Frank Auerbach – the painter of intimacy

Frank Auerbach (b. in Berlin 1931). British painter and printmaker. As many Jewish children during the WWII he was sent out of Germany to England; he was eight at that moment. His entire family died in the Nazis concentration camp. From 1947 to 1948 he studied at Borough Polytechnic under David Bomberg where he met Leon Kossoff, his long-term close friend . Both Kossoff and Auerbach, together with older – Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud are often mentioned in one breath as new wave of British figurative painters.

From 1952 to 1955 he studied at the Royal College of Art where he did make an impact since just after graduation he was invited at a one-man show at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, in 1956. Then he started his long career as an art teacher, first in secondary school and then (from 1968) in art colleges.

Auerbach’s art is deeply humanistic, intimate and thoughtful. He deliberately limits himself to his closest surroundings (the north corner of London, where the painter lives) and a handful of models – his close friends and family. His philosophy on art is that of a deepest possible understanding and assimilation. He often compares himself drawing/painting his models to an actor trying to get inside – to inhabit the character. He treats his gorgeous charcoal drawings as most artists would treat a work on canvas done with paints – he works laboriously and asks his models for dozens of sittings before he is ready to accept the drawing as finished. He is able to spot the slightest variations of tone, line and mood his sitter is in, so he admits to draw dozens images before they freeze under one title. As Leon Kossoff underlines – the drawing is the essence of the Auerbach’s work – done either with charcoal or oils, on paper or canvas – it’s drawing what you see, don’t mind the colours and supports:

Drawing is not a mysterious activity. Drawing is making an image which expresses commitment and involvement. (…) And, whether by scrapping off or rubbing down, it is always beginning again, making new images, destroying images that lie, discarding images that are dead. The only true guide in this search is the special relationship of absorption and internalization, the artist (Frank Auerbach) has with the person or landscape from which he is working. (Leon Kossoff, intro to Auerbach’s catalogue, 1990)

Some of his portraits (and landscapes) have an alarming quality – they look like being set afire but, above that, there is a feeling of great mystery and affirmation – general affirmation of live and of that very particular person/place. It looks like tender love and passion the artist seems to have towards his subjects make them looking fragile and unique despite the strong, sometimes contrasting colours applied in extremely heavy impasto and in broad, expressionistic strokes.

What I find especially compelling about this artist is his level of self-awareness and deep respect towards art – both are well expressed in Frank Auerbach’s thoughts. Here are just few of them:

What I’m not hoping to do is to paint another picture, because there are enough pictures on the world. I’m hoping to do a new thing for the world that remains in mind like a new species of living thing…

Robert Frost … said: “I want the poem to be like ice on a stove – riding on his own melting.” Well, a great painting is like ice on a stove. It’s a shape riding on his own melting into matter and space, it never stops moving backwards and forwards.

All good painting enters some sort of freedom where it exists by its own laws, and inexplicably has got free of all possible explanations. Possibly the explainers will catch up with it again, but never completely…

Here are recommended books for further reading:

– written by friends/sitters of Auerbach – Lambert, C., Rosenthal, N., Carlisle, I, Frank Auerbach, Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, London 2001

Frank Auerbach by Frank Auerbach, London 1990







About kasia

Born in Poland. Lives in Ireland, Cork. Visual artist. View all posts by kasia

3 responses to “Frank Auerbach – the painter of intimacy

  • Mary

    What a great account of this painter. The quote (“All good painting…”) is especially good. I hadn’t given Auerbach a lot of thought up to now, and doubt he’ll become a favourite or anything as drastic as that. But this is so thoughtful and sympathetic, I’ll be looking at his work with more interest in future.

  • skonieczna

    I enjoyed writing about him and now I’ve got even more motivation for further research. It’s great to know that your fascination can be infectious (in the best meaning of the word)…Thanks

  • Pilost

    Indeed hes one of the better living painters of our time. Its a shame that is a little difficult to find documentation about his work thing that doesnt happens with another contemporary painters of the London School like Lucian Freud, Bacon or Kitaj for example. Thanks for the article skonieczna.

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