Frank Auerbach: painting uncertainty


Picking up on something I wrote a while back after visiting a major retrospective of Frank Auerbach’s work held at Tate Britain:

Frank Auerbach creates a cathedral of perception and then invites his viewers to do the same in this presentation of his life work at the Tate.

Visitors around the gallery are hanging on for dear life as they struggle to pin down the sliding and careening swirls of paint into some sort of fixed reality: “Oh, yes, now I see it!..”,  is heard as we recognise something for a moment – that then slips away. Auerbach is a philosopher akin to Heisenberg as he forces us to question our own sense of certainty, not only as we perceive it in the visible world, but also in our thinking. These paintings also force us to think and to feel, reminding us that these are not mutually exclusive activities.

In the hallowed space of the Tate everyone looks up from the grid for a moment, and is surprised because Auerbach’s paintings celebrate the constancy of that familiar view, recalling one’s own view as one steps outside the door in the morning. This is not a mood, some invented aura suffusing the work; rather, the feeling of something that permeates the ground we stand upon. There is something redemptive in this experience that floods the senses, opens the mind and the heart; something glorious and intangible, a reminder of what Wallace Stevens called “the precious portents of our own powers”. Auerbach reminds us that we need to take care how we use these powers. As the viewer struggles to ground her views, opinions and perceptions in certainty, and is advised on the nearby Pimlico tube to ‘mind the gap’, Auerbach reminds us of the fickleness of our certainties and the whimsicality of fate. He heightens our awareness of life and death, mortality, climate change, war – the ever present march of time.

Unlike his close painter friend, Leon Kossoff, whose shivery skeins of paint build the image, Auerbach rather tilts at his canvas, far more of a swashbuckler. As he attacks the image again and again, oft-times in later works scraping down the whole image to begin again, showing a speed of working where the performance of the brush stroke begins on a quiet street corner as we wait for the bus, and then propels us into the air in a cascade of marks as St George takes on the dragon once more. And so the imagination is freed, much as it is by Blake upstairs as he evokes the beast and beauty within the imagination.

In Painting and Alchemy James Elkins writes about the psychological pull of the brush stroke: Auerbach pulls us about the room. While Richard Diebenkorn, whose 2015 show at the Royal Academy bears comparison, often works back across his canvases, quietening and battening down his strokes into broad expanses, thus imparting elegance to his compositions while keeping the surface alive, Auerbach’s surface is continually moving, yet arrives at the quiet grandeur of which he speaks – making him a worthy compatriot of Rembrandt (as he was in the 2013 exhibition ‘Rembrandt-Auerbach: Raw Truth’, which twinned the two artists’ work in the Rijks Museum).

In ‘Jake’ Auerbach’s film about his father, shown alongside the Tate exhibition, Frank speaks of the power of the artist’s initial feeling towards the subject, without which there is no point. Then he speaks of a visible tension in the composition, like a sail becoming taut with purpose in the wind in order to voyage out. If it isn’t there the work fails. Later, as I move about the other rooms of the Tate, I am looking for this muscularity of purpose and, sure enough, there it is in Blake and Palmer, though absent in some of their contemporaries exhibited alongside.

In Auerbach’s works there is the space of landscape, the perspectival pull of the drawn line as it leads one in, only to confound with an edge of painted blocks, almost decorative in their flatness. Things happening on the edge of the composition continually remind us of the flatness of what we are looking at. Later, prompted by Auerbach speaking about Sickert in the ‘Jake’ film, I go in search of his work. Sure enough, Sickert like Auerbach doesn’t pin down a reality, but rather evokes a feeling, creating paintings that are pages ‘torn from the book of life’.

In his numerous interviews, notably with Catherine Lampert, Auerbach invokes poetry, referring to the lines of Robert Frost: “A great painting…is a shape riding on its own melting into matter and space, it never stops moving backwards and forwards.” The paintings, in their celebration of the quotidian, in their sheer painted weight and volume, and yet so redolent with light, also call to mind the late works of Monet. Like Monet’s, each painting is an evocation of this relationship between the inner and the outer world of the artist. Like Monet, there is a struggle and a reckoning, as strong feeling meets the demands of paint and composition.

For Auerbach, again like Monet, there is weather outside the studio and weather within the studio. Auerbach is a colourist of the found palette – oil and occasionally acrylic colours run about inside one another. ‘Summer Haze’ is a feast of dissolving pinks and ochres, while ‘Summer Heat’ contrasts in its strident use of inky blue blacks and bold primaries – a surprising take on an English summer. These paintings also speak of the solitude and even loneliness of the painter’s days, spent in overalls in a quiet room pushing paint around. A wintry darker work in palette makes me wonder on the painter’s disposition at the time: isn’t every painting after all a self portrait?

After the thoughts, the reverie, the push and pull into buildings, across streets, jostling past people barely there, the this way and that of walking a busy London street, the dragons that emerge in our imaginations, suddenly we are landed back in the squish and scrape of the paint.

If sometimes the paintings become airless in their alchemical layers of paint and colour, it is nature that is evoked and it is nature that I seek as I leave the exhibition, wandering into a park, and the colours of autumnal London in their gear of light and shift, again evoking the paintings and a glittery warmth that is at once human and alive. I am drawn into the layers of colour as seen in reflections on a pond, layers of rock, something silvery and golden in moving trees. And so the artwork reaches back out into the world through my thoughts and perceptions.

About dianapage

I am a South African born artist living in Istanbul, Turkey. Predominantly a painter, I have also directed a trilogy of art performances on rooftops in Cape Town, Istanbul and New York. My work in painting, drawing, digital animation and performance is founded in a cosmopolitan experience of place.
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