Frank Auerbach, Tate Britain, review: ‘A vision pushed to its extreme’

Hampstead Road, High Summer, 2010

Hampstead Road, High Summer, 2010 - Credit: Archant

The new retrospective reveals a compulsive revisionist who has painted the same scenes around his Mornington Crescent studio for 60 years, says Alison Oldham.

Frank Auerbach is sceptical of the value of talking about art. “Painting is a dumb activity, it has its own language,” he once told Sir Norman Reid, then Tate director. “And it is, of course, essential to watch what the conjurer does and not listen to his patter.” But sometimes Auerbach’s “patter” rings true for his own work.

The first issue of X magazine, in 1959, included Fragments from a Conversation where he told writer Elizabeth Smart that he felt a disease, a form of weakness, made him turn to painting but that he found it entertaining. This chimes with his compulsive revisions of urban landscapes and portraits of a cast of sitters, working in the studio every day, and with his description of painting as “fantastic fun”.

But the sentence from X that resonated after seeing Auerbach’s current Tate Britain exhibition was this: “The thing that gives me a thrill about other people’s paintings – paintings that I’d cross the road to see – is a vision pushed to its extreme.”

If you saw his paintings from over the road, you would be compelled to cross then retrace your steps to recapture the first impression because they go through such surprising changes as distance varies.

This is most apparent in earlier paintings where he built up layers of oil paint in pursuit of his vision, as in the head of the main figure of E.O.W., S.A.W. and J.J.W. in the Garden I. Early in the 60s he took to scraping paint off the picture at the end of the day until he was satisfied with a version. He reckons 95 percent ends up in the bin.

The heavy impasto characterising his paintings means reproductions cannot do them justice. Surfaces shimmer and vibrate. Portraits are imbued with the presence of the sitter. Images of streets and urban green spaces are a perpetual game of lost and found.

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He suggested the selection of the first six galleries with sparsely hung works grouped by decades but not chronologically. Curator Catherine Lampert, an art historian who has sat for him for 37 years, chose works for the final two galleries to complement his choices.

Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931, the descendant of a line of rabbis though his father was a patent lawyer. He was sent to England in 1939 and four years later learned his parents had died in Auschwitz.

He attended a boarding school in Kent, moved to London in1947 and took art classes at Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute and Borough Polytechnic. He continued to attend David Bomberg’s life drawing classes there after enrolling at St Martin’s School of Art then the Royal College of Art.

He also worked as an actor and met Estella (Stella) Olive West in 1948 when both were in a Ustinov play. He has depicted her as E.O.W. in some 80 portraits. It was his first experience of painting someone with whom he was physically and emotionally involved: “The business of catching her, as she felt to me to be, became far more urgent than producing a painting or drawing.”

In 1954 he began renting a studio near Mornington Crescent, formerly occupied by Leon Kossoff. Auerbach taught in colleges, including the Slade, where students recall his critique of their painting was frequently: Wipe it off with a turpsy rag and start again.

This stimulating exhibition includes an early drawing, Self-Portrait 1958, executed with such vigour it needed patching, and a mythological landscape, The Origin of the Great Bear 1967 – 68, is set on Hampstead Heath, with dog walkers and the Royal Free.

Seven recent paintings of the area near his studio and of its interior are previously unseen. They include Hampstead Road, High Summer 2010, whose jogger with backpack is a sign of the times, as labourers with wheelbarrows were on building site paintings of the 1950s. “This part of London is my world,” he says. “I’ve been wandering around these streets for so long that I’ve become attached to them and as fond of them as people are of their pets.”

Until March 13 at Tate Britain, Millbank SW1. Daily 10am to 6pm. £16/£14. Marlborough Fine Art in Mayfair’s exhibition of Auerbach paintings and drawings from tomorrow until November 21. 6 Albemarle Street W1.