Summary of Frank Auerbach
An intensely private man who prefers to let his paintings speak for themselves, London-based painter Frank Auerbach occupies the position of a Modern Master. His fusion of realism, abstraction, and psychological introspection in sculptural layers of paint took post-World War II painting in new directions. But more than rendering his own subjective view of a person or a landscape, Auerbach thematizes seeing in his paintings, insisting that viewers take notice of how we perceive and form images in our mind and give them meaning.
Part of the influential School of London, Auerbach formed close friendships with Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud, and Francis Bacon, but he also influenced scores of more contemporary painters who are exploring the human body and flesh, including Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown, Adrian Ghenie, and Antony Micallef.
- Like many post-World War II artists, Auerbach saw little need to make sharp distinctions between figuration and abstraction. Instead using boldly gestural strokes and thick impastos of paint to render his subjects, Auerbach painted psychological portraits and moody landscapes that captured the cultural weariness and melancholia of the time brought on by the devastations of the war.
- Known for his densely painted canvases, sometimes inches thick, Auerbach's paintings seem archaeological, with the viewer attempting to excavate the layers of the composition to uncover various perspectives and memories that went into the creation of the final image before them.
- Auerbach's portraits and landscapes both emerge from the canvas and dissolve into the paint, suggesting their mutability and impermanence. Calling attention to the instability of self-perception and nature, Auerbach's paintings expose the methods by which we make sense of ourselves and the world around us.
- Having become friends in the 1950s, Auerbach and Leon Kossoff shared a close bond that lasted until Kossoff’s death (in 2019). As other movements came and went, the pair remained dedicated to figurative art. Many historians and critics have observed the many similarities between the two but with Auerbach’s work flirting more with ideas of abstraction.
Progression of Art
Head of Leon Kossoff
Painter and friend Leon Kossoff was a favorite early subject for Auerbach. Here the fellow School of London artist's face occupies nearly the entire picture plane, his head slightly tilted downward. Auerbach renders him in ghostly shades of grays, blacks, and whites; his features threatening to blur or vanish under the viscous layers of paint, which are almost sculptural, resembling one of Giacometti's attenuated figures. Kossoff's eyes are dark abysses, his mouth set in a taut line of contemplation as if he were a saint in an illuminated manuscript enduring afflictions of the soul.
Portraits of friends, lovers, and family members constitute the bulk of Auerbach's oeuvre, but his technique strains the typical understanding of the genre's commitment to likeness. Indeed, Auerbach has pushed back against the idea that he's simply a figurative painter and insists that his goal is to create new images. Auerbach's sitters are captured in their essence rather than their exactness. From multiple sittings with the artist, they are constituted from innumerable layers of paint that were scraped away and/or added to so that the artist's hand seems both completely obfuscated but also mordantly present. Every ridge, ripple, or accretion of paint suggests Kossoff is a multifaceted figure, one whose memories and sensations and physical presence are always shifting. The impression made is that what makes up an individual is fungible, and an accurate image is impossible to pin down; persons cannot be summed up by one moment in time just as they cannot be summed up with one word or fashioned out of one memory.
Oil on board - Private Collection
E.O.W. on Her Blue Eiderdown IV
E.O.W. (Estella "Stella" Olive West) was Auerbach's first obsession as a painterly subject. This work, one of several, is painted so thickly that the subject is difficult to recognize; however, after careful looking and with some assistance from the title, the viewer can discern the naked figure of a woman reclining on a bed with a blue coverlet. It is an intimate work; she is clearly comfortable, lying on her back and propping one arm up behind her head. She seems to be looking casually out at the viewer, and her figure stretches from one side of the canvas to the other. The creamy color of her flesh and the bright blue of her bed are the dominant colors, while the wall and floor are primarily shades of taupe and burnt gold.
This painting and others from the 1960s exemplify Auerbach's tendency to straddle the fence between abstraction and figuration. Again, at first glance the work appears to be abstract - just dollops of paint, messily smudged, encrusted, and carved. Auerbach's admiration for Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning is clear in his attempt to render the figure with abstract gestures. Despite this abstracted nature derived from the paint handling, Auerbach is also deeply invested in the figure. E.O.W's corporality and psychology is key to the painting's aesthetic power. Her sensually painted nude form and the enigmatic nature of her gaze may be the same in spirit as those of Giorgione, Velazquez, and Manet, but Auerbach makes us question the very idea of a unified self or a unified image with the tensions he has created.
Oil on board - Private Collection
Bacchus and Ariadne
Auerbach is unabashed about his love for the Old Masters, including Titian, Rembrandt, and Rubens. This piece is modeled after Titian's work of the same name concerning a tale from Ovid, in which Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, encounters the god Bacchus and his procession of revelers. Auerbach's rendition is completely abstract, consisting of dynamic horizontal, vertical, and diagonal brushstrokes in vibrant shades of cherry red, cerulean, golden yellow, and grass green. Though referencing Titian's work might help viewers interpret the brushstrokes as trees, figures, or the sea, Auerbach's painting is ultimately devoid of any explicit figurative references.
Auerbach's allusion to Titian in the title is difficult to square with what one sees on the surface. Critic Mark Prince suggests that Titian's composition "could be its primary-coloured skeleton, a severe distillation of figural dynamics to a linear network," but something else seems to be going on as well. A more sustained consideration of the two works yields some suppositions. First, Auerbach demonstrates Titian's love for paint, delighting in its application and every encounter between colors and lines. Second, Auerbach's marks are akin to Titian's in that they express movement in a fluid and vigorous fashion. Just as Titian's Ariadne moves away in fright and Bacchus leans toward her in concern and reverence, Auerbach's dashes, lines, and smudges vibrate and leap across the canvas. Scholars noted of Titian's painting that "he was able to demonstrate to the full his powers of observation and his descriptive ability with the brush," and that he painted in a way where each brushstroke was "a mark of the artist's own presence on the canvas." Titian's keen sense of translating his observations to the canvas and his ability to indicate his own presence with his brushstrokes could easily be said of Auerbach as well. Rather than simply borrowing Titian's composition, Auerbach, then, is in dialogue with the Old Master, expressing his debt and demonstrating his ability to "see" the scene in a wholly new way.
Oil on board - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Auerbach's landscapes are like his portraits: lushly and intuitively painted, comprised of manifold perspectives, and precisely and methodically crafted. Primrose Hill, in North London near his studio, was one of Auerbach's favored landscape subjects. Like his many sitters, he painted it numerous times over the years, in all seasons and times of day. In this instantiation, the undulating hills and roiling clouds occupy nearly equal parts of the picture plane, though springing from those hills are arboreal shapes silhouetted against the sky. The hill itself is comprised of ochre and forest green brushstrokes, with glimmers of bright yellow near the ridge. There is an unequivocal sense of movement, as the brushstrokes of the landscape sweep horizontally and those of the clouds swoop and streak as if they were reforming themselves every few seconds. No human figures break up the expanse and dominance of nature.
Auerbach's debt to English landscape painter John Constable is clear. He stated that, over time, Constable "has meant more and more to me...you sometimes feel that Constable's own body is somehow inside the landscapes." In Primrose Hill, the landscape ceases to be something immutable and capable of being ossified in an image but instead something that is as elusive and fluctuating as the artist's self. Art critic T.J. Clark wrote, "Auerbach is a landscape painter, but a peculiar kind. Nature for him seems to be instantaneous. It leaps out of the void." It also continues to leap, as Auerbach paints multifarious moments and impossible perspectives in order to probe the concept of how we see and how we constitute something in our mind when there is no such thing as permanence or finality.
Oil on canvas
Head of J.Y.M. II
Juliet Yardley Mills, or J.Y.M., was a professional artists' model and posed for Auerbach twice a week for many years. This is one of the most notable works of her, and though she is not as abstracted as, say, the aforementioned E.O.W. work, one would be hard-pressed to call this a "realistic" likeness. Both the subject and style of the painting pack a visual punch; the aesthetic impact derives from the graceful but slightly disturbing curve of her neck and head back into the picture plane, the moody grays and blues of Picasso's "blue period" palette, and the heavy, undulating daubs and smears of paint that constitute her visage. She does not look at either the artist or the viewer, but instead gazes off into the distance, her staring eyes and slightly downturned mouth conveying melancholia or mournful contemplation. Critic Becca Rothfield calls this work "exquisite but excruciating" and "bafflingly ethereal."
Auerbach's portraits make demands on the viewer and require a degree of complicity. Rothfield explains that his "method is phenomenological: he presents people and places as syntheses of their manifestations at discrete moments in time....Recognition occurs at the intersection of expectation and experience....," while Mark Prince notes, "Auerbach's painting is not an image of an image, and not really an image at all, but an investing of awkwardly viscous oil paint with an accretion of subjective perceptions." The viewer is required to "work" to put together the image of J.Y.M., synthesizing each brushstroke, each part into a tenuous whole. We must look beyond the powerful presence of the paint on canvas in order to see J.Y.M. as Auerbach saw her: not only physically sitting in front of him in his studio but in front of him on the canvas and in all of the memories, associations, and images in his mind. Auerbach is doing what most artists do - asking viewers to find image and/or meaning in the mere application of paint on canvas or fashioning of material into sculpture - but unlike many artists, he is not interested in obfuscating that demand.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Chimney in Mornington Crescent - Winter Morning
Auerbach delights in painting his immediate surroundings of Camden, the borough in London where he lives and works. He has painted numerous works of the street of Mornington Crescent, here depicting it on a frosty, barren morning. The viewer stands as if on a street corner, looking up at a precipitous chimney that leans dramatically into the rear of the canvas. On the left is the curve of the street, lined with buildings full of dark windows. Auerbach conveys the chill of the morning in the muted light of the dirty, beige sky and the absence of people. Strong black lines outline fences, gates, and the chimney itself, but the image never seems to come together as a whole; rather, it seems as if it might dissipate at any moment.
Like his portraiture subjects, Auerbach's landscapes are about the concepts of seeing and remembering, both of which are prone to indecisiveness, ambiguity, subjectivity, and ephemerality. Auerbach told art historian Catharine Lampert, "The problem of painting is to see a unity within a multiplicity of pieces of evidence and the very slightest change of light, the very slightest, tiniest hairs-breadth inflection of the form creates a totally different visual synthesis." Auerbach's concerns are mirrored in the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who also was a fascination of Willem de Kooning. Wittgenstein wrote, "The concept of seeing makes a tangled impression....I look at the landscape; my gaze wanders over it, I see all sorts of distinct and indistinct movement; this impresses itself sharply on me, that very hazily. How completely piecemeal what we see can appear! And now look at all that can be meant by 'description of what is seen!' There is not one genuine, proper case of such descriptions - the rest just being unclear, awaiting clarification, or simply to be swept aside as rubbish." Though Auerbach paints a specific place in Mornington Crescent, he impresses upon the viewer how it ultimately eludes him and us, functioning on the level of "art" and not on the "record."
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Biography of Frank Auerbach
Frank Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931 to an upper-middle class family that descended from a line of rabbis. His mother Charlotte was a former art student, and his father Max was a patent lawyer.
Hitler's persecution of the Jews was inexorably building during the 1930s, and when Auerbach was 7 years old, his panicked parents sent him to England as part of the Kindertransport, the mass emigration of Jewish children from central and eastern Europe. Auerbach never saw his parents again; they wrote letters for a few years but those were heavily censored and then eventually stopped in 1943. He never learned which camp they were sent to or when exactly they were murdered.
At English boarding school during his boyhood, Auerbach dabbled in acting as well as art, but had no proper training. He laughed to an interviewer that "it was such a funny and marvelous school that the teachers were either too highly qualified or not qualified at all so the art master was the gardener."
After graduating, he was essentially alone with very little money and a prevailing shyness about his heavy accent. He made his way in London, however, and soon decided to enroll in art school, where he met his lifelong friend, Leon Kossoff.
Early Training and Work
Auerbach enrolled in the Borough Polytechnic Institute, St. Martin's School of Art, and the Royal College of Art, and immediately enjoyed art school, recalling, as "you start doing [painting] more seriously you soon begin to have a nice time, you meet lots of girls...." However, he realized, "painting is not quite as easy as you thought. In fact what you are doing isn't really painting at all," and he had to devote much more time to it than he'd expected.
His Polytechnic tutor, the erratic but talented painter David Bomberg, became exceedingly useful to him, encouraging him in his drawing and his study of the history of art. Auerbach remembered, "There was an atmosphere of research and radicalism [in Bomberg's classes], which was extremely stimulating."
Though Auerbach was studying painting, he continued his acting. When he appeared in Peter Ustinov's debut play House of Regrets in 1948, he met a 32-year-old single mother named Estella "Stella" Olive West. The two became lovers, and Auerbach began to paint her over and over again; she would be a muse for decades. He commented that painting someone he was involved with improved his work on multiple levels, recalling "The business of catching her, as she felt to me, became far more urgent than producing a painting or drawing. It put on extra pressure. There was the desire to capture the experience."
Auerbach saw his "Stella" paintings as a breakthrough and continued to devote himself to portraiture as well as other series like scenes of postwar London. In 1954 he took a studio in Camden Town previously rented by his artist friend Leon Kossoff (he still maintains the studio today). He worked at the Kossoff family bakery as well as a moulders' business, knowing that he couldn't yet support himself as an artist. Historian Alistair Smart wrote, in time, Auerbach and Kossoff “would leave the bakery behind and develop long, successful careers as artists, careers that are frequently considered in parallel. Auerbach [repeating a well-known quote by Georges Braque who was reflecting on his working relationship with Picasso] claimed they ‘we re like two mountain climbers roped together’”.
His connections with other artists expanded, too, and he became close friends with Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, among others. Quoting author Iris Murdoch, Auerbach mused, "The definition of a happy life is to find 13 people you find absolutely fascinating. Well, they gradually came together [for me]."
Auerbach's first successful one-man show was in 1956 at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London, but he didn't achieve serious fame until the 1970s. He found the recent art boom absurd but felt "extremely grateful... 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. I really don't think I would have been able to cope on the income I used to survive on."
Auerbach's fame grew due to his association with the School of London, a term coined by American artist R.B. Kitaj to encompass the work of himself, Auerbach, Bacon, Kosoff, Freud, and Michael Andrews, although like many artists, Auerbach prefers not to be pigeonholed with a group label. He was friends with many of these artists, particularly Freud, but the relationships faded over time, and Auerbach downplayed the existence of a group or movement. Auerbach had several shows at Beaux Arts and then moved to Marlborough Fine Art gallery, with whom he still shows. He shared the 1986 Venice Biennale Golden Lion Award with the German artist Sigmar Polke.
Auerbach is notoriously private. He rarely goes beyond a few miles of his Camden studio and house and does not often consent to interviews. Writer and documentary filmmaker Hannah Rothschild, who managed to procure one, wrote of Auerbach's aversion to luxuries and that "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." He revels in quiet routine, seeing the same sitters the same day each week for, in many cases, decades.
Auerbach did allow Rothschild and his son, filmmaker Jake Auerbach, to make a documentary about him in 2001 but was exceedingly reluctant, telling the two of them in a letter that "painting is mysterious and I don't want it demystified. It's no good presenting artists as approachable blokes who happen to paint, although some may have the coolness and the grace to lend themselves to this."
He declined a knighthood in 2003, but has not spoken publicly of his reasons for doing so.
The Legacy of Frank Auerbach
Auerbach is frequently deemed one the most significant post-World War II artists, especially in his adopted home of Britain. He is notable for his obsessive method of painting, in which he layers, scrapes, adds, destroys, and molds viscous oil paint on board or canvas. His adherence to both abstraction and figuration and interest in probing the nature of how we form an image in our mind and then translate it into the visual has inspired his peers and other contemporary artists.
British painter Glenn Brown painted about 20 works inspired by Auerbach, explaining, "There's a nice economy to his painting, which I think I've taken on board. He likes to reduce the colors and brushstrokes that he uses." Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie's ghastly but seductive portraits marry Auerbach's shifting conflation of perspectives and referents with Bacon's existential horror. London-based artist Antony Micallef, commented, "Looking at Auerbach's style taught me to work on an intuitive level. The thing with his approach is that it's a very direct way of working, where the mark making is paramount and it's all about instinctive decisions." Auerbach's love for the medium and its constituent parts, his cerebral nature, and his perceptive but exacting technique have been a touchstone for artists for decades.