A collaborative curation between the artist, Frank Auerbach, and his sitter, Catherine Lampert, at the Tate Britain, allows for a thoroughly unique and insightful retrospective exhibition of Auerbach’s work. The show celebrates the artist’s confidence in continuity of theme, yet also his copious variety and versatility.
The first six rooms progress by decade in an arrangement chosen by Auerbach. He hoped for viewers to contemplate six distinct groups of diverse images - each as an absolute - rather than fixate on a strictly chronological or contextual pattern. The last room is an assembly of paintings chosen by Lampert from across all decades – immediately disrupting any notions of a coherent chronology.
The theme of familiarity is prevalent in the exhibition. Auerbach paints time and time again what he knows best: his wife, Estella West, Lampert, and other regular sitters, as well as his favourite haunts around his studio in Mornington Crescent. William Feaver, for example, is his Monday evening regular. Yet while the show reflects continuity in his choices of subject matter, there is, surprisingly, no complacency or repetition in Auerbach’s works. Three portraits of Lampert in the final room, with dates ranging from 1985 to 2003-4, are especially striking and epitomise his constant quest for variety. The only recurrent motifs are Lampert’s delicate, yet strong, elfin features; otherwise different media, angles and emphasis make each as fresh and invigorated as the next.
The minimal labelling and the calm mid-grey wall colour is a refreshing background. Viewers are poised with noses inches away from the canvases, rather than over-reading information labels or furiously scribbling in notebooks. Auerbach’s desire for a show that prioritised looking has certainly paid off, but it is also undeniably relaxing not having to follow a specific narrative.
On first glimpse one might be excused for dismissing Auerbach’s working method as hasty; a closer inspection reveals a palpable depth to his paintings. His early works in particular, were restlessly reworked resulting in corrugated textured layers of paint. ‘E.O.W., S.A.W. and J.J.W. in the Garden I’, 1963, relies on such encrusted layers of impasto brushwork. Close-up one becomes lost in the jostling dashes of paint, but when viewed from across the room they seem naturally marshalled into the monumental presence of a forbidding female figure and her children. Such is the authority of the painting that it is allowed to preside over an entire wall. The sculptural quality and quantity of pigment of Auerbach’s earlier works make them especially appealing; the surface of his haunting ‘Self-Portrait’, 1958, is not only warped but worn away – the paper pasted on top, on which he continues to work, is a testimony to his vigorous methods.
‘I don’t think one produces a great picture unless one destroys a good one in the process. And one doesn’t make a great picture by destroying a rotten one.’ (Auerbach)
Lucian Freud, a firm friend of Auerbach’s, admired his ability to master both portraits and landscapes. A motif of lying, reclining and sitting figures features prominently in his portraits; the ‘Reclining Head of Julia’, 1994, is peaceful yet at the same time present, energised by the staccato vibrations of his charcoal. His landscapes too, such as ‘Primrose Hill’, 1971, embrace a similar paradox, combining quiet grandeur with a bustling dynamism.
The exhibition offers an extraordinary opportunity to see such an abundance of Auerbach’s work, otherwise generally scattered between numerous private collections. Reproductions rarely fully capture the essence of a painting; however, this exhibition is undoubtedly one that must be seen first-hand. No postcard or photograph nearly communicates the texture, substance and monumentality of Auerbach’s paintings.
‘Frank Auerbach’ is at the Tate Britain, London, until March 13 2016 (020 7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk)