Who is Frank Auerbach?

Frank Auerbach Self-portrait drawing
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© Frank Auerbach

Courtesy Daniel Katz Gallery, London and Marlborough Fine Art

Painter Frank Auerbach has made some of the most resonant and inventive paintings of recent times, of people and urban landscapes. He works every day, constantly returning to a narrow range of subjects: landscapes near his studio in North London and a relatively small number of sitters, whom he will paint weekly. 

Born in Berlin in 1931, Auerbach came to Britain in 1939, just before his eighth birthday, as a refugee from the Nazis. After attending Bunce Court School in Kent, he moved to London in 1947, where he has lived since.

Having not done an interview in over a decade, Auerbach recently spoke to Cultural Correspondent Stephen Smith for BBC Newsnight. Watch the interview: 

Who were his peers?

Deciding to become an artist at the age of 16, Auerbach began going to art classes taught by the painter David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic, which he continued to attend whilst also studying at St Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. During this time he became friends with Leon Kossoff; their work has been often compared. In 1954 he occupied a studio in Camden Town which had previously been used by Kossoff and he has been based there ever since.

Auerbach is often associated with a circle of figurative painters known as the School of London, a term used by R.B.Kitaj in 1976 when speaking of British artists he particularly admired. Exhibitions with this label included the artists Michael Andrews, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff, but Auerbach has said that he does not feel part of this or any group. Lucian Freud was one of his closest friends and a collector of his work. After Freud’s death in 2011, Freud’s collection of 45 paintings and drawings by Auerbach were distributed to museums throughout the UK. Read more about this collection from our past display BP Spotlight: Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings from the Lucian Freud Estate.

What is his process?

Heavy painted and expressive portrait of artist Leon Kossoff in dark colours including white, blue and black
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Private collection
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Frank Auerbach, ‘E.O.W. Nude’ 1953–4
Frank Auerbach
E.O.W. Nude 1953–4
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© Frank Auerbach
Heavy painted landscape with thick lines of buildings, people and transport in Mornington Cresent
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Private collection courtesy of Eykyn Maclean, LP 
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art  Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio

Expressive portrait of a woman sitting in a chair with arms crossed, with thick paint and black outlines.
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Private collection, New York 
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art  Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

Frank Auerbach, ‘The Origin of the Great Bear’ 1967–8
Frank Auerbach
The Origin of the Great Bear 1967–8
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© Frank Auerbach

I want everything in the painting to work, that is, every force, every plane, every direction to relate to every other direction in the painting – so there’s no paradiddle or blot somewhere. I feel very strongly that if a painting is going to work, it has to work before you have a chance to read it.
Frank Auerbach

Auerbach doesn’t visualise a picture before he begins. In the early years he would paint on top of the previous day’s work, hence the very thick surfaces. However, since the 1960s Auerbach has scraped down the whole surface before the next attempt. The final picture therefore, is in a sense done in one go, but it has actually required 30, 50 or perhaps 200 separate versions that are judged not good enough, before the final image suddenly emerges. For practical reasons he does not paint landscapes from life, but rather works from drawings created on site.

Who were his models?

Frank Auerbach, ‘Head of E.O.W.’ 1959–60
Frank Auerbach
Head of E.O.W. 1959–60
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© Frank Auerbach

Most of Auerbach’s sitters pose every week, often over many years. He has said:

I find myself simply more engaged when I know the people. They get older and change; there is something touching about that, about recording something that’s getting on.

Auerbach’s interest in acting led him to meet Estella (Stella) Olive West (‘E.O.W’) when they acted together in a play in 1948. He painted her for 23 years. Other sitters have included professional model Julia Yardley Mills (J.Y.M), Auerbach’s wife Julia, his son Jake, and Catherine Lampert who has sat regularly for Auerbach since 1978. David Landau and William Feaver are also regular sitters.

Who has influenced him?

Auerbach often cites his admiration for old and modern masters including Rembrandt, Constable, Rubens and Picasso, as seen for example in Bacchus and Ariadne, 1971 after the painting by Titian. As well as acknowledging their influence and the importance of the history of painting, he is also inspired by the intimacy of their subjects.

Frank Auerbach, ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ 1971
Frank Auerbach
Bacchus and Ariadne 1971
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© Frank Auerbach

With the passage of time, Constable has meant more and more to me….He seems to have walked every path, measured every distance between every tree. Everything has been worked for and made personal so you sometimes feel that Constable’s own body is somehow inside the landscapes there.
Frank Auerbach

What is his legacy?

What I am trying to make is a stonking, independent, coherent image that has never been seen before…that stalks into the world like a new monster.
Frank Auerbach

In 1986 Auerbach was selected for the British Pavilion at the XLII Venice Biennale, winning the Golden Lion Prize along with Sigmar Polke.

The British contemporary artist Glenn Brown, has appropriated his work, as seen in The Day The World Turned Auerbach, 1991. Brown’s reuse of art imagery demonstrates Auerbach’s iconic status whilst also commenting on the disloyalty of reproduction.

What do the critics say?

Auerbach has the qualities that make for greatness in a painter – fearlessness; a profound originality; a total absorption in what obsesses him; and, above all, a certain gravity and authority in his forms and colours.
David Sylvester

Auberbach is a landscape painter, but a peculiar kind. Nature for him seems to be instantaneous. It leaps out of the void.
T. J. Clark

The virtue of these paintings (the building site paintings 1952–62) is to capture both the gravity and lightness of an era, when everything was changing. Londoners salvaged beauty from chaos as they moved the city toward recovery.
Michael Kimmelman

See also