Paint­ings thick with emo­tions

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CUL­TURE ANTHEA GER­RIE

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

PHOTO, TATE BRI­TAIN

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