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Frank Auerbach at The Tate – a Tour de Force

October 14, 2015

ArtsPainting | by Harry Seymour


I’ll bet you’ve heard, at one point or another, of some cinematic masterpiece praised as a tour de force; a defining role. Well, Frank Auerbach is a one man show. And the exhibition at Tate Britain is certainly a tour de force. Moreover, his painings define him and are an extension of himself, in the old romantic way that we think of painters as they existed way before this century.

Head of William Feaver 2003 Oil on board 451 x 406 mm Collection of Gina and Stuart Peterson © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
Head of William Feaver, 2003, Oil on board, 451 x 406 mm. Collection of Gina and Stuart Peterson. © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Born in 1931, Frank Auerbach’s work provides the rare opportunity to glimpse at a body of work that feels very much accomplished, whilst still being under development. Auerbach’s recognisable style is a wonderful constant throughout a show that follows a loose chronological order which traces the artist’s progression.

For those less familiar with his work, the thick layering of oil paint is characteristic. Think impasto (thick paint applied in layers) but on steroids, so to speak. This is displayed from the first room in the space, unlike other shows which begin with a gentle introduction of adolescent sketches before moving onto the more mature and developed pieces of the artist in question.

Advancing through the rooms, one can follow a pleasant pattern of work on display due to Auerbach’s consistency in his choice of subject matter. On show are some landscapes, views of his studio (unchanged since 1954), and repetitive portraits of his old mistress (E.O.W.), and his wife Julia.

Head of J.Y.M II 1984-85, Private collection. © Frank Auerbach
Head of J.Y.M II 1984-85, Private collection. © Frank Auerbach

While consistency and routine seems very much the status quo, all you need to do is flick open the gallery leaflet for an insight into what the artist is pursuing with his art. That is to reveal something new with every piece of work, thus revealing and discovering a new side to the subject. This fascination in portraiture in particular is a breath of fresh air due to its sincerity. This sincerity comes through in the materials and the expressiveness of the technique, which is reinforced by the use of the same sitters.

Variety also comes in the colour used by the artist. However, the palette remains muted even when primary colours are used due to the subtlety and skill used in the way the different pigments are combined. Contrast comes through beautifully as a result of this. Keep an eye out for “Head of J.Y.M” in the 1990s room for a wonderfully dark painting that stands out in the depth and sense of movement created.

Moving along to the 1990s, a sight of slightly pastel shades is a welcomed visual variation. This is of course combined with the characteristic layering of oil paint and contrasting colours which create at once simple and complex pieces. Simple in the subject matter and composition, and complex in the manner he delivers this. It is then no surprise to hear that Auerbach is known for his self criticism, something which sometimes makes him scrape away a sitting’s worth of work once deemed less than satisfactory. This intensity of spirit and unyielding work ethic is visible in paintings that painted by anyone else wold seem juvenile and almost naïve in their approach.

By the 6th room, the 2000s, the maturity of the work is undeniable. It is safe to say therefore that Frank Auerbach has more than achieved his goal. Not that he is looking for reinforcement or approval. However, each painting is tells its own story and shows a side of the sitter that is not captured in previous depictions. Portraits and landscapes show development of that same sitter or interior as it evolves over decades, beautifully displayed side by side in some parts of the exhibition. Seeing this enables the viewer to truly appreciate Auerbach’s ability to explore a subject with the commitment and perseverance that is very rare in the practice of other practicing artists today.

By Alexandra Constantine

19 October – 13 March 2016 at Tate Modern, London