Frank Auerbach is one of Britain’s most renowned painters. A refugee from Nazism, he arrived in this country alone aged seven from Berlin — his parents perished in the Holocaust. Now aged 78, he has been painting the same subjects for almost 50 years — the cityscape around his studio in Camden Town, north London, and a group of regular models.
A new exhibition of his early work has just opened at the Courtauld Gallery in London. It focuses on a group of 14 paintings of building sites in London between 1952 and 1962.
An estimated 80,000 buildings were destroyed during the Second World War and from the late 1940s, armies of builders were mobilised to begin the reconstruction of the city. Where most artists were fascinated by the picturesque opportunities afforded by the ruined buildings, Auerbach instead made the construction sites his subject. “London after the War was a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountains and crags, full of drama… and it seemed mad to waste the opportunity,” he said recently.
The show has been curated by Barnaby Wright who has worked closely with the artist. “These are some of the most extraordinary post-war paintings and yet the whole group has never been brought together before,” says Wright.
It was quite an endeavour to locate all the works. “We assumed that they would all still be in England but that proved far from the truth,” says Wright. “Half are still in the UK but the other half are held internationally. One of the most important pictures in the show comes from Australia. Many of them, particularly those in private collections, have not been seen in public since the 1950s so it is a real coup to have them all here.”
So why does Wright consider these works so very important? “It was only really Auerbach and his friend Leon Kossoff who responded to London’s landscape at this time. Auerbach’s pictures in particular, I think, try to find a new language of painting to express this unprecedented sight, this spectacle of London in the post-war decade. It is as part of London’s history and as part of a really radical new language of painting that they are so special.”
Auerbach used an enormous amount of paint and his reduced economic circumstances at the time meant he was restricted to using the cheaper earth colours for many of the paintings.
“Auerbach’s technique and process is one of the great epic stories of art history,” Wright explains. “Very early in his career, he realised that the only way he could get at the image he desired was to work and rework his paintings over many months and even years. In those days he painted on top of what he had done the day before, so gradually the paint would accrue until sometimes it was more than an inch thick.
“When you look at the paintings, you have this sense of a man really battling with paint to find some kind of form and the result is pictures which are really extraordinary and captivating just in their sheer physical presence, let alone their formal and pictorial qualities.”
Auerbach himself sees something biblical in the works. “If I think about them now, long after, there’s just a tiny echo of the Book of Genesis in all these building sites.”
During the period that Auerbach made the paintings, he was attending classes run by fellow Jewish artist David Bomberg. Wright considers Bomberg’s teaching an important influence. “He taught Auerbach not to accept the first, second or even third trial at getting an image, but to carry on until he had really broken through the surface appearances, until he found the essence of a subject. It was Bomberg that gave Auerbach that hunger to keep on going and to search out that form.”
Completing these works, Auerbach described “a sense of survivors scurrying among a ruined city”. The young artist was himself a survivor of more than just the Blitz. It is tempting to think that his own personal trauma of losing his parents and having to flee his home influenced his decision to paint subjects of destruction and rebirth.
Wright believes there may be some truth in the notion. “I think he was driven by the sheer spectacle and excitement of the building sites,” he says.
“He describes this as a sense of liberation in a strange sort of way. Obviously he was absolutely beset by loss, but having lost most of his family and being cut completely adrift in the world in a strange city, there was a sort of tabula rasa about the whole experience. That perhaps allowed him to cut loose and experiment and be radical in his work, not tied down to particular traditions of art.
“Auerbach would not talk about the subject matter in terms of loss or feelings of bereavement, but I think where there is in his own technique this struggle for life and a struggle for form, it is possible to make some connections there.”