Frank Auerbach (born 1931) is one of the most interesting artists working in Europe today, a philosophical painter of reality who works and re-works his pictures before he discovers something new, something worth saving. William Feaver, in this grand new monograph, calls Auerbach’s paintings ‘feats of concentration’, and stresses the hard work which goes into their construction, despite their appearance of spontaneity. Feaver has a gift for the evocative phrase: ‘Studied yet impulsive, ranging from darkness to radiance and from the declamatory to the subdued, they are keyed to an air of resolve as unguarded as joy, as involuntary as grief.’ This is a book strong on context. Auerbach emerges as a very considerable artist from Feaver’s aphoristic, closely observed and widely referential text.
The writing is kept to a refreshing minimum: I counted about 17 pages of analytical text plus six of lively interview in a volume containing more than 200 full-page colour plates. The introduction offers a portrait of the man, going out every morning to draw a local landscape subject and then returning to his north London studio to work on a series of portraits of his intimate friends and relations. Auerbach says: ‘What I wanted to do was record the life that seemed to me to be passionate and exciting and that was disappearing all the time.’ He couldn’t bear the idea that existence was finite and transitory, so has striven to capture its essence in his poignant and original paintings. The way in which he has single-mindedly pursued this ambition is almost as remarkable as the body of work which has resulted.
Feaver’s enjoyably compact text explores Auerbach’s deracinated background, his arrival in England aged eight, a German Jew whose parents stayed behind and vanished in the Holocaust, and his early years at the co-educational Bunce Court. At school his friends and contemporaries included the future playwright Frank Marcus and the future film-maker Michael Roemer. Auerbach thought of writing and acted in a number of walk-on parts, meeting Stella West, who as EOW became one of his best-known models over the next 25 years. He went to art school at St Martin’s and then the Royal College, and in 1952 painted Summer Building Site, the first picture of his mature style. His early work, defined by Feaver as ‘landscape into portraiture and portraiture into landscape, tangible spaces, intimacy and distance reconciled’, is distinguished by its thickly painted surfaces, built up into great puckered mounds and crevasses of pigment. In later years, Auerbach took to scraping it all off and starting again, and nowadays paints relatively thinly, but then he was a master of accretion.
The paintings he produced have a presence that is undeniable, a physical record of time passed in psychic struggle. A portrait might take 300 sittings over two years, and a landscape of Primrose Hill would not be resolved any more easily. Lines of force, rather than gestures, animate Auerbach’s paintings. Feaver refers memorably to the directional brushstrokes in such pictures: ‘they override every prospect, surfing the image, conducting the eye’. This book is not the typical narrative of an artist’s career, more a brief excursion deep into Auerbach’s world and mind. Painting the same subjects does not produce staleness and repetition, nor the contempt traditionally ascribed to familiarity. In fact, Auerbach states that ‘to paint the same head over and over leads to unfamiliarity; eventually you get near the raw truth about it.’ Feaver comments: ‘Constancy makes for opportunity and feeds the impetus for surprise. Then it’s a matter of focus and nerve.’
The superb array of colour plates is followed by a complete catalogue of Auerbach’s paintings and major drawings from 1950 to date. These are illustrated as large-ish thumbnails, eight or nine to a page, and list 987 works. Among the finest are the big charcoal drawings, the early reclining nudes, the recent acrylic heads of Julia and the Park Village East landscapes. This substantial boxed volume is an invaluable resource. The writing is vivid and visual, a good match for the painting. Perhaps Feaver has re-worked his text much as Auerbach re-paints. Certainly he has given us something new and fresh. It’s been worth waiting for.