Magazine article Tate Etc.

To Drag the Past into the Present and Re-Animate It

Magazine article Tate Etc.

To Drag the Past into the Present and Re-Animate It

Article excerpt

Frank Auerbach (b1931) is well known for his intensely worked paintings of people and London scenes, which are often repeated and can take months, even years, to finish. But what is it like to sit for him every week for more than 30 years?

The curator of the forthcoming Tate Britain retrospective, and author of Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting (2015), reveals her experience of being so long the object of his gaze, and gives an insight into the methods that result in his extraordinary paintings

While posing, facing the back of the easel and looking off to one side, it is impossible to guess what is happening on the canvas. During my two hours in his studio Frank Auerbach is as active, in an extreme and strenuous way, as he was when I began sitting for him in May 1978, the month his retrospective opened at the Hayward Gallery. Atthetime I found him a highly intelligent, articulate artist, but already a reclusive one. He thrives, in his words, when he can make art in a self-forgetful state, wanting the resulting image to stand up for itself, not prone to looking back.

With a portrait his aim is not exactly to convey likeness, more an experience: how the person looks (including underthe skin); what's going on in their life (and his); the conditions ofthat evening. Like an apparition, something totally unforeseen, possibly lasting for just seconds, may spring from making a few brush strokes, establishing an area of truth which 'might actually expand into a whole truth'. The goal is a set of connections between the masses, the space, the sensations and a picture with a tense surface character. After each session he scrapes off the paint and beginsagain. A single painting mighttake months, even years, before something appears that he hadn't predicted and he hopes means the work is finished. (There is an analogy between Auerbach standing up, gesturing and drawing with a loaded brush, and a great actor's days of endless rehearsals and then unexpectedly inhabiting the character, the performance perhaps unrepeatable.)

To prepareforthe conversation printed in the catalogue for the Hayward exhibition, I went to see paintings in private and public collections and spoke to early collectors such as Frank's school friend the filmmaker Michael Roemer and David Wilkie, who commissioned the pictures after Titian in the 1960s that are now owned by Tate. Reading through various archives, I could tell that Auerbach responded with some impatience to those tasked with writing entries for new acquisitions. In reply to Penelope Marcus's and Anne Seymour's questions regarding Primrose Hill 1967-8, and in a letter to Sir Norman Reid, then Tate director, the artist protested at this painting being described as a visual record of the motif over time. Despite the existence of 50-odd sketches, made each morning on site for over a year, he explained thatthe work is a single indivisible image: 'There is no one-to-one relation of mark to object (such as lamp post, branch, puddle, etc)', the goal is 'to put down the mind's grasp of their relationship', the experience more haptic than retinal. He reminded them: 'Art is the performance of remarkable feats and requires exceptional efforts... Painting is a dumb activity, it has its own language, and it is, of course, essential to watch what the conjurer does and not listen to his patter. …

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