With a highly appraised retrospective currently open at the Tate Britain – the first major exhibition to showcase Frank Auerbach’s work since A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy in 2001, and an exhibition running simultaneously at Marlborough Fine Art, the humble artist, known within the art world as being rather hermit-like, is firmly back in the limelight. Born in 1931 to Jewish parents in Berlin, Auerbach was brought to England in 1939 under the Kindertransport scheme – a rescue mission established to protect Jewish children from persecution during Nazi Germany. An isolated orphan growing up in war-torn Britain, Auerbach sought refuge in painting. Considered today as one of Britain’s most prestigious and talented living artists, Auerbach’s paintings, drawings and prints pulsate with energy, transporting the viewer into a world in which obsessive observation is paramount to success.
Whether you are familiar with Auerbach’s work or not, the exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art is most definitely worth a visit. Free from the bustling crowds of the Tate Britain, this intimate display-retrospective of Auerbach’s oeuvre, spanning the artist’s entire career, provides an insight into Auerbach’s artistic trajectory. Portraits of his regular sitters and a new self-portrait, aptly entitled Self-Portrait, 2015, in graphite and pastel on paper are juxtaposed with landscapes of his favoured London scenes around Camden Town and Mornington Crescent, scenes which he has painted religiously since 1954. While Auerbach landscapes are often recognisable for their vibrant colours, my favourite of those exhibited, is The House, 2015. Boasting his recently adopted pastel palette, The House is soft, endearing and ultimately beautiful.
Like his landscapes, the portraits in this exhibition betray an intensity and energy that can only be a product of familiarity. Known for the lasting relationships he develops with his muses, Auerbach’s suite of seven etchings completed in 1989/1990 all depict friends-sitters within his close circle: Julia, David, Catherine, J.Y.M, Michael, Jake and Geoffrey. His trademark black lines, albeit rather scraggy in style, capture the essence of his sitters with an uncanny realism. Yet the same cannot be said of his heavy impasto style painted portraits. With highly textured surfaces, the result of layers upon layers of oil paint, Auerbach’s oil on canvases are rather more obscure, even, you could say, undecipherable. E.O.W. Reclining, 1970, depicts one of Auerbach’s most long-standing muses, Stella West. The yellowish head and body of his muse dominates the composition. The figure reclines against a musty-green background and is almost entirely unrecognizable in form at a glance. However, the more you look at the portrait, the more your draw from it, and it is this unfathomable mystique that engages Auerbach’s viewer time and time again.
Auerbach’s paintings intrigue. All notion of comprehension is thrown aside as you glide seamlessly from one composition to the next. While the development in Auerbach’s painterly style is difficult to measure throughout the exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art, for no sense of chronology is adhered to, what is manifestly clear, is Auerbach’s devotion to his trade. Renowned for painting 365 days a year and tirelessly repainting works until entirely satisfied, this exhibition seeks to explore the soul and energy inherent to his art.
Auerbach once said, that painting itself is ‘a set of sensations, of conflicting movements and experiences, which somehow, one hopes has congealed or cohered or risen out of battle into being an image that stands up for itself’. There is no denying this reality when looking at Auerbach’s work. Auerbach’s art speaks volumes and the current exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art, dedicated entirely to his work, is whole-heartedly deserved.
By Lucy Scovell
Frank Auerbach at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albermarle Street, London, W1S 4BY, from 23rd October – 21st November.