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Monday, August 1, 2016

Frank Auerbach

Artists who broke the rules
There's an old saying that "rules are made to be broken." Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of art. Artists have been making and breaking rules ever since the first cave painter decreed that smooth, flat rocks made a better painting surfaces than those that were rough and irregular. Then, in all likelihood, a leopard skin-clad art rebel from the next generation, deliberately painted on a rough surface simply to prove it could be done and that his instructor was full of bark and berries. Of course, the key element in the tradition of making and breaking rules is in knowing and understanding the rules in the first place, and then knowing when and how to best break or ignore them so as to serve whatever purpose is intended. Therefore, if rules are made to be broken, they are also taught for the same reason. Naturally though, in teaching rules, more often than not those learning them come to realize that there are valid reasons behind most such rules, and in doing so, come to accept them unthinkingly as a part of their style, technique, and aesthetic values. Then, in knowing such rules, when an artist deliberately rejects one or two, his work is hailed as an artistic breakthrough of monumental importance...or a colossal failure. With Cubism, for example, Picasso deliberately rejected the longstanding rule that painting content could have only one viewing point. By repeatedly painting in a manner to prove his radical assertion, he astounded the art world at the time. But shortly thereafter, when Marcel Duchamp suggested that a lowly urinal from the men's room, if laid flat on its back, could be termed a fountain, the man was nearly laughed out of town. The British painter, Frank Auerbach, is an artist cut from the same cloth as Picasso and Duchamp.
From age forty to eighty-five.
Even long before Leonardo made Mona Lisa smile (sort of), there has always been an unwritten rule that a portrait artist should present his or her subject in an attractive light, capturing a likeness and personality while making the individual depicted reasonably attractive, sometimes even to the point of shameless flattery. Over the centuries, some artists had been known to "fudge" such a rule at times in search of truth and character in their sitters, but by and large, no one, not even the revolutionary portrait artist, Andy Warhol, dared break from the past. Then came Auerbach. Not only were his portrait visages not attractive (to put it mildly), but in nearly every case, there is evidence of a concerted effort to make them as desperately ugly as possible. In doing so, the question arises, is he an heir to Picasso or the illegitimate progeny of Duchamp?

The Head of E.O.W., 1951,
Frank Auerbach. The patch
on her forehead is where the
artist erased a hole in the paper.
In the late 1940s, Frank Auerbach was a 17-year-old novice actor. Estella Olive West was the daughter of the philosopher O.S. Wauchope. She was a feisty 32-year-old amateur actress and mother of three. The two were cast together in a play by Peter Ustinov where they first met. Estella's husband, Dr. Michael Walter West, died in a freak accident in 1946. She scraped together a living running a boarding house. Shortly thereafter, the young Auerbach moved into the boarding house. Stella was soon not only his mistress, but also his principal model. In 1951, Frank Auerbach painted his first portrait of her, titled The Head of E.O.W. (left). Romantically, they were together off and on for some twenty-three years. Strangely, during this same time, Auerbach married Julia Wolstenholme. They had a son, Jake, born in 1958. Not surprisingly, the marriage didn't survive the painter's ongoing affair with his model.

Paint so thick his panels were often too heavy to hang
on gallery walls. Here ugly seems more then "to the bone."
This was the first of dozens of paintings and drawings Auerbach completed featuring the face and figure of Estella Olive West (E.O.W.). An though he presents her as no raving beauty, it is among the more conventional portraits he ever painted of her. Like old age, ugly only comes gradually. It did evolve though, beneath layer upon layer of heavy, wet, impasto oils (Auerbach later switched to acrylics). Despite appearances (above) the artist was the consummate perfectionist. Some of his works required up to seventy sittings. After working on a painting each day, Auerbach would carefully place it in a wooden box to dry for up to two weeks, at which time he would remove it and decide what, if anything, he needed to do to improve it.

In painting his wife, Auerbach was no more kind
than he had been in painting his mistress.

Auerbach's relationship with E.O.W. came to an abrupt end in 1973. The works involving E.O.W. were becoming less important than those of the artist's wife, Joan (Julia) Yardley Mills (J.Y.M.). Somehow or another, the two ladies never met.) Auerbach and his wife reunited in 1976. Altogether, Auerbach has completed over seventy portraits and studies of her. In many of his works we see her from slightly below. She is usually looking out of the picture. She seems, preoccupied, and guarded. There always seems to be an intriguing tension, a barrier between the artist and his subject.

Mornington Crescent - Summer Morning, Frank Auerbach. The artist
also rendered a number of urban landscapes chronicling the bombing
and rebuilding of London in the years after the war (bottom).
In 1931, in Berlin, Germany, the time and place of Auerbach's birth, the Nazi party was on the rise against a backdrop of general resentment at the unfairness and resulting austerity imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. The Nazis came to power in 1933. By 1939, when his Jewish parents sent him to school in England, Frank Auerbach was eight years old. That was the last contact he had with them. His parents did not follow their son to England. They underestimated the Nazi party, thinking (or hoping at least) that it was all talk and rhetoric. They were rather elderly when their son was born and perhaps too set in their ways and views. They seemed to think that everything and everyone would eventually settle down. They were wrong. At Auschwitz, they became part of a cast of millions in a tragic epic.

Auerbach's studio--not the kind of place you'd visit in a suit and tie.
Meanwhile, over in England, young Frank Auerbach discovered a black and white reproduction of Turner's the Fighting Temeraire. He came to know Michelangelo Rembrandt, Breughel and most of all, a community spirit of normality in art. After the Second World War, Auerbach acted in small parts in several London theatres while attended painting classes at the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute. The following year he attended the Borough Polytechnic Institute before entering St. Martin’s School of Art. In 1952 Auerbach studied at the Royal College of Art after being judged unfit for military service. Auerbach acquired Gustav Metzger’s former studio in Camden, London around 1954. It was run down with an outside toilet and riddled with dampness. But it was all he could afford and out of sheer economic need he remained there since otherwise he would have had nothing. For over fifty years he has remained there in a space no more than 25 x 25 feet, though it has been extensively rebuilt and he is now well-off. Yet the feeling of sheer economic need has stayed with him.

Auerbach doesn't take commissions. He paints only friends and
relatives. (Whew, that's a relief!)
Auerbach was taught and influenced by David Bomberg, who encouraged him to look back, beyond Cubism, to Cezanne. Auerbach's work is modern, but in the tradition of Gericault, Delacroix, Ingres, Courbet and Daumier. He is often cast as an Expressionist, though in fact, he's of the Figural movement which followed Abstract Expressionism. His work is complex, dark and brazenly ugly. His paintings are hard to look at and even harder to like. Yet, they are also quite moving and starkly original. Auerbach's work is a million miles away from the traditional rule that pictures should look 'nice.' Much of his work is about rubbing out old images, scraping off old paint, redrawing, repainting, looking again at the composition, even to the point of covering up completely an earlier effort. His paintings reveal tortured faces seemingly crushed by the weight of the paint. To return to my original question: In breaking the rules, is Auerbach a legitimate heir to Picasso or the bastard son of Marcel Duchamp? To him, it matters little. Whatever you think of his work, Auerbach has had a lasting influence upon younger British painters, as seen in the manner in which they have rendered his portrait (top). Neither criticism nor accolades are of much consequence to the eighty-five-year-old painter whose daily routine is seldom altered. He will not move from his studio, nor will he award himself any luxuries. He notes that: "I became solvent so late that it’s too late for me to change."

Liberating: Mornington Crescent, 1965,
Frank Auerbach


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