Sunday, 6 March 2016

Auerbach:A page torn from the book of life

Tate Britain's ambitiously priced Frank Auerbach exhibition doesn't contain much to read. Which is tricky for bloggers hoping to crib notes but great for those of you who want to view the work of this much loved, and much maligned, artist on its own merits.

Six rooms have been laid out by the octogenarian himself and a final one by the curator (and occasional sitter for Auerbach) Catherine Lampert. The first is given over to what, to these eyes, looks like classic Frank. Oily paint so thickly applied it'll look like a mess to some. Building Site, Earls Court Road, Winter from 1953, below, looks dirty, sooty, a volcanic aftermath, but its interest lies in its flirtation with abstraction. A relationship never quite consummated.

Some of the EOW heads (EOW being Estella West, Auerbach's first wife and former actor for Peter Ustinov) use a less muddier palate which lifts the gloom in the room and adds contrast. It's not like gloom's a bad thing per se but it shows a side to the artist I'd hitherto been unaware of.

EOW crops up again in the second room. The paint worked up and piled on to a frankly terrifying degree. It recalls Munch or Van Gogh if they'd, remarkably, gone a couple of steps further. Or, a cynic might say, the daubs of a chancer. The most aesthetically pleasing works here are his landscapes, if we're being liberal with the term, of Primrose Hill and his old favourite Mornington Crescent.

The above work from '67 is only barely recognisable as an actual place but the bold use of yellows, greens, and reds create depth and a sense of the hustle and bustle in south Camden's urban milieu.

In the 70s his paintings appear to have poured straight on to the canvas with no sense of composition whatsoever. But our Frank was no Jackson Pollock. Like Dolly Parton spending a million dollars to look that 'cheap' or Stewart Lee beavering away on a routine which gives the impression he's lost the plot it's an illusion of sorts. Auerbach toiled in his studio from morning to night every day endlessly working and reworking so every jerky diagonal line, every smudged mark, and each squeezy blob of paint is just how he intended it to be. Your five year old could've done it but, let's face it, they'd have got bored pretty quickly and gone off to play with Lego Transformers.

His portraits of the 80s were close, thematically, to Francis Bacon's work. Twisted, ghastly, ghostly fizzogs gawp back at us with a fierce intensity. Despite this and unlike, perhaps, Leon Kossoff's work it's hard to read much into them. Which is, possibly, a downside to this meticulous technique. A danger of overworking and removing some of the core emotional heft. That's a harsh, even a little unfair, criticism as, clearly, he strives hard for that not to happen and succeeds more often than not.

The 90s saw a blast of colour. Still the reclining heads, like so many sphinxes, refused to reveal their secrets. One of JYM (Julia, another of Auerbach's reguar sitters who would visit his studio for a scheduled appointment on a weekly basis) makes her look like a little monkey. Simian similarities aside his admiration of women was, as rumour had it, enthusiastically pursued. His keenest love, though, seemed to be for the tower blocks of Mornington Crescent, now rendered marginally more realistically. If still equally effectively and startlingly. You can almost hear the beep of horns and smell the kebabs in his 1997 take on his part of town.

I'd thought of Auerbach as primarily a left-field portraitist so it was good to see there was more breadth to his work. This event also taught me that he'd made better use of colour than I'd imagined. Sometimes there's even a suggestion of the fauvist influence of Derain or Matisse. Others like Next Door III, below, from this decade, hint at Cezanne's proto-cubist visions of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

Graphite works, charcoal pieces, and etchings flesh out the retrospective and these are interesting in gaining an understanding of his technique. As is the film showing in the shop. But it's for the oil paintings you should come. It's unlikely this exhibition will win him any new fans but existing admirers won't be alienated and will leave happier though lighter of wallet. If still unsure just what it is that makes this most enigmatic, yet engaging, of artists tick. It's art for art's sake - and there's nothing wrong with that.

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