After you, master, after you

Frank Auerbach attempts to link the past with the present in his modern-day interpretations of Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian. Tom Lubbock finds it all rather puzzling

The National Gallery has rather straightforward ideas about keeping up tradition. It likes it when distinguished artists of the present day come in, and do new, in-their-own style versions of pictures in the collection. It takes on Associate Artists and gives them a studio in the building in order to foster these visible connections between past and present; to say, look we're alive!

Frank Auerbach is not one such artist. He hardly ever does that sort of "project'', but he's been a great user of the gallery. He goes there and makes drawings from pictures, and mostly this is for inspiration, as an aid to working things out in his work. Sometimes, though, these drawings have been used to make paintings specifically "after'' other paintings. Over the years he's done this with a Rembrandt, a Titian and more recently with another Rembrandt and a Rubens.

These paintings, together with a mass of drawings, are now on display: "Frank Auerbach and the National Gallery: Working after the Masters". It's a puzzling business.

I may as well admit that even in the normal way I don't really know what Auerbach's doing when he paints something. Some experience of his subjects (sitter in the studio, view outdoors) is being grasped and rendered in those often hardly legible swerves and bolts of pigment - but the motive seems to be neither visual nor psychological; not a reconstruction of the complexities of perception, not expressive distortion. You can sense a struggle and find the results intensely vivid, solid and delightful without seeing what the terms of engagement are.

But whatever they are, I'd have supposed they wouldn't grip if the matter in hand was itself a picture. For isn't his painterly struggle provoked, somehow, by the living substance and the changeability of people and landscapes? (He never does still lives.) How does that figure when the subject is already flat and fixed? For viewers, on the other hand, this fact may be a help. We can't ever know just what the experience was in the studio or out on Primrose Hill. But here we follow him. We can see the old paintings and then see what he's done "after" (with, to, from) them. Something might get clearer.

The earliest of these revisions, from 1961, takes off from Rembrandt's small Lamentation over the Dead Christ and takes off far. Enormously bigger, browns and golds gone monochrome, it involves a drastic formal reduction in which all the verticals and diagonals become an elementary linear scaffolding. The crucified thieves vanish. The sole figurative remains are the Deposition group at the bottom, deposited in cold, fat whites. But cross-reference back to the Rembrandt shows in fact that it's not essential. Only its gravity is remembered. This is a new and independent picture.

It's not quite like that with Bacchus and Ariadne (1971). Titian's stop- motion event is here a confusion of those stick figures Auerbach sometimes puts in his landscapes - such a confusion that you immediately look to the Titian, but even then it's nearly impossible to decipher. So many of the strokes are zapping bits of energy. The colours have gone wild. You start to give up on correspondences. It's gone beyond being a commentary - still, not quite far enough beyond. The picture goes entirely on its own road. It's in a half-dependency, not fully in communication with the Titian, not quite re-created either.

In the recent re-workings from Rembrandt's Belshazzar's Feast (1990) and Rubens' Samson and Delilah (1993) the dependency is more thorough, and in the end awkward. The Belshazzar is partly an improvement - it gets a dynamic twist into the king's sudden gesture which in Rembrandt is stiffly effete - though the story bit is hard to keep alive. Rembrandt's glimmering writing on the wall can't be omitted, but is rendered literally as "WRITI NG ON T WALL" (sic), roughly lettered in a cartoon speech bubble; an odd sort of joke again, where nothing else is.

The two versions of Samson are also close, when you sort them out. They look like their original: Auerbached and losing its point in the translation. They prove that Rubens' drama can't survive this kind of re-rendering. It depends on its nuances of facial and bodily expression, of lighting and texture: precisely what Auerbach is bound to leave out.

Auerbach has said about this Rubens (it's up on the gallery wall): "The great purple knot at the top, like a tear, underscores the fleshy drama with an accompaniment of poignancy and waste ... it's quite obvious that she's betraying him, that he's ruined and that she loves him", and that's well said. But it's obvious, too, that this is not the kind of thing one would ever say about a picture by Auerbach. He works from a quite different base.

What sort of connection between past and present is established here? It's most alive when most remote, when - as in the Lamentation picture - the memories are distant and we aren't teased with those intimations of likeness that only point to what's gone. The Bacchus and Ariadne, too, really bizarre as it is, wins something from its suggestion that Auerbach has caught the mythical incident happening again on Primrose Hill. Some of the drawings are terrific.

More Auerbach can be seen at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in "From London" - a big group showing of the "School of London" - or rather, "the so-called School of London". It was named by the painter RB Kitaj almost 20 years ago, grouping together Auerbach with Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff and Michael Andrews (who died a fortnight ago), and ever since then it's been contested. Whether or not there is really such an entity, the coinage was undoubtedly canny.

By now, the slogan has surely done its work, at least in Britain. Each of those artists is as famous as need be, and the grouping has become a cliche. So "From London", which features the core six, feels simply belated. If it's a representative selection of work by those six you want to see, then fine; it's very well chosen and very well displayed. But it's time to be making new comparisons.

n 'Frank Auerbach and the National Gallery: Working after the Masters' until 17 Sept. (0171-839 3321); 'From London' at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, until 5 Sept. (0131-556 8921)

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?