A second family for Frank Auerbach

The artist says he coped fine with the death of both his parents in Auschwitz – but does his modus operandi suggest otherwise?


The curator and historian Catherine Lampert, whose richly informative book Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting was published last year by Thames & Hudson, has a personal connection with the artist. Every Friday evening she makes her way to his Camden studio and sits for him for two hours. She has done so practically every week since 1978.

Sixteen years into the arrangement, “I volunteered to alter my pose, suggesting that instead of sitting always looking forward, I would stand or lie down.”

Auerbach thought about it and then wrote her a letter: “I do not really take to the whole idea.” More, he said, if she altered her position, “the whole thing would turn into an activity that would be inimical to everything I am trying to do”. He was horrified that he might become like those artists who paint models posing.

Maybe the commitment was too much for her, he suggested, and she would like to quit, but he wanted to pursue the drawing he was currently making of her. Quitting had crossed her mind. She was going through a busy, unsettling time. She was director of the Whitechapel Gallery and had a young daughter to look after, was sharing her life with a new love and had discovered she had to deal with a life-threatening disease. Perhaps sitting was one thing too many. She thought about it, then didn’t give up and found that the weekly commitment was an anchor in her life.

Long haul

Unlike his close friend, the late Lucian Freud, who, as Lampert observes, “seemed to know everyone in the world” and painted a lot of people, Auerbach does not have many sitters. Besides Lampert, there is his wife, the painter Julia Wolstenholme; their son, Jake; businessman and art historian David Landau; and art critic William Feaver. Stella West, his lover for many years – EOW (Estella Olive West) in the paintings’ titles – sat for 23 years. JYM is Juliet Yardley Mills, who died in 2001 and after she became too ill to sit, really missed it.

Even in terms of an individual drawing or painting, sitting for Auerbach means you are in it for the long haul. In Lampert’s experience, the shortest time it has taken him to complete a work is about six months’ worth of weekly sittings, and the longest three years. “Even when he thinks he is going to follow on from something he has previously done, it doesn’t work out like that.” She reckons she is the subject of more than 60 paintings and drawings. Several feature in his current Tate Britain retrospective.

His earlier paintings are built up incrementally, layer on layer, to create thick, textural masses. On rare occasions, pigment is even squeezed from the tube and left relatively undisturbed on the paint surface. Then a significant shift occurred. Rather than accumulating layers of pigment or charcoal, at the end of a session he simply scrapes away everything he has done. The eventual work is achieved in a single sitting, laid over the traces of everything that has gone before, and there is no knowing how long it is going to take to get to that point. By all accounts, he is ruthlessly self-critical.

He is also a committed realist in that, although the gestural vehemence and robust angularity of his compositions situate them beyond conventional pictorial representation, they remain rooted firmly in the reality of his experience. People might describe his paintings as abstract, some of them more than others, but, as Lampert points out, “every single mark and shape comes from something. They are never just marks. They pin something down.” And he can always identify the thing pinned down, she notes.

Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931. His parents were, Lampert notes, “assimilated Jews”, thriving and integrated in German society. His father, Max, who had served in the army, was a lawyer, and his mother, Charlotte, had studied art. His memories are of a serene early life. In 1939 his parents, perplexed and disturbed by the escalating, virulent anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, dispatched Frank to England via the Kindertransport. He never saw them again. Sporadic letters from them, conveyed via the Red Cross, ceased in 1943. Only much later did he learn they had both been taken to Auschwitz early in March 1943 and that both died there that year.

His equanimity about this is extraordinary. Lampert quotes him as saying, “I think I did this thing which psychiatrists frown on: I am in total denial. It’s worked very well for me. To be quite honest I came to England and came to a marvellous school, and it truly was a happy time. There’s just never been a point in my life when I felt I wished I had parents.”

He had the good fortune to find himself at a Quaker school, which he loved. He more or less stumbled into art classes with the painter David Bomberg while waiting to begin at St Martin’s, where he had been accepted as an art student.

He is clear that his artistic breakthrough came in summer 1952. He was painting Stella, with whom he was by then involved. Trying to make a painting, bit by bit, accepting and rejecting sections and details, saving what he thought good, “I suddenly found in myself enough courage to repaint the whole thing from top to bottom, irrationally and instinctively, and I found I’d got a picture of her.”

Desperate vitality

In his text on Auerbach, TJ Clark tries to identify the way his painting veers away from conventional representation. Impasto, he writes, “is what gets in the way of seeing, and therefore the process by means of which seeing is retrieved”.

He is almost right, but he makes impasto sound like a pictorial device. Seeing is always snatched from the verge of loss in Auerbach’s paintings. There are no devices. That is what gives them their desperate, inchoate vitality, and that is why every drawing and painting comes right down to the wire and is, as Lampert notes of the pictures hanging on her own walls, why they are incredibly mutable, shifting and responsive when you live with them. Reproduction rarely does them justice. His passages of dark colour and tone have a rippling, glittering quality that is only really evident when you see the painting itself.

In relation to impasto, it is hard to avoid the idea that his childhood wrench and the barbarity behind it contribute to the truculent physical character of some of the earlier paintings, which are, when you encounter them, like Milton’s “darkness visible . . . regions of sorrow, doleful shades”.

The subjects are vast excavations, building sites on the scarred topography of postwar London: distressed, earthen, ploughed terrain. Quite soon they modulate, in the paintings, into purposeful constructions. There was a peculiar energy and optimism in postwar London, Lampert notes: “So different from Germany, which was suddenly plunged into dealing with destruction, shame and guilt.”

It is also tempting, as Lampert acknowledges, to see Auerbach’s need for routine, his desire to keep the same sitters in the same place year after year, as a reaction to his childhood. He lives within a tight orbit, and his subject matter comes almost entirely from his immediate Camden Town environment: his fairly austere studio and the world encountered on the way to it.

“Frank is not athletic,” Lampert remarks, “but he walks and is incredibly attentive to nature in the city, to tiny details and changes.” He paints every day and is known to occasionally sleep over in the studio. He has acknowledged that his personal history made him determined to be productive in life.

His retrospective is wonderful. He selected the works for six rooms and then Lampert chose work for the final, largest room. The hanging is admirably spare, and there is a spirit of generosity to it that is unmistakable: Auerbach puts everything into the paintings. Lampert’s book is the appropriate guide to the work: setting the stage, providing all relevant information and encouraging us to deal with the paintings on their own terms.

  • Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting by Catherine Lampert is published by Thames & Hudson. Frank Auerbach is at Tate Britain, London, until March 13th. tate.org.uk
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