Frank Auerbach at the Courtauld

 In ArtCrit


I’m going to start blogging more frequently, mainly by publishing longer versions of my reviews here, starting with…

Frank Auerbach : London Building Sites 1952-1962

They look like they are made from the materials of the subjects they depict – the construction sites amidst the bombed-out ruins of London after the Second World War. Some resemble the wall of a building, whose plaster has been blasted off, the remaining stone or concrete partially blackened by the force of an explosion and marked by the impact of shrapnel. Others seem to be carved out of the thick wet mud of a rain-soaked derelict plot or excavation. Frank Auerbach’s paintings of London Building Sites are among the most important and powerful – but also visually challenging – cycle of paintings of post-war Britain, on a par with Bacon’s portraits of the Pope. Yet they have rarely been exhibited in public and never been shown all together, never alongside the preparatory oil sketches and pen and ink drawings, as they are now in the Courthauld’s historic exhibition. They offer revelations about both the mysterious power of Auerbach’s painting and his place within post-war abstract painting, while also conveying the atmosphere of post-war London, a paradoxical landscape of ruins and renewal, deprivation and hope.

The meticulous Auerbach began sketching construction sites in London in 1948, but only executed his first canvas in 1952. Jewish and German, he had come to Britain in 1938, aged 8, rescued by the Kindertransporte. His parents were murdered in a concentration camp during the war. He studied painting under the inventive British modernist David Bomberg. The building sites were his formative works. In ‘Summer Building Site’ (1952), the flat geometric compositions of Bomberg’s modernism are still very much to the fore, yet Auerbach’s paint is already acquiring its texture and thickness, and the two ladders, that glow in yellow paint, as if they are on fire, presage the way he would transform a vocabulary of ordinary building items – Scaffolding, rubble, wheelbarrows, workmen – into a new kind of abstract painting. The curators have gone to the trouble of carefully sourcing photographs of the original locations at the time Auerbach painted them, so you can see how he followed and departed from what he was sketching. Over the next decade Auerbach painted 14 pictures, each of which took six months to a year to complete. Several showed the Shell Building site – one was all in impasto greys, highlighted by shiney passages of pure black, a shadow of St Pauls on the horizon (1958-61). Another is executed in a melange of ochres, browns and black (1959). The longer one looks, the more details emerge -– like a kind of game for the eyes the whole family can play – from Auerbach’s oily slurry: scaffolds, mounds of earth, distant office blocks and cranes. Auerbach remembers that London “was pitted with bomb sites gradually turning into building sites because people were rebuilding what had been destroyed. And there was … a sense of survivors scurrying among a ruined city… a city fully functional is to me a somewhat formally boring collection of cubic and rectilinear shapes, but London after the War was a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountain and crags.”

Today Auerbach tends be considered alongside Lucien Freud as one of Britain’s conservative but classic painters, at one remove from the ebbs and flows of international movements and new ideas in art. But this exhibition, and the accompanying scholarly catalogue essay by curator Barnaby Wright places him right in the frontline of European painting. Auerbach turned against the picturesque ‘Neo-romantic’ surrealism-flavoured views of bombed British cities by his contemporaries John Piper and Graham Sutherland. His primitive surfaces align him with Dubuffet and the Informe painters of postwar France. The coagulating impasto, he worked in, was also favoured by those masters of swirling colours, the Cobra painters like Aeger Jorn. His knots, nodules and squishes of paint make Auerbach our very own Cy Twombly. Like all these painters, Auerbach was interested in the idea of ‘starting again’, of painting having its own post-Holocaust ‘Zero Hour.’

Yet Auerbach was different too. He was more severe that his European and American colleagues, eschewing the accessible colours and sexy gestural brushstrokes of the Abstract Expressionists. Instead he pushed a palette more pared down that anything seen since Braque and Picasso’s analytic cubism, and coralled his flowing oils into compositions based on diagonal lines. The pictures in this exhibition show how he not only painted his pictures, but remarkably carved the picture in the paint – a kind of reverse process, in which the image was imprinted in the thick paint surface with gouges of his finger and the end of a paintbrush. Finally this was a typically English take on postwar modernism: like Bacon, Auerbach never left figuration behind. He was always determined to paint something real. Unlike Bacon, Auerbach was interested in the sublime. He studied the way divine weather fronts swept over man-made architecture in Turner’s paintings and he was awed by the ant-like teams of construction worker, he saw, dwarfed by the building projects they were undertaking

The enjoyment of a great painter can sometimes be a very frustrating experience, as the power of their art seems to elude any verbal explanation. None more so than Auerbach. The best David Sylvester could muster was to say, Auerbach “extended the power of paint to remake reality.” Most other critics have attributed the intensity of Auerbachs to the way he paints over his previous day’s work, over and over again for months, until the work is ‘right’. Yet it is not clear how mucht eh viewer’s eye can see of this remowrking, nor what effect it might have. The artist isn’t much help here (are they ever?) – Auerbach says he aims for ‘formal grandeur or “a secret internal geometry.” But the key is to understand how in the twentieth century, the way something was painted came itself to carry the symbolic meaning in the work, rather than, say, saints, fir trees and skulls. Abstract Expressionism was an obvious metaphor for individual freedom; Rothko’s floating impenetrable veils of colour indicated the mystery of divinity; Pollock’s drips spoke of the interaction of fate and self-determination; Warhol’s screen-printing signified mass-production. Auerbach’s painting style itself was a historical metaphor for the emergence of structure out of destruction, and a philosophical symbol for the tension between order and chaos.