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Article: Is Frank Auerbach Britain’s Greatest Living Artist?

Posted on 03 Oct 2019

Author Catherine Lampert spent nearly forty years with Frank Auerbach, discussing the painter’s inspirations, methods and philosophy. We take a uniquely intimate look at one of Europe’s leading painters.

'In the Studio', 2013-14. Oil on board, 50.8 x 50.8 (20 x 20). Private collection. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Frank Auerbach, the great stalwart of post-war landscapes and figurative paintings is often described as monk-like. His dedication to his striking work is at times tortuous, working seven-days-a-week in the same Camden studio he has occupied since 1954.

Catherine Lampertgained unparalleled access to the artist when she became one of his sitters in 1978. In Lampert’sbook, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, Lampert explores the torment of the creative genius behind his often disturbing, but truthful depictions of urban landscapes, his celebrated friends, his family and regular sitters.

'Head of Catherine Lampert', 1986. Oil on canvas, 51.4 x 47 (20 1/4 x 18 1/2). Private collection. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Born in Berlin, to a wealthy Jewish family, Auerbach escaped Nazi Germany at the age of eight. He spent the remainder of his childhood in Kent, attending boarding school at Bunce Court, where he felt ‘curiously at home’. Here his passion for art was ignited for the first time through the schools free spirited and alternative teaching staff and his exposure to reproductions of the masters – J. M. W Turner’s “Fighting Temeraire” and R.H.Wilenski’s “Modern French Painters”.

 

Early on in Auerbach’s career, he formed an unlikely friendship with Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, who were avid supporters of the artist’s work. His quiet reserved manner was in stark contrast to Bacon’s flamboyant and exuberant personality (not to mention his hedonistic and masochistic lifestyle) and Freud’s gambling, womanising and occasional fighting. As Lampert acknowledges “this triangle of painters is… illogical, uneasy but strangely companionable”. The friendship is encapsulated in Bacon’s double portrait of Freud and Auerbach in 1964. Freud and Auerbach approached money in very different ways. Freud regularly spent, gambled and sought out parties, whereas Auerbach was anxious about money and being able to afford rent after he accounted for “the massive quantity of materials his particular way of working required”. This necessary frugality eventually turned into a habit and the artist recalls living on rice, lentils and tahini until he was 50.

'Study after Deposition by Rembrandt II', 1961. Oil on board, 180.3 x 121.9 (71 x 48). Private collection. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

In a post-war London, Auerbach honed his uniquely sculptural style of textured urban landscapes by painting his Blitzed city in recovery. He endeavoured “to catch something that is mobile” – to encapsulate the dynamic scene of London being rebuilt. To Auerbach a fully functioning city was a “somewhat formally boring collection of cubic rectilinear shapes, but London after the war was a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountain and crags, full of drama formally”. The geometry and composition had to be reconstituted from the city landscape and reformed into something palpable, where the surface almost mimics a sun-baked surface of a landscape, complete with cracks and crevices.

'Reclining Head of Julia II', 1996. Acrylic on board, 50.8 x 63.5 (20 x 25). Private collection. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Auerbach’s process is documented throughout Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting. He draws and paints on board and canvas. His three-dimensional paintings are created by the thick layering and repeated scraping of oil and to a lesser extent, acrylic. Auerbach scrapes off and begins again after each session, regardless of the medium or time it takes. Up close his works seem almost abstract, perhaps influenced by his process of never visualising a picture before he starts and only finding form in a painting from an “impulse” he may have. Auerbach’s palette and application of paint have also changed over time. His early works embraced a limited pallet of earth colours, but this was not necessarily a stylistic choice but one of affordability. In some early works scraping is less evident, with paint largely left to build up. In later periods his mark making develops, using a range of tools from palette knives, brushes, paint applied straight from the tube and sometimes even his own hands.

Auerbach’s intense lifelong dedication to his work led to him to be reclusive in nature, but this monk-like existence co-existed with the deep, complex relationships that he had with his sitters. His sitters ranged from his contemporaries, women, lovers and his estranged teenage son, Jake. Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting brings to the foreground this contradiction of living a reclusive life but at the same time relishing human contact; “Frank loves company when he (increasingly rarely) encounters it”. Lampert writes that Auerbach is honourably seen by those who know him well as a “beacon of integrity, generosity, humility and a constant source of joy and fun”.

Auerbach’s work as well as his approach to life is truly unique. Through reading Catherine Lampert’s book you come to understand the courage and truth that have gone into his searingly honest works. Auerbach was prepared to destroy almost completed works and start again in order to get to his desired final result, and was willing to “starve to death” in order to keep on doing so. Despite this arduous process and almost always finishing the paintings in anger, Auerbach reveals that he views the painting process to be fun, and he sees it as a form of indulgence. Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Paintinglooks at the artist, his methods and his relationships in the same truthful and honest manner in which he paints.

 

Words by Joshua Cole.

Frank Auerbach

Speaking and Painting Catherine Lampert
£19.95

Frank Auerbach

Speaking and Painting Catherine Lampert
£16.95

Modernists & Mavericks

Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters Martin Gayford
£12.99