Magazine article The Spectator

Obsessive Natures

Magazine article The Spectator

Obsessive Natures

Article excerpt

Call me obsessed if you like, but I feel a strong connection between the paintings of Frank Auerbach (currently on display at the Royal Academy) and the music of G.P. da Palestrina (some might put in J.S. Bach here, but the parallels are stronger with Palestrina). It's worth mentioning because this connection is not common: the almost perfect idiom from the beginning which changes only by very gradual intensification, coupled to a lifestyle which is profoundly rooted in one place. I can think of very few other artists who have been content to work completely single-mindedly from the inside out as it were for 50 years, disallowing any apparent external influences to redirect them once they were set - and it makes these two awkward customers. To view them is an all-or-nothing experience. If one fails to understand the earliest work, one's problem can only deepen. Subsequent enlightenment is unlikely.

Their biographies are revealing. Auerbach has worked in the same studio in London's Camden Town since 1954. At that time he started to paint the streets and buildings which surrounded him: the Art Deco Cameras cigarette factory; Camden Palace; Primrose Hill; Park Village East; Mornington Crescent; the approach to his studio. For nearly 50 years Auerbach has visited and revisited these local scenes in different seasons, intensifying his view of them. The same persistence is true of his approach to portraiture - he has almost never undertaken portrait commissions but painted a few longstanding friends repeatedly, in one case for more than 40 years. In the exhibition a whole room is dedicated to portraits of his wife, Julia.

We are told that Auerbach lives an almost hermitic existence, painting 365 days in the year and rarely leaving his studio. If he was ever known to travel abroad it would tell us nothing about his souces of inspiration. Palestrina also famously made only one journey in his long life - from his native hilltop town outside Rome to Rome itself, to work for the Vatican in various of its foundations, not least the Sistine Chapel. He refused to go even to Florence. His equivalent of Camden Palace and the rest are the texts of the Catholic liturgy, some of which he returned to constantly throughout his life. He set the Mass Ordinary, for example, 107 times, which is probably an all-time record. …

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