Visual Arts: Playing a small trick with time

Frank Auerbach Marlborough Fine Art Gallery, London

Since 1954, Frank Auerbach has worked in the same north London studio. For over 40 years he has painted the streets of Mornington Crescent, Camden Town and Primrose Hill as well as portraits of his family and closest friends. Through his work he has tied himself to familiar places and people. They have replaced the roots that he left behind in Nazi Germany when he came to England, aged eight, in 1939.

For many years Auerbach was hailed as a master in the making. He was always deemed to be good, but never quite great. More recently he has been rather taken for granted, widely regarded as one of our finest living painters, but one who has probably said all that he has to say. His recent paintings and drawings, roughly the last six years' work, suggest that this is not the case. He has adopted a brighter, broader palette, and the mood is warmer and more cheerful than in the past. The subjects are the same, now familiar, streets and faces, but their combined effect is one of powerful intimacy not repetition.

Auerbach's style has changed a little over the years. He used to pile the paint on layer over layer, working slowly and re-working, searching for the image and building a deep surface of paint. The effect was sometimes muddy, a little cloying, sometimes more like corrosion. A while ago he stopped piling it on and began to scrape back the surface between sessions. He still paints thickly: there are still sweeps and rolls of pure paint squeezed straight from the tube, but the sense of in-built history, of the painting's own past behind the final image, is achieved in a more subtle way. A painted portrait can take Auerbach well over 100 sittings to complete, yet the final strokes that define the face are made in a few moments. This is perhaps what he means by defining painting as "playing a small trick with time".

Up close these pictures are often unreadable, lost in the lines of paint, but they are almost always revealed at a distance. It is a mystery how he does this. At arm's length they hardly make sense. One wonders if he has his brush tied to the end of a broomstick. The drawings are the same, but almost more so: at pencil distance they seem like a series of chaotic scribbles, but from afar they are definite and very deliberate portraits.

Auerbach rarely makes prints, but a handful of etchings included in the current exhibition (the best of which is a fantastic little Giacometti- like portrait of his old friend Lucian Freud) show that his constant reworkings, the rubbing out of pencil or scraping back of paint, is a process of seeking the image rather than hiding mistakes. You can't get away with mistakes in copper plate: all the marks remain behind the final image, as in a way they remain behind all of Auerbach's work.

To 15 Feb (0171-629 5161)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices