the paint and starts again. A single painting can take months or even years “before something appears that he hadn’t predicted and he hopes means that the work is finished.” In an age when ‘art’ seems to consist of anything, Auerbach’s defiant loyalty to the idea that it is about the process of painting is bordering on the heroic.
Lambert describes being amazed by the mobility of the pictures, the sense that they change with the angle and the light. “You are drawn deeper and deeper into the soul of the subject.” Another writer has described his Building Site, Earls Court Road, Winter, one of the earliest of his compositions to be featured in the current show, as like a ‘slab of dank London mud dug up freshly from the banks of the Thames’. Some of his portraits, which are nothing of the sort in the strict sense of the genre, resemble alien life forms. His Self-Portrait, executed in charcoal and chalk on paper in 1958, is more decipherable, but it’s eerie and Jekyll and Hyde-ish. While the zig-zaggy Hampstead Road, High Summer (2010) and Primrose Hill (1971) are tough works to admire, Mornington Crescent, finished in 1965, has a certain fascination, with the iron frames of the new buildings rising up like red spears, piercing the heart of the Victorian backdrop.
Maybe the art of Frank Auerbach yields itself to you only through repeated contemplation. Perhaps you have to be in love with the process of painting. You certainly can’t accuse the artist of being a publicity seeker, and it wasn’t until middle age that he received recognition and began to feel a measure of financial security. “I used to sit in my studio with an oil stove for about an hour before I could move because it was so desperately cold and damp,” he has recalled. This is certainly a man who has suffered for his art.
However, repeated images of the same places and the same sitters are incredibly tedious, and it all looks so dark and glum. Maybe spending all that time in the studio isn’t such a good idea after all, and Mr Auerbach needs to get out more. I have seen in books Auerbach paintings which I have found intriguing – and, mystifyingly, they do look good on the prints that are on sale in the Tate shop – but it’s a shame there are so few of them are in this show.
Frank Auerbach continues at Tate Britain until 13 March 2016