Why Frank Auerbach still paints from the same cramped Camden Town studio

PUBLISHED: 13:40 21 July 2015 | UPDATED: 13:47 21 July 2015

Frank's studio interior, May 1985. Picture: Prudence Cuming Associates

Frank's studio interior, May 1985. Picture: Prudence Cuming Associates

Archant

His work now sells for more than £2million, and the world famous artist is now enjoying a new retrospective, finds Bridget Galton.

A young Frank Auerbach at Bunce CourtA young Frank Auerbach at Bunce Court

Catherine Lampert has enjoyed a rare insight into the working life of one of our greatest living artists.

For 37 years, the art historian has travelled from her Dalston home to sit for Frank Auerbach at his Mornington Crescent studio.

During the weekly sessions she has witnessed the 84-year-old’s dramatic work process – using gobbets of paint, then often scraping his efforts from the canvas and starting afresh.

“What he needs in his sitters is complete reliability,” she says.

“He works in an extreme way. The drama in this small studio is amazing. It’s very messy, blotting the canvas and scraping tubes and tubes of paint every day – his paint bills are extraordinary.

“Sitters must stay out of the way but it’s a fantastic way to have a friendship. You see each other every week year after year, your life passes by and the artist’s life goes on.”

It’s this task of restlessly trying to fix the indefinable quality of the changing people and places around him that Auerbach wrestles with for months, sometimes years, until an image emerges.

Lampert now has the unusual experience of curating a major retrospective that includes portraits of herself.

Featuring 73 works painted between 1953 and 2014 it opens at Tate Britain in October.

Mornington Crescent Summer Morning 1966 by Frank AuerbachMornington Crescent Summer Morning 1966 by Frank Auerbach

But first she’s published Frank Auerbach Speaking and Painting (Thames & Hudson £19.95) using her intimate conversations and published interviews for a part biography part examination of the two halves of Auerbach’s work; urban landscapes and portraiture.

“I’ve heard Frank talk every week for 37 years, he’s extremely articulate and can be very funny. Because he’s alone a lot of the time, when the sitters come he tends to explode with interest in what they are up to. I bring in news of younger generations of artists from my work in the contemporary art world. It’s a proper exchange.”

Famously private, Auerbach paints 365 days a year, often sleeping in his studio and rising at daybreak to repeatedly paint the same subjects.

“He used to have lots of sitters but there are now just four of us in the same chair in the same position in Mornington Crescent,” says Lampert, who met the artist in 1978 while working on an exhibition at The Hayward.

“He is interested in us as people living our life experiences, and changing. He wants to pin down things he cares about in his life and experience. If it doesn’t work he scrapes it all off and starts entirely afresh.

“He gets a new idea for a picture, he gets closer to the end, you feel the tension building, he seems to be on such a high, but very often it still doesn’t work, he is not happy.”

Returning to the same subject is highly unusual in portraiture Lampert points out.

“By doing it repeatedly he has changed the perameters of the portrait.

“He thinks you can never exhaust a subject, you can see differences; a detail of a picture; a man with a backpack running across Hampstead Road, 
somehow doesn’t look like the it could be the 80s. He used to paint The Camden Palace, now it’s KOKO when he goes out to draw at daybreak he comes across club people spilling out at 5am.”

Restricting himself to within 20 minutes of his studio has a practical side - Auerbach brings back the drawings, pins them to the wall and gets working on his ideas until his energy fades and “it’s impossible to go on any longer”.

Like his friends and contemporaries Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud and RB Kitaj, Auerbach hails from a Jewish background, and like Freud was forced to flee Nazi oppression in the 1930s.

Departing Germany unaccompanied aged seven, he was lucky to find sanctuary at Bunce Court in Kent, a progressive boarding school transplanted from Germany following the rise of Hitler, that was mostly staffed by German refugees.

There his love of art was encouraged and eventually “took precedent over everything else in this life”.

Lampert speculates that losing hi parents in the Holocaust at an early age, and growing up in post war London may have influenced Auerbach’s decision to focus on the present.

“After the war he found London almost sexy - the landscape was building sites which was exciting. We had survived the war but were faced with the atom bomb and Because no-one expected to survive time was precious, you didn’t look back. That’s how Frank is, he only cares about what he is doing now not what he has done in the past.

“He lives in the immediate present, it’s all about the act of creation and solving problems by instinct and surprise.”

Lampert is delighted that Auerbach’s reputation for expressive brilliance has grown in recent years.

“He’s still not in all the big international collections but his reputation is soaring. It’s taken a long time to see the acceptance of post war art and for the British artists of his generation to penetrate, but it’s changing.”

For himself, Auerbach has never been interested in honours or wealth. He’s even, says Lampert, “pretty indifferent” to his own exhibitions.

“He’s had the same studio since 1954. It’s pretty cramped, his habits haven’t changed, except he takes minicabs now where previously he would have sat on a bus for an hour.

“He’s impatient, he feels time is running out and hates distractions like meeting journalists or people about the show - anything that takes him away from the studio and spending his remaining energy on painting.”

Asked recently what motivated him, Auerbach replied he was “looking forward to making a few more paintings and having an easy death”, which as Lampert points out, “seems a reasonable request.”

As for curating his retrospective, Lampert insists she can view her own portraits dispassionately.

“Sitting is so much a part of my life, I always come out in a good mood but not because my own picture has been done. If I look at a picture from 20 years ago sometimes I remember what I was thinking. People who know me can recognise gestures but when choosing pictures for the exhibition I am no more attached to those pictures than to any other sitters. He has a different relationship to each subject and you can see that different emotional engagement. Just as people themselves aren’t fixed, there is movement of time and experience.”

Frank Auerbach retrospective runs at Tate Britain from October 9.

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