CONTEXTUAL FOCUS POINT: Frank Auerbach’s portraiture

RESEARCH: Frank Auerbach’s portraiture

 Several years ago I was fortunate to be able to see a small exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s work at the V&A in London. It is an experience I will not forget and his drawings had a strong effect on me. Here is my response to that visit…

 “The exhibition displayed the paintings and drawings of Auerbach from the early 1950s to 2007, drawn from Lucian Freud’s private collection, which has been acquired for the nation by Arts Council England.

This was the first time I’d experienced Auerbach’s work first hand and it was truly memorable. My present course of study in Mixed Media has introduced me to this artist because of the very physical texture of his painting and actually seeing these works up close was extraordinary. In several images the paint was applied straight from the tube and left in that state. The thickness of the impasto was such that the image resembled low relief. But it was the extraordinary combinations of colours which was the most absorbing.  These, up-close, appeared random because of the strength and ruggedness of the marks and it was only when seen from a distance that the tonal variations and subtlety could be seen.

However, for me it was the collection of drawings which I found the most exciting. You could tell immediately that it was the same hand which had held the pencil or charcoal that had also struck the canvas with layer upon layer of paint marks. The energy, immediacy, power and expressive mark making were simply wonderful to study. On several of the drawings, Auerbach had obviously begun by covering the surface of the paper with energetic pencil lines and it seemed to me that it was his way of bringing the drawing out from the surface. Lines were struck every which way over the paper, almost as though he was reaching a climax for the final image. The surface pencil marks were then rubbed back into a soft grey tone over which the final image in pen or graphite was drawn. Each line of the drawing was powerful and fast with no detail but simply a summation of what he wanted to express.”

It is interesting now to take up this research again after seeing another much more extensive exhibition of Auerbach’s work at Tate Britain last year. The most overpowering element of the work when you are confronted with rooms full of his paintings is the sheer physicality, energy and ‘aliveness’ of the images. They demand you to look at them beyond a passing glance. The intensity and abundance of the paint draws you in to explore a surface which in the first instance looks like a total mess. ‘Indigestible’ is probably the best word for it! In his conversation with Catherine Lampert in 1978, he makes this interesting comment: : You know, when Leo Stein bought the Matisse ‘Woman in the Hat’, the picture of Madame Matisse, he said he bought it because he thought it was the most horrible mess he had ever seen. Well, that seems to me to be a perfect justification for admiring a painting. Good paintings do attack fact from an unfamiliar point of view. They’re bound to look genuine, and in some way rawly and actively repellent, disturbing and itchy and not right. I would not reject anything that seemed shocking or extreme, but on the contrary, I would value it, but I wouldn’t do it for its own sake. I mean to do it for its own sake then becomes part of the world of advertisement and fashion.”

This comment for me summed up the central point of Auerbach’s work and in particular his portraits. In the conversation with Christine Lampert he uses the word ‘fact’ a lot. Fact, truth, authenticity, honesty, however you express it, is central to the images. At first glance they may look a mess, the viewer may be fascinated with the application of paint, but it is the integrity of the work which dominates. His portraits are a search for ‘fact’. Layer on layer of mark making, paint application and brush strokes are simply the means for extracting the face from the canvas. He is ‘seeing in paint’. The surface is covered in smears and heavy impasto – do they make the identity of the face or threaten to dissolve or hide it? This question continually intrigued me as I studied the paintings. They set up so many questions. Why the impasto? Is it, as T.J. Clark writes in his article ‘On Frank Auerbach’, a way of ‘seeing’? Or not seeing or not being sure what you are seeing? This process of going through the elements of seeing is what makes Auerbach’s portraits so compelling.

“I think all good painting looks as though the painting has escaped from the thicket of prepared positions and has entered some sort of freedom where it exists on its own, and by its own laws, and inexplicably has got free of all possible explanations. Possibly the explainers will catch up with it again, but never completely…” page 142 Frank Auerbach – catalogue 2015.

Auerbach’s portraits are done from life. He explains that with the model in the room it sets up a particular urgency and I feel that this urgency comes through the painting. The element of time is a constant presence and the urgency comes through in trying to capture an experience before it disappears. How he paints expresses this. It’s interesting to me that he doesn’t put his sitters in commonplace gestures. This comes back to his rejection of the false – false situations – and his concentration always on ‘fact’.

From what I have described, it is evident that Auerbach’s method of working reflects his purpose. Paintings are not planned or visualized before he starts working. I see it as an emerging process. His thick surfaces of paint in the early days came about because he would not scrape back but instead worked over the previous surface. From the 1960s he began to scrape away the whole surface until he reached the image he was satisfied with. The final image however was the result of 30, 50 or perhaps 200 separate versions before the final image emerges. This passage of time in the continual search for the ‘fact’ of his images is, for me what makes them great paintings.

It seems to me that the viewer is required to re-enter the same process as Auerbach has experienced in producing his paintings. We go through the same steps – at first the image is unclear, unresolved, indistinguishable, indigestible – in fact a mess. But even at first glance you can feel the energy and the power behind the image. What intrigues you most is that you can’t see what’s there and so many questions leap into your mind. I think that Auerbach, in his perhaps 200 paintings of the portrait,- painting then scraping back or drawing and then rubbing off – is on the same search as the viewer. The painter and viewer are together. With one proviso! Time! Unlimited time must have elapsed in the process of some of Auerbach’s images and the viewer needs to be prepared to invest the same time to truly see what’s there.

Frank Auerbach- Head of Catherine Lampert 11 1985

Frank Auerbach- Head of E.O.W 11-1961

Frank Auerbach – David Landau Seated 2010-11

Frank Auerbach – Self Portrait 2014

Frank Auerbach- Reclining Head of Julia 1994


About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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