This is one of several paintings of the same subject Auerbach made during the second half of the 1960s. Other versions of the painting, Reclining Figure in the Studio 1966, Figure on Bed 1967 and Figure on a Bed 1968 (all private collection), share a composition based on largely monotone, horizontal bands of colour. These contrast dramatically with paintings of another woman on a bed which Auerbach had been making in the period immediately preceding. E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown 1965, E.O.W. Head on her Pillow 1966 and E.O.W. Sleeping 1966 (all private collection) depict Auerbach’s principal model and one-time lover, Estella West, in undulating forms and thickly textured paint which blends on the canvas. The model in the Figure on a Bed series was J.Y.M. (Juliet Yardley Mills), a professional life model whom Auerbach had met in 1956 at Sidcup College of Art in Kent. She began modelling for him in 1957 and was the first person to be painted in his studio. The mid-1960s were a period of transition in Auerbach’s work. A recent contract with the Beaux Arts Gallery, London enabled him to buy expensive coloured pigments for the first time, resulting in a move away from his exclusive use of ochres, bland and white. Brilliant red, green, turquoise and yellow feature particularly in paintings made in 1966-7. A series of landscapes depicting Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill in north London made between 1967 and 1969 feature these bright colours coupled with geometric and linear formations, which are echoed in Figure on a Bed. In contrast with the artist’s characteristic earlier use of extraordinarily dense paint, appearing like an encrustation built out of the canvas, in these later works the paint is applied in a relatively sparing manner. Auerbach uses his fingers as well as thick brushes with which to apply and manipulate the paint on his chosen surface, which may be board or canvas. He paints energetically, returning repeatedly to the same work, scraping it down and remaking it many times. He has commented:
The problem of painting is to see a unity within a multiplicity of pieces of evidence and the very slightest change of light, the very slightest, tiniest hairs-breadth inflection of the form creates a totally different visual synthesis, I actually more or less start again every time the model rests and gets up again, but my mind has travelled along certain paths and tried out certain possibilities and created certain hopes, so that I somehow digest some of the possibilities. When the conclusion occurs and I feel I’ve been lucky enough to find some sort of whole for this overwhelming and unmanageable heap of sensations and impressions, I think that the previous attempts have contributed.
(Quoted in Frank Auerbach, p.10.)
Auerbach first came to London as a refugee from Berlin in 1939. After spending the war years at a school evacuated to Shropshire, he returned to London in 1947, where he has been based ever since. A large proportion of his paintings are portraits of people with whom he has built up long term relationships. His landscapes are all scenes familiar to him in London. Like his close friend Leon Kossoff (born 1926), he was taught by David Bomberg (1890-1957) at Borough Polytechnic Institute in the early 1950s and deeply influenced by his belief that painting should apprehend and express its subject in terms beyond the visual and physical. Auerbach has expressed this as feeling ‘that there was an area of experience – the haptic, the tangible, what you feel when you touch somebody next to you in the dark – that hadn’t perhaps been recorded in painting before’ (quoted in Lampert, p.23). His work prioritises instinct and the unconscious over concept and control. He has explained: ‘as soon as I become consciously aware of what the paint is doing my involvement with the painting is weakened. Paint is at its most eloquent when it is a by-product of some corporeal, spatial, developing imaginative concept, a creative identification with the subject.’ (Quoted in Lampert, p.27.) Auerbach aims to inhabit his subject in order to experience and record an ‘essence’. In Figure on a Bed, unusually, the body of the nude model is concealed by a blue cover. Verging on abstraction, the image conveys mood through colour and the energy with which the paint has been applied.
The screenprint Reclining Figure I 1966 (Tate P04013) depicts the same subject.
Frank Auerbach, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London and Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 1978
Catherine Lampert, Norman Rosenthal and Isabel Carlisle, Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2001
The Wilkie Gift: Contemporary Art from the Collection of David Wilkie (1921-1992), exhibition brochure, Tate Gallery, London 1994, reproduced (colour) [p.4]