ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Frank Auerbach - 2015 - A Misunderstanding [EN, review],
Frank Auerbach in Tate Britain
Writing about art is like dancing on a rope. On the one hand, you have the physical artworks and the techniques of their creation. On the other, everything that has ever been said about them or, rather, the things that people feel obliged to say. The latter also applies to artists who sometimes don’t immediately understand what they’ve actually made.
Sterling Ruby (b. 1972) creates paintings that inevitably remind me of the bright colours on matte paper in the magnificent children’s books by Dick Bruna, despite the fact that Ruby has never made a personal link between his artworks and the fact that he has a Dutch mother and grew up with Bruna’s creations. There is nothing wrong with that. It offers a precise explanation for the way in which works of art can be understood in an intuitive, non-discursive way, or how it is possible to make objects that are new or say more than was initially envisaged. Sometimes, however, this misreading is not the result of the artist’s initial lack of cognisance as to the ‘significance’ or eloquence of his or her work. It is generated, instead, by a strange refusal to relinquish dated and appropriated formulas, or the original intention that the object has since transcended.
During a recent visit to a messy exhibition in London’s Tate Modern, I discovered a grey monochrome by Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). On the accompanying label, I read that this painting had been executed after a period of intense experimentation with colour and that, as such, it was the harbinger of a new ‘conceptual’ phase. Glancing to my left, I immediately saw that the canvas had been executed using a roller, one that might well have been dipped in ordinary latex paint. It made me laugh. Richter could have interpreted the painting as a ‘conceptual’ gambit, but it was also a joke that was predicated upon a very concrete formulation. If only ex-decorators could see this, I mused. This prompted me to think of the talented artist Michel Frère (1961-1999), who would habitually run his hand across the walls of an unfamiliar building and scrutinise the finish in an attempt to identify the type of paint. In 1984, during my stint as an actor, a theatre director berated me for having had the temerity to grant Frère access to the stage (he’d wanted to examine the set-painting techniques with his own eyes). In 1989, Frère guided me through the rooms of the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, expounding on the individual paintings and pointing out a wealth of intriguing details. Sometimes, it was the inclination of an arm, at others a touch of paint, or perhaps a frame.
Frère’s heroes were the painters Eugène Leroy (1910-2000) and Frank Auerbach (b. 1931). I jotted down their names in 1989, even though I’d never seen any of Auerbach’s work. Travelling to London today, in order to finally see his paintings in the flesh, takes me back in time and I feel the presence of my late friend. Auerbach’s paintings are sumptuous, generous, fiercely tactile and a feast for the eyes. I’m particularly moved by his earliest works from the fifties, where the absence of brushstrokes makes it impossible to understand his painting technique. Having watched Frère at work on several occasions, and since he was an imitator of Auerbach’s matière, I think I’ve worked it out. The paint isn’t applied with brushstrokes. Instead, the brush is used as a kind of stick or shovel for picking it up. With backward gestures of the hand, globs of paint are dragged across the surface of the canvas, to which they adhere in streaks. As a result, you can sometimes discern the loose strands of paint that have drifted down and settled. And that’s why you never see brushstrokes. From the 1960s onwards, however, Auerbach began to paint differently: setting down his characteristic bands of paint, always the width of the brush, and drawing them through the matière, like traces.
Before you enter the exhibition, you can watch a seven-minute film (an excerpt from a documentary by his son) in which Auerbach explains that a good painting must meet three conditions. Firstly, the ‘image’ must feel intense or alive and evoke weight, mass (resistance?) and movement, of the kind discernible in Watteau’s drawings. Then the image must be expressive. On the one hand the subject must transform itself into an ‘idea’, but on the other hand it needs to embody something very specific. Thirdly, the ‘image’ must possess a ‘tense surface character’, as seen in the composition of the British flag, for example.
What does Auerbach mean when he says that a painting has to be expressive? I don’t think he means it has to ‘express’ something, unless he is wrong. (Smiling icon.)
In my view, Auerbach is a disciple of Cézanne, a painter whose main preoccupation was not the ‘expression’ of feelings or ideas, but the rendering of his way of perceiving things (‘la sensation’). In this, he was followed by Malevich, Giacometti and Francis Bacon. This is evident from conversations with Cézanne and Francis Bacon, the writings of Giacometti and Malevich’s essay on Cézanne, in which he declines to speak about ‘expression’ and scrupulously avoids any reference to the external world of the ‘new’ painting.
Portraits and cityscapes
Perhaps one needs to live with Auerbach’s paintings in order to truly appreciate them? Failing that, one needs to at least be able to look at his canvases over an extended period of time. Perhaps they are the summation of his genuine attempt to depict his perceptions of weight and mass? Ultimately, they seem like autonomous textures in which one might glimpse, here and there, a fleeting reference to a real object without, however, wanting to reproduce it’s material presence, as is the case with Giacometti.
The exhibition includes, for example, several portraits of the curator, Catherine Lampert, who has sat for Auerbach for thirty-seven years (and who also compiled this exhibition and catalogue). Yet nowhere do these paintings categorically report on her physical existence. The drawings, however, are very different. Here, Auerbach evokes a sense of space and presence out of the illusory distance between the half-erased smudges of grey in the background and the solid black traces in the foreground.
When we look at the paintings, however, we see a juxtaposition of coloured patches or streaks of paint and can recognise the physical pleasure of painting, all of which calls to mind the spontaneous technique of a master like Constable. But we do not see portraits or cityscapes. What do we see then? The collision between the artist’s gaze and a reticent reality? I’m not sure. And what does Auerbach actually make? I wouldn’t call his works ‘images’ or ‘subjects that have become ideas’. They are paintings, I think, beautiful textures, which no art-lover can afford to miss.
Montagne de Miel, 23 October 2015