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“What comes first is the despair: the sense that life is slipping away and there’s only one end. If people feel that strongly enough, they may go to extraordinary lengths to do something to shield themselves.”

This is Frank Auerbach’s explanation for why he paints, hoping not to produce just “another picture because there are enough pictures in the world. I’m hoping to make a new thing for the world that remains in the mind like a new species of living thing. It sounds very grandiloquent.”

So it is: this retrospective at Tate Britain is an exhilarating mix of joy and desperation, architectonic splendour and a rush of fleeting moments; paint as a living substance, dynamic and transforming, and as philosophical system, musing on existence and mutability.

Sparsely selected by 84-year-old Auerbach himself to include eight or 10 paintings, mostly private loans, from each of the past six decades, it is an installation in which every work commands the space around it, insisting on its uniqueness as a fresh attempt to distil the familiar anew. Yet few oeuvres of the last half-century cohere as persuasively and compellingly.

The overwhelming impression, even in the first room, which features the deep black-brown furrows of “Building Site, Earl’s Court Road, Winter” and the softly lit curving figure on murky ground “E.O.W. Nude”, is of liveliness and immediacy: paint as its own reality. Already here, too, in “Head of Leon Kossoff” and “Head of E.O.W.”, each emerging, hard-won, out of darkness to radiate gleams of light and warmth, is the paradox of an image specific and studied, the result of great application that is also impulsive, instantaneous.

Auerbach works from life, building up and scraping down layer after layer until the painting unpredictably “speaks back”. Working over months or years across the whole picture, he achieves vibrant, unified surfaces of marks made at different speeds, hooking lines, staccato strokes, swerves and sweeps, so that the image appears provisional, unfixed, as in life.

We distinguish a mother and — jostling, hard-to-pin-down forms behind her — children coming towards us in “E.O.W., S.A.W. and J.J.W. in the Garden”. An off-cream sludgy ground — dirt, fumes? — suffuses the grid of cranes, lampposts, buildings in “Mornington Crescent”; a yellow car darts past, a tall bus looms. The city surges in chaos, underpinned by Auerbach’s tight horizontal/vertical networks.

“It is the architecture that gives his paintings such authority,” Lucian Freud noted. “The composition is as right as walking down the street. The weather changes, so does the light.”

We feel this as the dense urban structures unfold, their subject the process of looking and discovery, with uncertainty and contingency accepted. For his Marlborough gallerist, Auerbach once provided a “Mornington Crescent” diagram with annotations: “hole”, “man with wheelbarrow”, “distant houses” and “I can’t remember if that is a man or a cement mixer”.

In the lime/yellow, day/night Hampstead Heath landscape “The Origin of the Great Bear” (1967-68), alluding to Titian’s “Diana and Callisto”, a black zigzag is the nymph on the grass, a swirling form is Jupiter as eagle. The Royal Free Hospital glimmers on the horizon, a striding red figure, inspired by Labour politician Michael Foot walking his dog, also refers to vengeful Diana and her hounds, while seven luminous blots denote the Great Bear constellation — Callisto, first changed into a bear, ended a star. Auerbach’s brushwork, delicate, rapid, vehement, evokes the tale’s eroticism and violence — and also wind and weather, wet grass, dusk falling.

Auerbach’s painterly approach moves in sync with developments to the city itself. Standing before “Winter Evening, Primrose Hill Study” (1974-75), a spiky pattern of thick black lines — trees, poles, fences — flaring from a damp green rectangle amid patches of sombre red and far-apart streetlamps, one remembers viscerally chilly, dark, empty, large-skied 1970s evenings. By “Mornington Crescent Looking South” (1997) high-rise blocks, clashing colours soaring in columns, bright lights, crowd out a sliver of sky. In “Hampstead Road, High Summer” (2010) the cityscape has become all-over visual noise, its rich, diverse textures embodied in Auerbach’s slashing pinks, crimsons, lilacs, thick flashes of yellow, the whole energised by a skeletally realised sprinter — a Giacometti with backpack — and glorified by brilliant sunlight.

In portraits, too, Auerbach’s shift is from opacity to clarity, impasto to greater fluidity, darkness to luxuriant colour. Always hints of posture, gesture, gaze, define the individual aura of sitter and milieu. Professional model “J.Y.M.” challenges Auerbach with spirited poses: her head, in a gripping 1984-85 rendering, tips back into space, one eye a blue splash, a scoop of yellow hair; a long vertical smear floats the image upwards, turning mass into projection.

In “Catherine Lampert — Profile” (1997), a portrait of this show’s curator, outline and features are abbreviated to a sort of internal geometry that expresses, even in the way the head twists, tenacity, concentration, sensitivity. The sparky presence of “E.O.W.” — Stella West, Auerbach’s lover in the 1950s-’60s — fills cramped interiors illuminated by electric light, evoking her Brentford bedroom, where Auerbach knelt on the floor grappling with works propped on a chair such as the luminous “E.O.W. Nude on Bed” (1959) or the encrusted sculptural relief “E.O.W.’s Reclining Head II” (1966).

These are images in flux, of flux, imbued with terrific gravitas, even moral imperative. “It was normal for us to sit in a small room with no means. We wanted to say something profound and precise, something sharp about truth,” Auerbach recalls. “An artist like Giacometti, who created a rich oeuvre, inventive and refined, with modest means in a small room, was very attractive.”

An existentialist sensibility, connecting to Giacometti, Francis Bacon, is as fundamental to Auerbach’s work as thick paint. Marked young by death — his parents perished in Auschwitz — he seeks “to pin down an experience in its essential aspect before it disappears”, in a raw idiom born of the postwar conviction that to sustain figuration, as Bacon foresaw, “reworking the image will demand more and more profound, sensational and evocative ways” of handling paint.

No living British artist has grasped that nettle more inventively and intelligently than Auerbach. “Painting for me is a set of connections,” he says, “a set of sensations of conflicting movements and experiences, which somehow one hopes has congealed or cohered or risen out of the battle into being an image that stands up for itself.” Many magnificently memorable images stand up for themselves in this great show.

‘Frank Auerbach’, Tate Britain, London, to March 13, tate.org.uk

Slideshow photographs: Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

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