In 1897, Henri Matisse offered his future wife Amelie an honest warning: “Mademoiselle, I love you dearly, but I shall always love painting more.” Even Matisse’s single-minded devotion to art, though, could not compete with the obsessive intensity of Frank Auerbach’s lifelong love affair with painting.
In 1954, Berlin-born Auerbach began renting a small studio in Camden Town in north London. Six decades later, now aged 84, he still works in the same cramped and modest space every day, without let-up. He used to take off Christmas, but eventually even this austere regimen seemed too lax, so now he insists on painting on Christmas morning too.
Aside from spending prodigious sums on paint – he is famous for impasto portraits and landscapes so craggy that the oils look as if they are about to cascade, landslip-style, onto the floor – his sole luxury is splashing out on minicabs for increasingly infrequent trips to the cinema or theatre.
Within Britain’s art world he is known as a hermit, a holy fool who brooks no disruption to his hair-shirt routine of tussling with paint in the studio. There he either works alone or is visited by one of the handful of loyal confidantes who return, week after week, to sit for their portraits. “I am a beast in a burrow that does not wish to be invaded,” he once said.
Of course, discussing his biography would be anathema to Auerbach, who is the subject of an astonishing new retrospective of around 70 paintings and drawings at Tate Britain – his first major show in this country since an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2001. He’d much rather let his painting do the talking – something that is abundantly clear upon entering the first room of the Tate’s exhibition.
Aside from a terse, dour statement by the artist himself, explaining that he has shaped the “form” of the show by selecting, without interference, six small groups of paintings to represent each decade of his career, there is no introductory text to hand-hold, contextualise or explain: just eight works of art hung simply against Spartan grey walls, including one early, glowering self-portrait in charcoal and chalk, patched together out of scraps of torn paper like a version of Frankenstein’s monster.
This presentation, we soon discover, is typical of the exhibition as a whole. Sparse and tough, it invites us to concentrate hard on the wild ferocity of Auerbach’s art.
There is something primordial about Auerbach’s approach to paint: his figures are like swamp creatures emerging from muck and slime. The first room contains two thickly painted heads: one of his long-term lover Stella West (whom Auerbach customarily refers to in his titles by her initials “E.O.W.”), the other of his friend and fellow School of London painter Leon Kossoff. Both, in Auerbach’s vision, appear as skull-like, troglodytic spectres, snuffling in the dark – mournful icons for the Cold War era.
Nearby, the dingy tones of E.O.W. Nude (1953-54) owe a debt to the deliberately un-idealised, sweaty nudes of the Camden Town Group painter Walter Sickert. Stella’s squidgy, stippled flesh, surrounded by loamy brown, could almost be decomposing, six feet under, before our eyes.
Next to this small painting, one of Auerbach’s earliest mature landscapes – Building Site, Earl’s Court Road, Winter (1953) – glistens darkly, like a slab of dank London mud dug up freshly from the banks of the Thames. Amid all the umber, deep brown and black we can just about make out a reddish structure – scaffolding, perhaps. Really, though, this is a paean to the raw material of Auerbach’s vocation. Here, this “beast” of a painter is burrowing, with relish, ever deeper into his soil-like natural habitat.
Yet this exhibition also reveals that Auerbach does not only specialise in darkness and angst. E.O.W., Nude on Bed (1959) is a hearty Sundayroast of a painting, with hunks of meaty brown offset by broccoli greens, as well as carroty-orange gobbets denoting Stella’s body.
In E.O.W., Half-length Nude (1958), Stella appears with a positively post-orgasmic flush, her face and parts of her torso described by lavish strips of crimson, amid peaks of fluffy flesh like whipped-up cream cake. The painting looks like a subdued version of Kees van Dongen’s sensuous Torso, or The Idol, in the Courtauld Gallery.
The next gallery contains a bravura studio scene with a figure on a bed delineated by nothing but a few quick curls and spurts of scarlet squirted straight from the tube. This is sexy, urgent, risk-taking painting – reminding us that Auerbach’s compositions are rapid performances, recording particular instants in time. (One of the keys to understanding Auerbach is the knowledge that, as a young man, he acted in fringe theatre: his love of performance never left him.) Despite the literal heaviness of the paint, all of his best pictures have this shifting quality – as though they have been wrestled into existence but could equally slip back into oozy nothingness in a trice.
As the exhibition progresses Auerbach’s gift as a colourist comes to the fore. There are a number of memorable landscapes from the Sixties and Seventies in which the hues grow increasingly acidic while Auerbach’s zigzagging strokes seem ever more freewheeling and extravagant.
By the time we hit the Nineties, Auerbach has become positively jaunty: Mornington Crescent – Early Morning (1991), for instance, has a squiggly, artfully casual bounce, perfectly in sync with the “Po-Mo” moment. Some of the later paintings, though, such as Albert Street (2009-10), which seems to explode apart before our eyes, appear scandalously bold to the point of eccentricity.
Much is made of Auerbach’s portraits, which require stamina lasting months or even years on the parts of his sitters, since he takes so long to finish them – each week scraping back paint from the surface of his canvas or board, before starting all over again.
Yet it is surely Auerbach’s landscapes, realised in isolation, which are his true achievement. With great originality, they capture the vigorous, ever-shifting energies of the small patch of the metropolis of which he is the undisputed laureate. There is a clobbering, jackhammering, insistent quality to these images, as though the paint has been splashed and smeared using a bulldozer. I mean this as a compliment.
Auerbach does not make pretty pictures in any conventional sense. But their force is undeniable. He once said, “What I’m trying to make is a stonking, independent, coherent image that has never been seen before … that stalks into the world like a new monster”. It’s a brilliantly vivid way to think about his work, which has loftier ambitions than merely aiming to please the eye.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as the garrulous populist David Hockney, with whom he arguably now vies for the unofficial title of Britain’s greatest living painter, Auerbach refuses to court celebrity. As a result, he is still something of an artist’s artist, feted for ascetic integrity, but under-appreciated by the public.
Thankfully, therefore, the Tate show will reveal to the widest possible audience that Auerbach has engendered a brood of sinewy painterly creatures that are, frankly, inimitable. Rude, raw, and untameable, Auerbach’s “monsters” may impose themselves upon the imagination in a brutish manner – but that is why they also remain unforgettable.
From Friday Oct 9 until March 13