Friday, 15 January 2016

Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain

It's fair to say that I've been waiting for this show for over 20 years. If you want to cut to the chase however, go to this show. It's a great show of one of the greatest painters we have ever had. But if you want to know the reasons for the special place he holds in my heart, I'll briefly tell you why.

Head of J.Y.M II 1984-5
When I was fourteen I was taken to the then Tate Gallery (no Tate modern or Tate Britain, only the one Tate Gallery at that time in the building now known as Tate Britain). I had done a few drawings that showed I had some facility with a pencil, and my parents, naturally, thought taking me to a gallery might further spur my interest. There I saw a painting by Piet Mondrian, one of his compositions with red and blue. I was rather incredulous at the idea of that as a "painting" since to me it seemed nothing more than colouring in. So, I went home, took my brothers oil painting set (which he had only used once), and set about doing my own Mondrian. My version was perhaps not quite as sophisticated as Mondrian's, but my view hasn't really changed in all these years, the title to his work being as factual as the work itself was not what I would call painting - it was, and still is, nothing more than a study in composition, only one of the elements that go to create a good painting. But I better not digress too far down that path since this blog is about Frank Auerbach.

That was in the summer. I carried on painting my own versions of other painters I liked from the Tate's collection, most especially Salvador Dali, until one week in November my father showed me a review in the newspaper of a show Auerbach had on at Marlborough Fine Art on Albermarle Street in the heart of the moneyed contemporary art scene around Cork Street in Piccadilly. He showed me the review partly because it was interesting painting, and partly because one of my parents friends, Philip Kossoff, was the brother of the painter Leon Kossoff (still alive and working as I write), who is an old friend of Frank Auerbach, having both gone to the same art college together many decades before.

Serendipity would have it that later that same week I was going to one of the Royal Institution's Christmas science lectures with my school. As I walked up the road towards the Royal Institution with my friends, I passed a number of small commercial galleries, having a good look through the windows as my nascent interest in painting demanded, and there, on the same street as the Royal Institution, unknown to me at the time, was Marlborough Fine Art, and the very exhibition whose review my father had shown me. It was a revelation.

Here were paintings the like of which I had never seen before, and which, more than any other paintings before or since, spoke to me as a friend. Their thick paint and expressive nature was everything I was, inside; that was how I wanted to paint - no, not wanted to, had to paint. They were quite simply me in every way other than their actual authorship.

I went home, and that weekend started painting my own Auerbachs, as I had done with Dali and Mondrian and countless others. I even painted a portrait of him from the photograph in the newspaper that accompanied the review, took a photo of it and sent it to him, care of Marlborough Fine Art, and was extremely gratified to receive a reply from the man himself, and not just a thankyou note, but a proper letter (no email of course at that time), and there followed a brief correspondence between us about painting which I treasure.

So now you can see why a retrospective of this painter, this true painter, was something I had been waiting for ever since.

Leon Kossoff 1950's
Now to get to the exhibition itself which spans some 60 years, from the 1950's to the 2010's, but to say I love everything he has ever done would not be true - he is not perfect, but he is a true painter.

The paintings from the 1950's I always found a bit overdone. Their extremely heavy use of paint I always thought a bit of a, well, gimmick is too strong a word, but the 3 inch thick impasto laid down over months or years always made me wonder if he shouldn't just start again and try to get it right. But I think this very weakness, as I saw it, spoke to me since it was clearly his love of the medium that spurred him to keep going, keep going, and still keep going until he produced something that worked. They are dark, brooding, and a little stagnant I feel. But he was on his way somewhere, somewhere good. A typical example is the portrait of Leon Kossoff, a painting I still don't like much. Sometimes, you just have to know when to stop.

As he goes into the 1960's, the late 1960's in particular, his true ability, and artistry, starts to come out. For a long time I concentrated my own efforts on painting people, portraits. Here Frank Auerbach creates paintings exactly as I always intended to. They are concentrated examinations of a person, of their face, their character, their being. The heavy layered paint is still there, but with some brighter colours and a little more understanding of the medium itself, they have become objects that live in a way that "pictures" of people never do. Go to the National Gallery's portrait award show and you will see many many pictures of people, painted with pure artifice, nothing more than pretence of a painting, an illustration of a person's appearance fooling you into believing their is character when in fact all you get is an act. Not so with Frank Auerbach. His portraits are more extant than most people let alone paintings of them. The existence of the person behind the painting is so evident you could have a conversation with them, as long as you don't require it to be two-way. The paint itself, still heavy, becomes a little lighter in application, while at the same time becoming more expressive as he sheds some of the over-burdensome neediness of previous works.

David Landau 1990
In the 1970's he really hits his stride. Both portraits, figures, and landscapes start to use the pure joy of the brush stroke. The brush stroke is the most underrated and yet most obvious tool of the painter. He now has this supreme tool at his disposal, and through the 1980's, 90's, and on, the paint, thick or thin, has become his accomplice do express his perception of the world. The true power of this idea cannot be underestimated since the subjects themselves are not what is important. What you get is pure human experience expressed through paint - that is what makes a work of art. There is no artifice, there is no pretence, there is no sense of imagery trumping art. The true remit of art, to communicate the nature of existence from one human being to another without that human being being there to persuade you of the fact, is there in front of you eyes. You can be left in no doubt that the painter, and the subject, whether a person or a place, did exist and that you are there with them, back in time to when the object itself was created.

Needles to say not every painting is a masterpiece, but when he makes one that works, there is really nothing better in the realm of painting. If you are a painter because the medium speaks to you more than any other, you have to see this show.

Park Village East 2006
There are few painters that I admire or respect as much as Frank Auerbach. Lucian Freud, while alive, was often touted as Britain's greatest living painter. I never agreed with that. I went to his retrospective in the same gallery sometime around 2001, 7 rooms of his paintings, and by the 3rd room I was getting bored. It was the same thing over and over again. Sure, some of the paintings were brilliant, but in every one what you got was Lucian Freud, not the object of his attentions. I recently read somewhere that Auerbach, also a friend of Freud's and of Francis Bacon too, didn't consider himself to have the talent of either of them. But I disagree. Francis Bacon I also admire - he used paint, he used the brush stroke to express himself to bring true power to a painting, I don't see the same in Freud. But then, the media will have their way and attach labels to people especially when imagery, art's poorer more flatulent cousin, heaves itself into view. Bacon created better images than Auerbach, but Auerbach's paintings trump them all. He is a true artist, a true painter, the greatest brush-smith of our time.

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