Admiring Frank Auerbach
Masterly, brilliantly sardonic and enamoured by the beauty of his trade, Frank Auerbach is one of the most interesting and endearing contemporary artists alive today, who, along with David Hockney and Gerhard Richter, is one of the last links to a truly golden era of art. Living legends are among us.
Consider an interview he did with the Financial Times back in 2012, when, on greeting the newspaper’s chief art critic Jackie Wullschläger at his door, remarked that lunch with the artist would probably be rather uncomfortable. On entering his abode and then his kitchen, Auerbach asked if she would prefer wine, tea or coffee.
You can perhaps gather than his somewhat quirky temperament is more the outcome of his unwavering commitment to his art rather than the absolute product of nature. Since the mid-fifties, the German-born British painter has, more or less, dogmatically painted everyday in his Camden studio.
“He barely drinks, never travels and seldom socialises,” the writer and soon to be chair of the National Gallery’s Board of Trustees Hannah Rothschild observed two years again in a endearing portrait of Auerbach for the Telegraph.
“According to his wife, Julia, he has two haircuts a year, wears his clothes until they disintegrate and is not interested in material possessions. He works seven days and five evenings a week and takes one day off a year.”
Such commitment is to be admired, envied even, because too few of us are afforded the luxury of spending our life pursuing a vocation that resonates with our heart and soul. Instead, we end up where we don’t want to be and what is supposed to be a means to an end is revealed to be the end.
“If I hadn’t been able to devote myself to painting, I’d have felt I had wasted my life,” Auerbach told Ms Wullschläger three years ago. “I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. When I was at art school it was assumed you wouldn’t make a living – not 50 people in the country made a living with the brush then. Now there must be more than 5,000 people making a living by art.”
An upcoming exhibition will present us with a sweeping overview of that somewhat privileged life – because, as he admits, he didn’t really have money until his 50s – with Tate Britain having gathered over 70 paintings that chart his work from the post-war period to the present day.
Curated by Catherine Lampert, a close friend and subject of Auerbach’s – she has sat for him every Friday pretty much solidly for the last 37 years – the exhibition is a deeply personal endeavour.
“The realisation of the show brings together these two people – artist and sitter – and their two approaches,” Tate Britain explains. “One concerned with looking at individual works, and the other selecting groups of works to reveal thematic and formal continuities over many decades.”
It’s a rare display as well for the majority of works have been gathered from private collections and, alas, they seldom get to see the light of day. Some of the highlights include an early portrait, Head of Leon Kossoff (1954); an early landscape, Building Site, Earl’s Court, Winter (1953); the large work J.J.W in the Garden II (1964) and the very recent The House II (2011).
Auerbach is a titan of art, whose beguiling approach to constructing an image – he paints, scrapes, repaints, scrapes until he finds what it is he is looking for – has, in effect, revealed new ways of looking. Not only does he get behind what we think we see, he also discloses to us shades of our being we’ve never before seen.
As the art critic and curator David Sylvester said back in 1961: “It is because of the subtle and profound way in which Auerbach’s work gives expression and coherence to the complexity of our perceptions of simple things that he is for me the most interesting painter in this country.”
Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain runs from October 9th, 2015, until March 13th, 2016.
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