Frank Auerbach @ Tate Britain

Frank Auerbach was born in 1931 and is a German-born British painter. He has been a naturalised British citizen since 1947. He was sent from Germany to England aged 7, as part of the Kindertransport scheme for the children of persecuted Jews. His parents died in a concentration camp in 1942. This might partly explain the misery of his earliest paintings, which is only slowly transmuted, as his career progresses, into depressing gloominess.

This major retrospective brings together some 62 oil paintings and 11 charcoal works in seven rooms at Tate Britain. They were arranged in rough chronological order from the 1950s to the present day (he is still very active) by the artist with the final large room chosen and arranged by curator Catherine Lampert.

Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M II (1984-85) Private collection © Frank Auerbach

Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M II (1984-85) Private collection © Frank Auerbach

Oil like mud

Auerbach’s painting is famous for piling on layer after layer of oil paint until it is centimetres thick. In the earliest works it stands up off the canvas in swirls and gloops, which he scrapes and reshapes and then pours more oil onto. The colours he chooses are black and brown and ochres, creating the impression of thick mud which has been mixed with carburettor oil from a particularly ancient car.

In the first room, the 1950s, this technique is put to the purpose of portraits of people who look like they have been incinerated at Belsen or Hiroshima. The impression is certainly of horror and extreme unease.

Or London ‘landscapes’, which look similarly blasted.

As we move into the 1960s the oil, if anything, gets deeper and gloopier. A woman I spoke to, herself an artist, said one of the pieces looked like an much-used artist’s palette, about 18 inches square with twills and swirls of oil paint randomly splurged onto it in overlapping and murky tones. Imagine a meringue before it’s cooked, and spattered with black and brown and blue and red colours all mixed together.

His three subjects appear to be portraits, interiors of his studio in Mornington Crescent North London, and the streets nearby. These he has been painting obsessively for the past 60 years. Primrose Hill Spring Sunshine (1964) made me laugh. Was there ever a painting that looked less spring-y and less sunshine-y?

In a way I admired the boldness of Studio with figure on bed because he appears to have simply squeezed thick red paint onto the already deeply mired canvas as a child might do elementary icing. There is a definite progression or change in the style over the decades: the paint gets a lot less thick, though the approach is still to lay it on thick and then draw great lines across it with an implement. And the tonal range lightens up to introduce muddy yellows.

Frank Auerbach, Head of William Feaver (2003) Collection of Gina and Stuart Peterson© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Frank Auerbach, Head of William Feaver (2003) Collection of Gina and Stuart Peterson © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

But the style remains recognisable and the subject matter monotonously the same right up to the present day.

When the commentary said that Auerbach ‘exercises special vigilance to avoid repetition’ I at first thought that was a joke, since one of the most obvious features of his subjects is their obsessive repetitiveness, treating the same London streets and the same people to the same ‘landscape’ approach and the same ‘portrait’ approach, again and again, as the numbering of the paintings themselves indicate.

Charcoal works

In the first room were more or less the only works I liked, two charcoal-on-paper heads. I responded to the damaged surface, the torn edges, the distortion of a recognisably human face. I always enjoy strong lines, line drawing, lines used figuratively, but I also like the implication in them of extreme damage by the trauma of war.

There are some 11 charcoal works in the show, all portraits, in later years some of them coming close to the scoured portraits of Giacometti recently on show at the National Portrait Gallery.

Conclusions

Auerbach was one of the painters of murky, gloomy, depressed, dark gloopy paintings who put me off pursuing art at school. Thirty years later this body of work looks like the absolute fag end of the decline of western art. Although the palette lightens a bit and the amount of oil splodged onto the canvas decreases into the 1980s and 90s, all of his work for me lacks focus, precision, insight, wit or charm. It is very Germanic in its grim humourlessness. It felt like Francis Bacon without Bacon’s showmanship. There’s an old story about the philistine British classical music conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, who was asked if he’d ever conducted any Stockhausen, and replied, ‘No, but I’ve trodden in some.’ This show made me feel the same.

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