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“This will be the most uncomfortable lunch you’ve ever done,” Frank Auerbach apologises as he opens the door to a ground-floor flat in a Victorian terrace in Finsbury Park, north London. Dressed in Auerbach colours – dark green cardigan, buttoned up, and earth-brown corduroy trousers – he is immediately engaging: bright, inquiring eyes; self-deprecating, toothy smile; oval face; wisps of grey hair; long hands.
With a slight stoop, using a stick, the 81-year-old shuffles down a dark corridor, past a front room bare but for a single bed and some easels, into a narrow, unmodernised kitchen. “Would you like wine, tea or coffee?” he asks in a German accent thicker than I had imagined – he arrived in England aged eight, a refugee from Nazi Berlin, in 1939. I request water and he searches for a glass, finds a dirty one, washes it up, pours me some tap water, and makes himself tea in a willow-patterned cup.
Recovering from a hip operation, he has been unable to work for three weeks – the longest break in 60 years for an artist who never takes holidays and rarely leaves London. As a result, this reclusive painter has agreed to lunch but only if I bring the food – he has suggested Marks and Spencer sandwiches – to the flat belonging to his wife Julia, where he is marooned until he is mobile enough to get into a car and be driven to his Camden Town studio.
“I’m grateful for visitors,” he says. “I’ve been leading this focused, obsessive life and all the painter friends I valued – except Leon Kossoff – have died and I lost touch with the others. I haven’t even spoken to Leon for a long time but our wives are in contact, like footballers’ wives they share their troubles. I work seven days and five evenings a week, and on the other two evenings it’s a relief to watch Poirot and Sherlock. I’ve been pretending to draw here but it’s not the same thing. I’ve been drawing what I see out of the window but I haven’t got any feelings for the things out of the window. I’ll throw it all away.”
The view – a patchwork of small gardens, red-brick houses, tower blocks – is a typical London vista but it is not the urban grid of intensely known buildings, chimneys, lampposts, park and trees around Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill that has constituted Auerbach’s motif for half a century. This is his equivalent of Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire: in architectonic but abstracted cityscapes, paint built up in layers then scraped away repeatedly, he reconfigures the familiar into something fresh and surprising. These works, plus densely wrought portraits of a handful of intimates, have placed Auerbach among the world’s most eminent, expensive, instantly recognisable artists. A painter steeped in tradition – “I’ve been influenced by everyone, the past is the compost in which we grow” – he has reinvented figuration with a conviction and independence standing alongside that of his contemporaries Lucian Freud and David Hockney.
“When I was young I was greatly moved by Rembrandt,” he says. “I felt I stood more chance with persistence, digging deep, then something reasonable happening, simply by laying siege to the subject. It’s just what I was capable of. Some people are natural draughtsmen. I sometimes feel sorry for them – you have to work through that to something deeper. I don’t know how you would break up an easy virtuosity.”
I produce the sandwiches: his favourites, prawn mayonnaise, chicken and bacon, plus salmon and cucumber. “Let’s get plates to make the whole thing more civilised,” he says, leading me to a back room where a small black table is set – a bottle of Médoc, a roll of kitchen towel – with a pine chair on either side. The floor is covered with cardboard boxes; a bookcase overflows with art volumes. “These sandwiches are a terrific luxury,” Auerbach enthuses, starting on the prawns. I ask if he intended a life of monastic dedication.
“It’s funny, this business of a vocation. One starts from a motive one hardly comprehends. In the school holidays I was an office boy – I found the idea of going into an office horrifying. As a painter, I thought there would be bohemianism, freedom, and there was, but gradually the practice of art took over. As Auden says, in any crisis, the break-up of a relationship, the response is to flee to the arms of the muse. At art school you know at least as many talented students as those who became painters, but they get off the train at some point. I met Stephen Spender once, I expected a poet with a vocation but I found a civilised man, gregarious, leading a varied, entertaining, virtuous life – for whom poetry was only one of the facets. He said one of his dreams was to be a poet, the other to have a lovely life, go to France, know lots of people.”
I reply that TS Eliot, a greater poet, felt his art had cost his life too dearly. Does Auerbach feel that? “Absolutely the contrary. If I hadn’t been able to devote myself to painting, I’d have felt I had wasted my life. 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.”
Auerbach had “no money at all until my fifties. Through early middle age I would wake up in the night wondering how I would be able to afford materials to paint.” He has had the same Camden studio since he inherited it from Kossoff – his closest friend at art college, an early model and still the painter with whom his work shares the greatest affinity – in the 1950s; typically, he sleeps there four nights a week, and three in Finsbury Park, where Julia sits for him on Wednesdays and Thursdays. He paints her in acrylic “because it says in the lease you’re not allowed to use oil. I must be a quite obedient temperament.”
The couple married and had their only child, Jake, in 1958, then drifted apart. Auerbach continued a relationship with Estella West (the “EOW” of many early portraits), which had begun when he was 17, she 32. “Stella,” now 96, “is still marvellous, full of courage, affection, but she can’t remember anything. I really became a painter by painting her – she sat three times a week when I wasn’t painting anyone else.”
Now he has a “rigid timetable” of evening models: art critic William Feaver on Mondays; Jake on Tuesdays; curator Catherine Lampert on Fridays. “People create their own atmosphere. Julia goes to sleep, which I value. Bill has very interesting things to say. Catherine is between the two. One is aware of their personalities, electricity and tempo. I can hardly stand in a studio with just my idea and a brush. I like the conflict between reality and its awkward edges, driving you to get something sheer and complete – something trapped rather than arranged.”
Auerbach moves on to the chicken, then a salmon sandwich, as the phone rings. “It’s my very nice son, who has been so helpful in this crisis [the hip operation], more than I deserve. I was fairly maladroit at arranging my life.”
Auerbach, who was reunited with Julia in 1976, says: “I’m impatient with the paraphernalia of domestic life. It doesn’t mix. We’re driving each other mad here,” he adds amiably. Julia spends one week in four at her Norfolk house, and she paints there. “I’ve never seen the place – well, I never leave London.” But he has seen the work? “I haven’t seen the work but I’m sure it’s of some quality.” Would he be interested in seeing it? “I don’t think I am. I have become less curious about other people’s work as I get older.”
This is delivered deadpan yet when I produce grapes and macaroons – also from Marks and Spencer – for dessert, his eyes light up. “Ooh, Julia will be delighted with them! I wish you could be here to see her face when she comes in and sees them. It’s extremely kind of you.” He goes on sipping tea, the macaroons stay in their box, the wine remains unopened, as Auerbach explains that “I never had to unlearn bourgeois things because I had never learnt them. I haven’t been good with money. I have no luxuries except taxis.”
The son of an affluent Jewish lawyer, he arrived alone in England after travelling on the Kindertransport trains on which Jewish parents sent their children to the safety of foster families or boarding schools. Many of the parents who stayed in Germany, including Auerbach’s, were subsequently killed in concentration camps.
Auerbach attended Bunce Court in Kent, a boarding school where most pupils and teachers were refugees. “I was taught by curious misfits. No one ever suggested you had to make a living. There was a certain intellectual snobbery, partly imported from Germany. On my first day I saw kids running around without haircuts, they locked me in the shed. One child picked a fight with me because I looked so coddled. I’d never had a fight in my life. I said to another boy, ‘I think I might get on a bit better if you cheered for me.’ ” The boy was Michael Roemer, who went on to become a film director/writer, a life-long friend of Auerbach’s and “the first person who bought a drawing of mine. He had no money either. For 12 years he paid in instalments of $5.”
Auerbach never saw his parents again; letters stopped in 1943 but, by then, “Bunce Court was actually my home.” He has said he coped by “total denial”, that “I was spared the struggle against parental will, there was no one to tell me what a lot of nonsense to want to be an artist”. Nonetheless, “I was always aware of death because of my background. And in some curious way the practice of art and the awareness of the imminence of death are connected. Otherwise we would not find it necessary to do the work art finally does – to pin down something and take it out of time. If you take a photograph, it becomes historic five seconds later. But if you do a painting: Frans Hals’ portrait of woman – he’s yanked her out of the 17th century and brought her here and in a small way he has defeated death.”
How does it work? “I’ve never been moved by a real landscape as I have by paintings of landscape. It’s because every moment is transmitted by human will that we identify ourselves with it. In a painting you re-experience what the painter experienced, one brushstroke over another, it’s like a perpetuum mobile. A photograph is just pixels.”
He believes that “only recently has my work added up to what could be a small oeuvre. In the last five years some people have become aware of my work and even have feelings about it.” This is, of course, an underestimate. Auerbach has long been celebrated; his prices did, however, begin to achieve new records – £1.92m for “Camden Theatre in the Rain” in 2007, £1.94m for “Head of Helen Gillespie” in 2008 – in the past five years.
His working pattern has been unchanged for decades. He rises with the dawn, goes out to draw, returns to the studio “where I will have a painting on the go. Instead of staring at this painting and making aesthetic decisions, I look at the drawing, which is like a note. Then I repaint, scrape, repaint the painting, it never takes less than months, sometimes years. Then there’s a point, a coup de foudre, like an explosion, when something rather radical happens, something I hadn’t foreseen, and it is finished. But there can be false finishes. And not everything will work. I go to considerable lengths to destroy what I don’t like. If I hadn’t edited as much as I have, I would be deeply depressed. Matisse said, ‘My only enemies are my bad pictures.’ ”
He has agreed to a show this autumn featuring a new landscape, drawings and, unusually, self-portraits. “When I was young, my head seemed bland: I never had the narcissism of Courbet or Dürer, who obviously thought themselves marvellous-looking chaps. As I got more wrinkly, with bags under the eyes, the whole landscape became more interesting. But I also partly started doing them [self-portraits] because people were talking more when I painted them, and there’s something refreshing about going back to silence.”
I take this as a cue to leave, and beg him not to bother to see me out. But he grabs his stick and leaps up. “No, no, I’d like to. The more I behave like a human being, the better.”
Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief visual arts critic
‘Frank Auerbach: Next Door’, Marlborough Gallery, London, Oct 12-Nov 10;
‘Frank Auerbach: Early Works’, Offer Waterman Gallery, London, Nov 2-Dec 1
Frank Auerbach’s flat
Finsbury Park, north London
Prawn mayonnaise sandwich £1.85
Chicken and bacon sandwich £2.75
Salmon and cucumber sandwich £1.90
Red grapes £2.50
Mini macaroons £5.49
(All from Marks and Spencer)
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