Auerbach & the art of painting

Frank Auerbach has finally found himself in the limelight after half a century's quiet dedication to his work . Louise Jury looks back at his career
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The Independent Online

He rarely gives interviews, avoids the art world party circuit and has lived and worked in the same small north London studio without a telephone for the best part of half a century.

But despite the efforts of Frank Auerbach to avoid the spotlight, Sotheby's auctioneers this week predicted that the 75-year-old painter is set to become the next of the older generations of British artists to break the £1m barrier in the salerooms.

Like Bridget Riley and Peter Doig, who both made that leap last year, he has long been an important figure. He represented Britain at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1986 and has enjoyed retrospectives at the Hayward Gallery in 1978 and, more recently, at the Royal Academy.

His work is represented in major collections around the world. Like Leon Kossoff, his close friend since art school, he has won the quiet respect of the art cognoscenti. But he has achieved neither the celebrity nor the prices of another long-standing friend, Lucian Freud.

"Lucian has always been provocative and deliberately sexy with his female and male nudes," said Norman Rosenthal, exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy and one of the curators of Auerbach's 2001 retrospective. "But Frank is not interested as sexiness as a subject. He's interested in the process."

He was born in 1931 in the same city as Freud, Berlin. Both men escaped Nazi Germany to Britain, but whereas Freud came with family, Auerbach's elderly parents stayed behind and he was never to see them again.

He was educated at a progressive boarding school in Kent, went on to study art at St Martin's and then the Royal College of Art where he met Kossoff, who had been born in the East End to Russian Jewish immigrant parents.

"The relationship with Leon was close," Auerbach once explained in a Radio 3 interview with John Tusa. "When we were both students at the Royal College of Art, I think in both of us there was a certain hunger for continuous work from a model which wasn't provided by the art school, [so] we sat for each other for a year, one day a week, so that Leon would sit for an hour and I would paint, and then I would sit for an hour and he would paint."

It was the start of the intense dedication to painting that would continue throughout his working life. The other formative experience of this period was the lessons he and Kossoff attended - against Royal Academy wishes - with the hugely influential painter David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic.

The deeply intelligent, rebellious Bomberg encouraged him to take inspiration from Paul Cézanne. And Auerbach quickly developed his trademark style of layers of paint so heavy that early works were compared to sculpture.

His first major show came at the Beaux-Arts Gallery, London, in 1956 when he was 25. David Sylvester, the eminent critic, called it "the most exciting and impressive first one-man show since Francis Bacon in 1949".

To Auerbach's delight, it was attended by, among others, Freud who was already a major figure. Asked last year what he remembered of the younger artist, Freud said: "I remember thinking, 'What a lot of paint!' When you're an artist yourself, you are always very aware of the technicalities. They were all heaped with paint."

Auerbach's working method might seem eccentric. He builds the work in layers, then scrapes the paint off to leave only an imprint of what has gone before to build on. Rosenthal described it as a paradox. "There is endless painting and drawing," he said. "What he does is he rubs them off then suddenly decides to do the painting on top of the remnants of the lost painting. It's a mixture of the hard-won image and spontaneity."

There is the same obsessiveness in subject matter. His works regularly feature the same handful of streets around his studio and the same limited band of sitters. Principal among them are Julia, his wife and mother of his son, Jake; Juliet Yardley Mills (JYM), a professional model whom he met in 1957; and Estella (Stella) West (EOW), sometime lover and close friend.

Another is David Landau, a businessman who originally contacted Auerbach with a view to commissioning him to paint a portrait of Asa Briggs for Worcester College, Oxford. "I wrote to him that I thought he was the greatest living painter," he said. But having visited him in his studio to discuss it, Mr Landau realised Auerbach would take too long for the busy historian. As he left, however, the visitor asked whether Auerbach would consider painting him.

"He said he would if I was reliable and could sit on Fridays. I've been sitting on Fridays for 24 years," Mr Landau said.

"It's an immense privilege and a great joy. He is a very pleasant person to be with and the most generous person I've ever met. He's given me so many presents. I love doing it and the only challenge is to make sure I can do it. I arrange all my trips to come back Thursday night." And when he really cannot, he sits another day to make amends.

Depending on the mood, they talk while Auerbach works. "Sometimes we talk a lot and we talk mostly about art which is both our passions," said Mr Landau. "We spend a lot of time on whether Velázquez is greater than Titian and vice versa.

"He's an immensely cultured man. Last Friday he recited poetry for an hour by heart, jumping centuries and schools. He was an actor at some point and therefore he is good at learning lines and remembering them.

"He has an extraordinary sense of humour. But he's immensely modest and humble and really stunningly uninterested in what occupies most of our lives - the day-to-day.

"His only reason to live is to paint. Whereas you might say the only important thing is to be charitable or be nice to people and we think about having to call the plumber, Frank doesn't worry about life. He doesn't worry about the fact that he only has one suit. When he goes out, he has the corduroy suit that he has had for 20 years."

For many years, his tiny studio was all that he could afford. "It was sheer economic need," Auerbach admitted to John Tusa. Although it was damp and had an outside loo until it was rebuilt, he clung to it "like a drowning man to a raft".

These days, his works command higher prices and his last show in New York was said to have sold out. "Very recently he's been making more money, but he hasn't changed one iota," said Mr Landau. "He enjoys the simple things."

Auerbach and his wife, whom he met at the Royal College, live largely separate lives (and, indeed, parted entirely for a while under the pressure of his relationship with his model Stella). He lives in his Camden studio by himself except on Wednesdays and the weekends when he is with Julia. At weekends, he sometimes goes to the theatre or the cinema and he reads a great deal.

Like Freud, he is an honoured nocturnal visitor to the National Gallery where he will also attend the occasional show. Presumably he will see the forthcoming solo exhibition there of works by Kossoff. He pops into the Royal Academy, too.

Rosenthal describes both Auerbach and Freud as "dandies". "They adopt ways of life that are not like anyone else's," he said. "They try to be outside the world and society. It's a small circle and a very restricted kind of vision of the world that they communicate, which gives their work a certain power. They're not joiners. He's never wanted to be a member of the Royal Academy because he's not a joiner, just like Lucian. They're not snobs, they're simply not interested in being clubby. They're just interested in their work."

Although Auerbach disputes it, Rosenthal is convinced that the artist's childhood experiences have contributed to his rootedness now. "He is devoted to the life of London. He's a great Expressionist artist in the European tradition, but at the same time he's become almost self-consciously English."

He has marked his turf and sticks to it. "He's got Camden and Primrose Hill, but he's not going to go to Hyde Park or Regent's Park. Even on Primrose Hill, it's three trees. He's very interested in Old Masters and he loves the National Gallery, but he won't go to the Louvre," said Mr Rosenthal.

Auerbach has said that any artist coming after Picasso feels "like a little dog following a brass band". He has described himself as "dogged" and said: "My nature is mole-like. I have to burrow and dig." But in the race between the tortoise and the hare, it was the dogged tortoise that won.

"My only ambition is to make one memorable image," he said at the time of his last retrospective. "And then from there I hope to make another memorable image. And pray to God to make another. That's all. Nothing else."

It seems the art market has finally realised that that is precisely what he has done.

A painter of energy and ferocity

By Michael Glover

He is a great figure painter, but it is the human head which is his primary concern. He uses the same sitters over and over again at his studio in north London, just a handful at any one time. Familiarity is very important to him. Any brash whiff of the new would be noxious to him.

The acts of drawing and paintingare tremendously energetic sessions, with outbursts of bad temper and evident frustration - with himself, the business of his art, the world beyond the window.

He applies single strokes with fury; his painted and drawn lines are often like tiny, thickened bolts of lightning. Then, having made his gouging marks - yes, he often goes right through the surface of the paper and out the other side - he retreats. Having looked, he garumphs to himself, and then probably obliterates what he has just done. No sooner there than gone again.

What he is after is some ghostly essence of a person, some distillation of character, aura and essential mood - all three together. His painted surfaces, which consist of fiercely striated lines, as much slashings as lines, are thick, dense, raked. His painting can look like ploughing. His colours are clotted and dense, rich and dark. There is no flattery and no humour. In fact, there is a mood of ferocity. It is as if the subject has been pinned to the wall, scarified, interrogated beneath a fierce and pitiless light.

The paintings seem not so much concluded as abandoned, left to their fate, without reprieve, without any opportunity for protest. The heads emerge, somewhat reluctantly, from some dark, bruised ground, often lolling sideways, puppet-like, as if too much overburdened with the irresolvable problem of being themselves. His palette is often sombre, but it can suddenly be lit by flashes of yellow and red. It is the nosy yellow of the beam of the malevolent prison warder poking about in the night. Are these people recognisable likenesses? No. But they are very recognisable representations of human beings in extremis.

Like Bacon's writhing bodies, they are portraits of naked appraisal, solitary, anguished, sober musings upon the clangorous fact of the skull which lies just beneath the skin.

Sometimes he strays beyond his studio walls to sniff the air of Primrose Hill, Mornington Crescent. He paints these too, but these paintings lack the gravitas of his engagements with the human. He has been recognised as a modern master for 30 years. Now the sale rooms, those retirement homes for the deaf and the dumb, have noticed.