Brian Sewell, the London Evening Standard‘s art critic, thinks Frank Auerbach has become a pastiche of himself as a painter. But in the process, he tells the story of how Auerbach found his style:
Bryan Robertson, one of the few sane and reasonable critics of that day, described these early paintings in glowing, if general, terms: “There is no hysteria in Auerbach’s work, no grotesque excess, no falsification whatever of the essential integrity of the subject… [his] work is full of strong feeling, marvellously disciplined by his artistic intelligence.” I too thought I could see this then, but with much repetition. I eventually began to doubt. Eight years ago, at Auerbach’s retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy — deliberately held concurrently with a Rembrandt exhibition in the same suite of galleries so that we should see him as the Rembrandt of this new century — it seemed to me that all that Robertson had observed had been degraded into mere habit by a painter clinging desperately to comfortable formulae. Of these, the principal mannerism has been the use of exceptionally thick paint applied layer upon layer in a synthesis of paint and painted subject that is just short of three-dimensional modelling in low relief. Put very simply, after the first short burst of near originality, Auerbach relinquished the business of painting portraits and townscapes for the easier discipline of painting Auerbachs of Auerbachs. […]
In Shropshire throughout the war, he saw nothing of it until it was over, and then, at 16, he came to London, where assorted relatives clubbed together to give him £4.50 a week — a by no means miserly amount on which to live — and the slow business of becoming a painter began, first at Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute, then in the Borough Polytechnic where he was taught by David Bomberg, the tutelary genius who continued to be the boy’s inspiration when, in September 1948, he joined St Martin’s School of Art. In 1952 he transferred to the Royal College, graduating in 1955 after seven full years of training as a painter.
It was precisely at this point of transition from one school to the other that he discovered what he could do with thick paint: a quasi-naturalistic painting of a bombed site in Earl’s Court Road in which rebuilding had begun had for months defeated and confused him at St Martin’s, but returning to it at the end of his first day at the RCA, raging over some petty episode to do with the rationing of paint, he attacked it with angry fervour, disrupting its colour with oranges and yellows that were very much the flavour of the period and its realism with the mass of paint. With the smothering of all that had earlier been descriptive, the painting “began to operate by its own laws” — but isn’t that the alchemy of all great paintings? — and he “felt that it was the beginning of my life as a painter”.
It was exactly so. The paint was still thinner than it was to become in the evocations of building sites that were to follow over the next decade, the touch was still tentative, the drawing desperately uncertain, the identifiable elements unrelated to anything that could be described as command of space, height, depth, distance, light and shadow, but some of the possible impastose textures of paint were exploited and Auerbach had begun to establish his simple personal language of tension between aggressive lines and submissive inchoate form; the material of paint was about to become more than the material manipulated by the brush to represent a subject — it was to be the drawing, the painting and the subject itself. Paint was the mud and spoil that lay about in mounds waiting to be carted off as superhuman foundations were dug deep; paint was the concrete and cement; paint was the girder, scaffolding and crane.
The Paint’s the Thing for Frank Auerbach (This is London)