Paintings thick with emotions
AN OBSESSIVE whose ceaseless overworking has made paint merchants rich, or Britain’s greatest living artist? Frank Auerbach’s star has risen sharply since seven decades of his work opened to acclaim at the Tate last week. The universal rave reviews are surprising given how hard the products of his labour can be to love: “I used to hate it,” admits Mayfair art dealer Daniel Katz, who lent pictures to the show. “I still don’t think the portraits, where you can barely make out a nose or an eye, convey emotion. I do think it’s all about the paint — Frank lives, breathes and feels it like no one else I’ve ever seen.”
Yet, as the compulsion to paint every day of his life, scraping off his work for months or years and reapplying until he finally feels able to consider a picture finished, is driven by an anguished past, it’s tempting to wonder if the lawyer’s son descended from rabbis would have wound up behind a desk instead of an easel had he stayed in Berlin.
But the rise of Hitler intervened. Auerbach’s parents used their money and connections to get their only child to Britain in 1939 and, after a brief dabble with acting, he doggedly pursued a career in paint which left him impoverished until middle age.
Even now, financially secure, Auerbach lives modestly, owning only two suits. Blame it on his insistence, according to long-time sitter David Landau, on holding his prices down to a fraction of their market worth in order to keep his pictures affordable.
“He is a real mensch — so generous and modest in spite of his success,” says Landau, who sat for him every week for 26 years. “I look forward to our meetings in a way you don’t with other appointments; he has become my best friend.” Auerbach’s patient sitters, including his friend from art school days Leon Kossoff, progressing through his muse and lover of 15 years Stella Wood, his son Jake, and wife of 57 years, Julia, who came back into his life after years of
E.O.W., Half-length Nude, 1958 ,estrangement, and Catherine Lampert, who also became his curator, have replaced the companionship of parents Auerbach claims he never missed after learning they had died in the camps. “That’s just a defence; there’s no way, given he was eight when he left them, that he couldn’t have been affected three years later by news of what happened,” says Landau, while Lampert claims: “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.”
There is no doubt Auerbach found a family substitute in students and teachers at Bunce Court, a Kent school set up for refugees fleeing the Nazis, and later in his friendships with Kossoff and Lucian Freud, who held the Greatest Living British Artist title until his recent death. Now Auerbach is the second Jew in a row — indeed, the second saved from Nazi persecution — to be so acclaimed by the country that adopted him.
Daniel Katz believes the market for Auerbach will explode: “His work has already fetched £2m and will eventually command £20m.” Lucky, then, for the sitters who are often made presents of their portraits, including Landau, although he points out: “No one who has an Auerbach wants to sell it. We all remain very attached and there is a long list of people waiting to buy the few which come up for sale.” Hardly surprising Auerbach’s output is so low, given the snail’s pace at which he works: “It took Frank three years to complete one picture of me. He typically scrapes off most of the paint at the end of a session, leaving just a stain before starting again at the next sitting.”
No wonder, given his outlay on paint, Auerbach allows himself only one other extravagance — a relatively recent splurge on minicabs between the Mornington Crescent studio he took over from Leon Kossoff 60 years ago and the Finsbury Park flat where he spends weekends with his wife.
Those on Hampstead Road at dawn may well encounter the still fit and handsome 84-year-old searching for a subject to inspire his next work. “He happily interacts with strangers,” says Lampert, noting the artist invited neighbours and his barber to the Tate reception in his honour.
It is ultimately down to Auerbach’s talent as his own curator and the fact that so many paintings have never been seen before that the world has learnt how the master of murk lightened up as he shed post-Holocaust pessimism and found joy in his wife and son. The vibrant, dynamic paintings made since are alive with colour rather than thick layers of impasto, and the odd bods who people the landscape are recorded for posterity as tenderly as loved ones with their own, very personal, blob of paint. Frank Auerbach is on show at Tate Britain until March 13