Thursday, 25 May 2017

Frank Auerbach - a brief biography

Frank Auerbach, 1989
Frank Helmut Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931 to Charlotte and Max Auerbach who was a patent Lawyer.

In 1939, with the rise of Hitler and impending war, his parents decided to send him to England on the Kindertransport which was organised to save mainly, but not exclusively, Jewish children from the NAZIs.

He left Hamburg on the SS George Washington just before his 8th birthday arriving in Southampton 3 days later and was subsequently taken to Bunce Court School in Kent, a boarding school, while his parents stayed behind in Germany. They were later killed in the Holocaust, probably in Auschwitz.

When the news reached him that his parents had been killed his reaction seemed to not have been that great - that is, as far as one can tell from watching interviews with him. But, of course, who knows the depths of anguish hidden beneath the calm and controlled waters of any of us? What he has said, however, is that he was happy at Bunce Court, and thought his family was a bit "stuffy". We must also remember he was only a little boy at the time and reading between the lines in his interviews, to me it seems that he was clearly not that close to either of his parents.

In 1948 he went to St Martins School of Art where made friends with Leon Kossoff, while at the same time, from 1947-53 he also attended night classes at Borough Polytechnic, also with Leon Kossoff, where they were taught by the great David Bomberg. He and Leon would go out together and paint scenes around London, particularly bomb sites and construction sites which were plentiful after the War. He was happy at Borough Poly where he felt he could paint more freely than he could at St. Martins, where the stifling atmosphere of a traditional "art school" clearly left him struggling with the constrictions of what art was supposed to be (according to whomever were the designated "master artists" of the time).

After studying he started teaching in secondary schools, and then travelling around the country teaching at various art schools, but mostly at Camberwell School of Art in London where he taught from 1958-65.

In 1958 he also married Julia Wolstenholme, and they had a son called Jake the same year.

Head of E.O.W. - profile, 1972
He is best known for his portraits and his steadfastness in painting the same painting over and over and over again until he gets it right, often taking a year or more. In that way we could consider him to have painted many thousands of paintings, but that he re-uses his canvases again and again before he considers what he has done has achieved what he set out to do. The point of this is that what he wants is an immediate description of his subject, as if painted in a few minutes or hours. But that is a very hard thing to do which is why he does it again and again. He doesn't so much build on previous work he has already laid down on the canvas, although some influence must obviously be there, instead he scrapes it all off, and "starts again". So what you end up seeing as a painting that is marked as, for example, 1985-86, is something that he actually painted in a couple of hours, although it took him over a year to get to the point where he knew the idea of the painting so well that he was able to produce it in such a short period of time.

Most of his sitters he has painted for decades, regularly seeing them at the same time, on the same day, week after week after week after year after year, and they include:

  • Stella West, also know as EOW (Estella Olive West)
  • Julia Briggs Mills, also known as JYM,
  • Catherine Lampert,
  • Jake Auerbach (his son),
  • Julia Auerbach (his wife),
  • Ruth Bromberg,
  • David Landau.

There are others of course, but those mentioned above have provided some of his most constant material.

Albert Street III, 2010
Frank Auerbach doesn't only paint people, he also paints landscapes he knows well in London such as Primrose Hill and the streets around his studio, and the inside of his studio itself.

His series of paintings "To the Studio", painted over many years, has always intrigued me simply because I live nearby to where his studio is known to be. So I took an hour out of my busy schedule to go check out the precise area where I hoped to find him strolling down the street to his studio. But of course, no such encounter occurred, and in fact, I couldn't even see where the studio was. I have a good idea, but there was nothing obvious, no sign, no smudges of paint on the pavement outside, no lingering taint of turpentine on the air.

It is now 2017, and he is still alive, and still travels to his studio everyday to work - a man after my own heart! This is man who knows he is an artist, and therefore has always had that imperative to work, and I, for one, am just glad that he is still able to do what any artist must - create!

Frank Auerbach is, for my money, the best painter in the world. Why? Because he does what so many "painters" actually do not do (see my review of the Hockney exhibition). Everything he expresses, as an artist, as a man, as a human being communicating directly to another human being (as any artist must), is done primarily through the power of his brush strokes. It is not the composition, it is not the colours, it is not the subject matter or the intellectual game, it is not fashion, it is not pretence, and it most certainly is not pretty pictures to please the eye. No. What you get with Frank Auerbach is real art - the brush strokes, those brush strokes that take him so long to get right. He is a pure painter, and better than anyone else.

If you want to learn more about Frank Auerbach, I recommend this book by Robert Hughes for pictures (which only goes up to 1989 but has great images):

There is also a good film about him, that has interviews with him and a number of his sitters, produced by his son Jake who has made films of a number of other artists too:

And finally, if you don't want to read this blog, then you can just watch/listen to my youtube version "Frank Auerbach 2 minutes" here:

Summer Building Site, 1953

Leaon Kossoff, 1954

E.O.W., 1955

E.O.W., 1957 charcoal

E.O.W., 1961

E.O.W. VI, 1963

EOW, SAW, and JJW in the Garden I, 1963

Head of Miss Steinberg, 1967

Mornington Crescent, 1967

The Origin of the Great Bear, 1967-1968

Primrose Hill Autumn Morning, 1968

Primrose Hill - Summer, 1968

E.O.W., 1970

Bacchus and Ariadne, 1971

Julia, 1981 charcoal
JYM, 1984 charcoal

Vincent Terrace II, 1984

Jacob, 1984-85 charcoal

JYM, 1984-85

Catherine Lampert, 1985-86 charcoal

Catherine Lampert, 1986

Mornington Crescent Early Morning, 1991

Park Village East, 2006

In the Studio IV, 2013-14

Frank Auerbach's studio in 1985