Life & Culture

Discovering Frank Auberbach’s true colours

An impressive exhibition shows our greatest living artist in a new light, says Anthea Gerrie


The Origin of the Great Bear

Since the death of his close friend Lucien Freud, surely Frank Auerbach is the leading candidate for the title of Britain’s greatest living painter? Still painting every day, in his 90s, Auerbach is the subject of a new exhibition which shows an unexpected side to his work.

“He grew up loving to draw but never thought of becoming a painter — and only found out how difficult what he imagined would be a pleasant career really was when he was plunged into years of struggle to get it right,” says Maya Binkin, artistic advisor to Newlands House Gallery in deepest West Sussex. It’s the unlikely venue for Frank Auerbach: Unseen, far from the capital where the artist has lived for 75 years. Auerbach dabbled in acting before committing to art, and as the exhibition makes clear, he might well have been a cartoonist.

The show is driven by a series of extraordinary drawings the artist made in the National Gallery in response to paintings there. “He was much more drawn to the English Old Masters than the Dutch or Italians,” says Binkin, who finds the often frantic scribbles in felt tip and pencil “full of energy, like animations, almost”. And like the best cartoonists, he caricatured the best features of his subjects, turning to correcting liquid to capture the ghostly white face of Anne, Countess of Albemarle, a mother of 15 portrayed as a formidable matriarch by Sir Joshua Reynolds, while only watercolour would do to pay homage to the dusty blues, yellows (and more pink than the original) of Turner’s Sun Rising Through Vapour, overlaid with rapid felt-tip outlines of boats, sails and the edges of clouds and coastline.

Before he brought his pens and pencils to the National in the 1980s, Auerbach was busy capturing his friends with the caricaturist’s eye for essential features; Freud’s chiselled cheekbones, Leon Kossoff’s quizzical eyebrow etched on paper along with portraits of other artists like R B Kitaj. Together they came to be known as the School of London, unfashionably figurative while other painters were making a killing by turning to abstract expressionism. Alongside these rarely seen portraits that have been lent to Newlands House and Auerbach’s take on old English paintings lent by the National Gallery is a quirky collection which has not been seen for 30 years.

It was bequeathed to the Tate by David Wilkie, an Essex insurance clerk who used all his money to collect art. Here the artist, better known for sombre-hued, dense, thickly layered paintings, breaks out into space and colour, playfully relocating the myth of Callisto the nymph being transformed by Jupiter into a bear from the kingdom of the gods to Hampstead Heath. “You can just see the Royal Free in the distance and Michael Foot walking his dog,” says Israeli-born Binkin, pointing out a stick figure in the painting, as we stroll through the Georgian house where 65 Auerbach works have been given ample room to breathe in a series of separate rooms, some with the intimacy of chapels showcasing a single work. How can we possibly know it was Foot? Because Auerbach painted his corner of Camden for decades, going out every day to observe and record the same streets, buildings, landscapes and people.

The easy friendship with Wilkie, living thriftily and sharing banter, brought out a rare playfulness in Berlin-born Auerbach, whose troubled past seems to pervade his life and work. He was separated at seven from his parents, who sent him to safety with a school which relocated from Germany to Kent before the War. Orphaned when his parents died at Auschwitz, he spent impoverished teenage years in post-war London and was estranged for years from a wife who found him just too difficult to live with.

According to Catherine Lampert, the sitter who became his curator and biographer: “He has been totally shaped by being saved when his parents perished. His compulsion to paint every day of his life comes from this feeling of having to make the most of every minute and make it count for something.”

“He doesn’t admit to being influenced by the tragedies of his early life, but to me his work seems infused with sadness,” says Binkin. Yet it was not the pleasure of his friendship with Wilkie which drove Auerbach into the brilliant colour he seemed so unexpectedly comfortable with after decades of seeing life in black and brown.

“He just says he was able to afford to add more colours to his palette once he stopped being so poor,” explains Binkin.

The playfulness extends to The Origin of the Great Bear, created in answer to Wilkie’s challenge to paint a composition Titian might have thought of but never attempted, while the Rimbaud portraits in the show are a response to a commission to paint a Bernini sculpture in a church in Rome. Auerbach duly painted the chapel where the Bernini is installed, but persuaded Wilkie to accept a cartoon-like depiction of Rimbaud, a poet they both admired, in place of the beloved Bernini which was supposed to be the heart of the piece.

Possibly the most startling piece in the show is a disembodied head so thick with impasto it is more of a sculpture than a painting and has been described as threatening to fall off the canvas. This Head of EOW I is named after Estella Olive West, his longtime lover and sitter for 15 years, an early explosion of the artist into vivid colour in 1960. Binkin has her own insights on why the paint is so thickly applied. “He was still too thrifty to scrape off the layers after years of poverty; later he starts scraping off and reapplying paint, as he still does often hundreds of times before the work is finished.”

She admits the practice “perhaps also horrifies his audiences” as well as captivating many with the finished work, but quotes Auerbach himself on why he does it: “I don’t think one produces a great picture unless one destroys a good one in the process.” The words of an accidental painter who just couldn’t stop.

Frank Auerbach: Unseen is at Newlands House Gallery, Petworth until August 14

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