In honor of the Frank Auerbach's major retrospective currently on at the TATE in London, which runs until March 2016, I'm publishing here some of my father's articles on Auerbach. During the 80s Peter referenced Auerbach as one of the best British of the 20th Century. It was because Auerbach looked out at the world, transformed it with his imagination into a beautiful experience unique only to him and gave us a window to that experience on the canvas "The Aesthetic Dimension".
Auerbach's Kerygma by Peter Fuller 1986
In 1983, after seeing an exhibition by Frank Auerbach at Marlborough Fine Art, I wrote that 'Auerbach is one of the very few painters working in Europe or America today of whom it is possible to say with any degree of credibility that here ... is a master in the making.' I remain convinced of the rightness of this judgement, and I applaud without qualification the decision that Frank Auerbach's paintings and drawings should have represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1986.
The British Pavilion contained twenty-four paintings and eight drawings, from the period 1977-85, all made since Auerbach's Hayward Gallery retrospective of 1978. Some, like the exemplary Head of Julia II, 1980, Portrait of Catherine Lampert, 1981-2, and To the Studio II, 1982, were included in his 1983 exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery. Others, like Primrose Hill, 1980, were exhibited in the gallery's New York space the previous year. Most, however, have not been previously shown in public. Nonetheless, the subject matter of the paintings was familiar to those who have followed Auerbach's work in recent years. There are heads of his, so to speak, long-standing sitters, like Gerda Boehm and 'J.Y.M.' [see plate 15a]; views of Primrose Hill and of the approach to his studios; and recent studies of a new model, Debbie Ratcliff. Each of the drawings is a large work in charcoal, or chalk and charcoal, of the head of a different sitter. In addition to studies of Auerbach's familiar circle there were drawings of his son Jacob, Charlotte Podro, and David Landau.
Yet I found myself wondering why no recent nude study was included in the Venice exhibition. The quality of the little Reclining Nude of 1984-5, exhibited in a mixed show at Marlborough, was exceptional. I would also have liked to see the great charcoal head of Jacob, owned by Ron Kitaj, among the drawings. But these are mere quibbles. Since his retrospective, Auerbach has produced a body of work which should convince the most jaundiced sceptic that the best achievements of British art today require no apology and no cringing deference to New York or Diisseldorf.
The root of Auerbach's greatness lies in a quality which has long characterised the British tradition. I am referring to the value he places upon empiricism. Again and again, in interviews, Auerbach has drawn attention to 'this recalcitrant, inescapable thereness of what I call every-day objects'. His is an art which springs out of 'fact', which, he says, 'is a kind of sheet anchor' holding interior imagination to external reality. He has described his painting as 'the re-invention of the physical world', and insisted, 'everything else comes from that'. But his relentless commitment to the object denies neither imagination, nor the influence of a profound sense of tradition.
Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931, but before his eighth birthday he was sent to safety in England. 'I . . . didn't in fact see again anybody who I had seen before, that I remembered,' he wrote. This is significant given his fidelity to his models, his dislike of any sort of change in his working habits or personal environment - he has painted in the same London studio since 1954. It also inflects his commitment to the present object and his yearning for a place within tradition. In 1947 he came to London without any clear idea of what he was going to do, although he fantasised about being an actor. After a time he began to attend art classes, first in Hampstead, and later those run by David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic. I do not want to down-play Bomberg's influence on Auerbach, but perhaps I, and others, have focused too exclusively on this association in the past. Auerbach was only a full-time student of Bomberg's for two terms, and also studied at St Martin's and the Royal College. He is, in fact, the heir to a wider and more generous tradition than that pursued within 'The School of Bomberg'.
It is worth looking back to that moment of Auerbach's first exhibition at the Beaux-Arts Gallery in 1956. That year was a turning-point in which the destiny of British art was determined for some time to come. The outward signs of change were the dissolution of the 'Kitchen Sink' school, after its showing at that year's Venice Biennale; the emergence of a degrading 'Pop' sensibility in the Whitechapel's exhibition, This is Tomorrow; and the arrival in Britain of Abstract Expressionism, first seen in the final room of the Tate Gallery's show, Modern Art in the United States. Auerbach may not have realised it, but these events heralded rapid cultural changes which ensured that his genius did not receive its due for more than twenty years.
Take first the demise of the 'Kitchen Sink' school. In the early 1950s, John Berger had been pressing the case for what he called a new 'realism' in English painting. Whatever he meant by realism, Berger clearly did not intend naturalistic involvement with appearances, nor was he interested in 'Socialist Realism'. He seemed to be in search of something much closer to Auerbach's 're-invention of the physical world'. Berger stressed that the emergence of a British 'realism' was a matter of potential, rather than realised achievement, but John Bratby was an early embodiment of his hopes. 'Bratby,' he wrote, 'paints as though he sensed that he only had one more day to live.' Berger felt that Bratby depicted a packet of cornflakes 'as thought it were part of a Last Supper', landscapes, 'as if seen from a prison cell', and his wife 'as though she were staring at him through a grille and he was never to see her again'.
By 1956, Berger had convinced the art establishment, and John Bratby, Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch, and Jack Smith - 'The Kitchen Sink School' - were dispatched to the British Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. But it was hardly a moment of triumph. The limitations of the work produced by this group became apparent even to its members. With the exception of Derrick Greaves - at best a mediocre painter - all underwent a dramatic change of direction. Berger promptly renounced Bratby and Smith: 'Once Bratby scrutinized his surroundings - greedily - like a man under arrest being led down a street to the police station. Now he signs for things and it is the validity of his chits to which he clings.'
From this moment on, Berger became disillusioned with all British art. But Auerbach, holed up in his Camden Town studios, was beginning to realise that vision of the external world - born of despair, yet somewhere redolent with the glints and promises of redemption and release - which had eluded Bratby. Auerbach's early works were like those of a man thrown in a cell and left with only his own excrement out of which to create a vision of freedom.
Even so, Berger did not respond favourably to the encrusted and accreted paintings which Auerbach exhibited at the Beaux- Arts in 1956. 'They looked,' Berger wrote disapprovingly, 'as if they had been painted in the dark with a candle and a stick.' David Sylvester, probably the most visually perceptive of the critics of the 1950s, also stressed the 'morbidly tactile' qualities of Auerbach's pictures. But Sylvester saw that they gave expression to a sort of existential realism, and provided 'a sensation curiously like that of running our fingertips over the contours of a head near us in the dark, reassured by its presence, disturbed by its otherness, doubting what it is, and then whether it is'.
By 1959, Berger was more sympathetic: he argued that Auerbach's paintings themselves had changed. 'The inert deadness of the mud in Auerbach's earlier paintings becomes elequent now about the weather and the depth dug in building sites, just as in the nudes it becomes eloquent about the substance of flesh.' This capacity to speak eloquently of lived experience of physical reality was to intensify as the years passed. In the foreword to the catalogue of Auerbach's retrospective, nineteen years later, Leon Kossoff compared Auerbach's landscapes, heads and nudes to 'a gleam of light and warmth and life' in the darkness. He went on to say that, in spite of the excessive piling on of paint, 'the effect of these works on the mind is of images recovered and reconceived in the barest and most particular light, the same light that seems to glow through the late, great, thin Turners'.
The comparison is just. Later Auerbach is not only a long, long way from the excremental rawness of his early vision; it convinces us with the authority of genius. But while Auerbach had been finding this light, Berger had fallen silent concerning his work, and contemporary art in general. Other critics, and the institutions of art, were looking elsewhere. The signing of chits, in preference to painting out of any sense of conviction or ethical commitment, was coming into vogue. If Bratby had any influence it was because he had painted cornflakes packets, not because of the heightened sense of reality, or existential despair, he may once have possessed. Between 1957 and 1976 the odious betrayals of Pop art, and the pursuit of empty American fashions proceeded apace. In 1957, the year that Richard Hamilton described art as 'popular', 'transient', 'expendable', 'mass produced', 'young', 'witty', 'sexy', 'gimmicky', 'glamorous' and 'big business', David Bomberg died in obscurity - unable even to secure a teaching post.
Auerbach was utterly unaffected by the new fashions. Like Bomberg before him, he stood for an older, and I would say better artistic ethic. None of the concerns of the moment seemed to interest him at all. His art sprang out of his immediate relationship to the persons, things and places who constituted his day-to-day London life. He has always regarded television as a 'barbarous invention', and there is no indication that things American have had the slightest effect on his development as a painter. He was indifferent to the stance of 'commercialism' and 'professionalism', so loudly vaunted by the shallow painters of the 'Pop' and 'Situation' tendencies. But Auerbach continued, daily, to grow as an artist, nurturing himself through his relentless fidelity to the practice of drawing, and through an ever-deepening, enriching and enabling sense of tradition.
In the past I have stressed the importance of drawing to what Auerbach does, and Kossoff, too, has rightly made note of the constant application of 'true draughtsmanship' in Auerbach's work. Here I want to say something about the role of tradition in shaping his achievement. These days, the influence of tradition is something like that of a Protestant's God: the artist must seek it out (perhaps even invent it for himself), in a state of humility, before it can save him. Auerbach has accepted the redemption offered by the great masterpieces of the past. As he put it, 'Without these touchstones we'd be floundering. Painting is a cultured activity - it's not like spitting, one can't kid oneself.' One strand in the healing tradition he has chosen is that which runs from Hogarth's The Shrimp Girl, through Constable - especially the late Constable - and Sickert, into the later work of Bomberg.
Catherine Lampert mentions the Constable connection in her catalogue introduction for the Venice exhibition. She quotes Auerbach (who greatly esteems Constable) as saying that he wanted to make masterpieces out of the scenes, incidents and objects of his everyday life in much the same way that Constable turned to 'what they called at the time rotten tree stumps and old barges'. Similarly, Sickert relished the common-or-garden life of Camden Town, where Auerbach still lives. He insisted that the plastic arts 'flourish in the scullery, or on the dung-hill', but 'fade at a breath from the drawing-room'. Even so, Sickert sometimes seemed trapped. Though he refused 'the sordid or superficial details of the subject', what lay beyond them when one confronted the world without belief? This problem also dogged many of the followers of Bomberg. An abstract, philosophical belief in 'The Spirit in the Mass' was not enough. Auerbach remembers the 'anonymous cloudy pieces of paper' of the Bomberg School, 'which had absolutely nothing cheap or nasty about them'. But, he strikes a chord in my heart when he adds, 'In competition with the great paintings of the world, which also have a cutting image like superb posters, these drawings would seem like defenceless little molluscs.'
Painting in the illuminating shadow of Hadleigh Castle, Auerbach was possessed of grand ambitions which stretched beyond a vague 'adumbration of something . . . organic and particular'. Recent taste has placed far too much emphasis on Constable's sketches and not enough on the soaring transformations of those sketches into 'The Grand Machines'. Claude was, after all, as important to Constable as the momentary effects of light to which he attended so scrupulously. Concluding his exemplary study of Constable, Malcolm Cormack writes, 'His method of working in oil with combinations of glazes and thick impasto, gave his works a richness of texture that took on a life of its own ... He had imagined himself driving a nail to secure realism, but in the end he found himself constructing a ''noble'' art, concerned with the ''beautifull'' [sic], and "grandeur", in abstract terms.' Exactly the same could be said of Auerbach.
The relationship between memory, experience, and tradition is one which haunts Auerbach's work. It was vividly expressed in something he said to Catherine Lampert: 'I think that Le bain Turc is really much better than anything in one's memory but it isn't quite as good as a lot of people in a Turkish bath. But if you're actually in a room with a person you can have the Ingres, Michelangelos and Rembrandts round the walls, but the person will have something that they haven't got, and it's that something that's the next project for the painter.'
I do not know Frank Auerbach, but this is how I imagine him: I see him as a man alone in a room, filled with abundant evidence of the sordid and superficial facts of our material existence. Around him, on the walls, are the great masterpieces of Western art: the Michelangelos, Rembrandts, and Ingres. In front of him, on a stool, is a naked person, whom Auerbach is drawing with a scrupulous intensity. The moment is as intimate, immediate, and tentative as Constable's attention to the passage of cloud shadows across the fields. And yet, without allowing the fact to intrude bombastically into his consciousness, Auerbach is aware that what he wants to come out of the encounter is as aesthetically ambitious as those Michelangelos, Rembrandts and Ingres. Such desires are rare enough in art today, but with these pictures he is on the way to realising those hopes.
There is more I want to say about Auerbach, much more. Some day, the contrast between his achievement and the injurious degradation proffered by Francis Bacon will have to be drawn more fully. Bacon, it seems to me, is incapable of bringing about the 'redemption through form' which springs out of every mark which Auerbach now makes. Bacon's art speaks of necrophilia and decay. In Auerbach, even a dung-hill or scullery sink of paint glimmers and flickers with a light which affirms the possibilities of life.
Once we have seen the greatness which is proclaimed through Auerbach's paintings, we find that, despite ourselves, we are involved in what theologians call a kerygma - or a call to a decision. For we cannot engage with Auerbach's achievement and then return to a celebration of anaesthesia, 'modernity' and 'relevance', without making fools of ourselves. If we profess to believe that Richard Hamilton, Victor Burgin, or Malcolm Morley are also good, in their own way, we have failed to confront the true stature of Auerbach's achievement. Of course, Auerbach is far from being blind to the modern world, but his stance towards it is anguished and critical, constantly informed by his awareness of the superior cultural achievements of the past. Indeed, it seems to me not unlike that of the historian Maurice Cowling, who has written, 'modernity is the practice we have and the life we lead, and . . . we have all to accept it and live as it commands us, even when we despise it'. Howard Hodgkin's Venice contribution in 1984 was in every way admirable, but Auerbach produced a body of work which was surely the finest Britain has sent to Venice since Henry Moore was shown alongside Turner in 1948, or Barbara Hep worth alongside Constable in 1950. Let up hope we have reached a turning point, and that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.