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
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
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.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most