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
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
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.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015