October 17, 2013 7:25 pm

Raw Truth: Auerbach – Rembrandt, Ordovas Gallery, London

Raw Truthplays old art against new. But how successful are these shows really, asks Jackie Wullschlager
Rembrandt, Portrait of Dr. Ephraïm Bueno, 1645-1647, Rijksmuseum©Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt's 'Portrait of Dr. Ephraïm Bueno' (1645-1647). Credit: Rijksmuseum

Frank Auerbach and Rembrandt have the following things in common. They use thick, sticky paint to build up rich surfaces which look fluid, spontaneous, alive, yet are underpinned by strong structural scaffolds. They share muted earthy palettes – but as light emerges from dark tonalities, their paintings are radiant. Paint for both is a vehicle to convey a vision of reality; however, as Francis Bacon noted of Rembrandt, there is a “tightrope walk” between figuration and the abstract. The thing depicted has a presence which goes deeper than likeness.

This has something to do with time. Auerbach and Rembrandt are slow painters, digging deep, working into a canvas the history of its creation as accumulated observations and feelings about an intensely known subject.

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Yet a picture by Frank Auerbach actually looks nothing like one by Rembrandt. Take the impressive trio of early 1960s “Primrose Hill” landscapes, impasto patchworks of tense diagonals and verticals and exhilarating open spaces. Hefty and churning, they cohere as we look from inchoate forms into rhythmic depictions of trees, swaying branches, paths, clouds, in sunlight now brilliant, now diffuse.

Compare these with Rembrandt’s famous atmospheric etching “The Three Trees”, a landscape also dominated by trees whipped by gusts of wind, set against expanses of fast-moving clouds illuminated by a burst of sun. This is formal, detailed: cows, horses, people dotted about sunlit fields; lovers in the undergrowth; a wagon, cottages, flock of birds; towers of a distant city engulfed in rain. The motifs are immediately legible, and prompt questions of man’s insignificance before the power of nature, life’s ephemerality and tragedy. Yet Auerbach too incorporates in paint the possibility of change, a fleeting sensation permanently in pigment.

These landscapes are among the careful juxtapositions displayed in this show, currently at Ordovas, travelling in December to the Rijksmuseum, which loans London the Rembrandts. Two others are the oil sketch and etching “Joseph telling his dreams”, an emotive, exquisitely balanced group of huddled figures. These hang oddly alongside Auerbach’s “The Sitting Room”, a rigorously composed interior recalling Braque or Cézanne rather than Rembrandt.

Raw Truth is one of several recent shows – Ordovas’ fourth in this format – playing old art against new. Frieze Masters is the apotheosis of the trend, also evident in museums (Dulwich’s Twombly Poussin, Zurich’s forthcoming Egon Schiele Jenny Saville).

How successful really are these shows? I love every work at Ordovas, yet I struggled with differences in scale and flamboyance which threaten to overwhelm the small pieces by Rembrandt, whose unassailable solidity in turn risks making Auerbach look provisional.

On the other hand, it is intensely stimulating to trace continuities of painterly language, assimilation and influence. And such shows are likely to proliferate because, in a flurried global art market, the clamour for serious anchors becomes ever stronger.
Until December 1, ordovasart.com

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