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Art & artists

Auerbach – addicted to painting

— June 2015

Article read level: Art lover

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Frank Auerbach, Mornington Crescent with the Statue of Sickert’s Father-­‐in-­‐Law III, Summer Morning, 1966. Private collection. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Frank Auerbach narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939 and went on to make his mark in Britain playing ‘the best game – painting’

The painter (b. 1931) Frank Auerbach arrived Britain on the Kindertransport as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1939. His parents died in a concentration camp in 1943. Auerbach achieved his Higher School Certificate in 1947, acted in London theatre groups, participated in the London County Council’s ‘Open-Air Exhibition’ in 1948, and attended St Martin’s School of Art from 1948 to 1952 then, later, the Royal College of Art.

Catherine Lampert’s book about the painter is timely coming, as it does, just in advance of the forthcoming exhibition of Auerbach’s work at Tate Britain (9 October 2015 to 13 March 2016). Lampert’s position as the curator of that exhibition and the author of this book is unique since she sat for him in his studio from 1978 every week for 37 years. This long working relationship with Auerbach has afforded Lampert an inside view of both the artist and his work. This intimate written portrait of his long career privileges the artist’s voice rather than her own and draws from interviews and conversation that she sets alongside images of his work as well as previously unseen personal photographs. 

Leafing through the book’s 100 images, it is the archival photographs and the works on paper that catch our attention. Auerbach’s paintings are rich and tactile but their very nature means that in reproduction that richness is lost.  So although they are well represented in Lampert’s book, they don’t play a starring role. This isn’t a criticism of the book, it’s simply to note the nature of Auerbach’s paintings in reproduction, and perhaps this is how it should be with Lampert’s emphasis on the artist’s voice.

This book is written in a lively style. It is not a biography, but a thematic look at Auerbach’s work. The only biographical chapter, in fact, is the first, where she leads the reader through the artist’s early years.

Auerbach’s reputation was coupled with that of Leon Kossoff:  ‘I would sit for an hour and Leon would paint me then Leon would sit for an hour and I would paint him’. Like many young artists, he survived by teaching at Bromley School of Art (later to become Ravensbourn), the Slade, Camberwell and elsewhere. It was at Camberwell that he became lifelong friends with painter Ron Kitaj   and art historian Michael Podro.

It is interesting that Lampert, as one of Auerbach’s sitters, presents an account of other sitters such as Julia Yardly Briggs Mills, who began sitting for Auerbach in 1957 and posed twice a week for 40 years. Other favourite models included Paula Eyles, who sat for Auerbach for four years, beginning in 1968. Lampert goes on to give a detailed description of his relationships with artists and gallerists. David Bomberg  and Leon Kossoff ‘were a formative influence’ while Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon were ‘good and valued friends’.

In 1965 Auerbach painted Study after Titian I and II, works commissioned by collector David Wilkie. The Wilkie commissions were shown at the University of Essex in 1973 at the behest of Auerbach’s friend Michael Podro. The critic Richard Wollheim use the occasion to write about differences in weight and surface in the works of Titian   and Auerbach and how that affects our experience of the work.

Auerbach’s son Jake recalls him as saying that ‘Painting is the best game I have ever played, why would I want to do anything else?’ In her short concluding chapter Lampert remembers his love of poetry and his habit of reciting long passages from memory. She reproduces Thomas Hardy’s An Ancient to Ancients, which Auerbach said he loved. Lampert wonders if this is how he and other octogenarian painters feel as they reflect on their lives – ‘addicted to the “best game” – painting’. Lampert’s summing up is sensitive and insightful. Her insider account of Auerbach’s career is informative and respectful without resorting to romanticism or nostalgia. That is a tricky balance to maintain and she achieves it with aplomb.  I’d have to say this is one of the best artist’s biographies I’ve read this year and I can’t wait to see her curatorial efforts at Tate in the autumn.

Frank Auerbach. Speaking and Painting by Catherine Lampertis published by Thames and Hudson, 2015.  240 pp., 78 colour/22 mono illus, £19.95 (hbk). ISBN: 978-0-500-239254


Beth Williamson
Independent art historian

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