Magazine article Artforum International

Frank Auerbach: Royal Academy of Arts, London

Magazine article Artforum International

Frank Auerbach: Royal Academy of Arts, London

Article excerpt

A startling feature of the otherwise straightforward catalogue that accompanies Frank Auerbach's recent show is its frontispiece. A double-page, black-and-white photo spread shows the painter in his studio last year: his head in close-up, a defiant anxiety in his eyes made more striking by the presence behind him of what appears to be a hangman's noose. Does this grim object allude to the artist's state of mind on the eve of his first full retrospective since 1978? Is it a ghoulish joke, perhaps, by the photographer, the late Bruce Bernard? Or simply some necessary if unusual element of Auerbach's studio tackle? Whatever its purpose, the photograph serves as an unnerving danse macabre overture to a show of unrelenting, almost ostentatious high seriousness. Such gravity is comparatively rare in British art these days and therefore refreshing.

At seventy, Auerbach is one of Britain's most respected artists, but he himself is relatively unfamiliar. He is a shadowy figure, averse to publicity--not a household face, though his very lack of a public persona is becoming celebrated. His work, however, is frequently seen, part of every survey show and book, and he has borne the burden of a monograph on him by Robert Hughes. But the kind of off-the-peg fame accorded to current British stars is not for Auerbach. He has worked in North London for most of his life, in the same studio, in fact, since 1954, in a city patch explored in the early twentieth century by Walter Sickert and artists of the Camden Town Group such as Spencer Gore. Auerbach's subject matter falls into two categories: family, friends, writers, and constant models, employed in punishing relays; and his immediate neighborhood of Mornington Crescent, where nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments unhappily collide, as well as the nearby open space of Primrose ill. It is a restricted rep ertoire, but the artist is triumphantly entrenched. Heads, figures, buildings, and skies are excavated with a grueling intensity and enough variety to silence those objectors who feel Auerbach should get out more. True, there is none of the politics, fucking, laughter, companionship, or domestic activity found in the work of other artists of the School of London, where Auerbach has been placed alongside Bacon and Freud, Kitaj and Kossoff. You're more likely to find a page torn from a book of art history, to adapt a phrase of Sickert's, than one "torn from the book of life." The voices of Rembrandt, Hogarth, van Gogh, Soutine, Sickert, de Kooning, Giacometti, and David Bomberg (Auerbach's teacher) carry above the general buzz of paint. Auerbach, a cultured man, continues these conversations with unselfconscious intimacy.

In the marvelous early paintings here, dating from 1954-70, Auerbach's natural German expressiveness and adopted British figurative gloom converge in a voice of unmistakably morose individuality. …

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