With a career of more than 60 years so far, Frank Auerbach is undoubtedly one of the big beasts of the British art world. His personal reticence, however, and the condensed, impacted idiom of his painting have contributed to his enigmatic, somewhat opaque reputation. Catherine Lampert, who has sat regularly and patiently for him since 1978, is uniquely qualified to throw light both on the man and his art, but the tactics she employs here are very different from those of Martin Gayford in Man with a Blue Scarf, his intimate, engrossing account of sitting for Lucian Freud.
Matching Auerbach’s reticence with her own, she keeps herself largely out of the story, focusing instead on observations made by the artist over the many decades of his career. These she patches together with her own comments into a composite picture as nuanced as any of Auerbach’s own portraits, fruit as they are of many years of working and reworking, trial and error, building up and paring down.
Auerbach’s range of subjects is deliberately narrow — street scenes round Camden, portraits and interiors, each new painting emerging from a profound engagement with the familiar. He searches deep rather than ranging wide, rooted firmly in the studio, painting the same handful of lovers and friends obsessively over the decades in dizzying swirls of impasto. He only travels if he has to, invited abroad by a museum, gallery or biennale; when once challenged on his lack of daring he replied:
The daring I’m talking about is simple daring in painting. I’m naturally timid. I’m frightened of heights, I can’t swim, I can’t drive, I’m afraid of large dogs. It seems to me to be sensible to avoid the seaside, bridges and alsatians. Painting is a relatively safe way to be courageous.