I have been lucky enough to go to two study visits at the British Museum Prints and Drawings Room. Each time, an Auerbach drawing has been included for us to study, and, for me, they were the highlight of the visit. I have to admit that I much prefer his drawings to his paintings. This is partly an inherent preference on my part for drawings. I enjoy seeing how the artist has worked things out, rather than some ‘finished’, polished final piece. Often it is also about the media, a directness of physical response expressed through the physicality of charcoal or graphite. I also like seeing the process, the erasures, restatements etc. Auerbach’s drawings demonstrate his dogged pursuit of a truth which seems to constantly elude him. He draws like a man panning for gold; an obsessive, hungry search. In his famous self-portrait of 1958, he has torn out areas of the drawing in order to restate and find what he was looking for. He calls this a ‘private quest’ (Tusa, 2002). He works with ‘a sense of resolve: Auerbach is battling toward a determinate goal, even though it is one that he can’t evoke verbally.’ (Schwabsky, 2016)
He is dedicated to the process of drawing and this process is both fast and slow. His sketches are clearly brisk and intuitive, each executed relatively quickly but the process of drawing a person or a place is repeated over and over again for decades.
His paintings are completed in a single sitting. The paintings are often rejected, scrapped back and the painting process restarted the next day: ‘there is just no alternative at all’ (Tusa). Days of painting and scrapping off can happen before a painting is finally realised. And what is this quest? What truth is he seeking? The portraits are representational but they are not realistic. The faces are pummelled and pushed into some sort of form. He records his debt to his tutor Bomberg who ‘allowed one to go for the essence, to adumbrate a figure, to redo it, to find different terms in which to restate it until one got something which, however unlike a poster of a figure or a photograph, that seemed to contain the mind’s grasp of the understanding of the subject’ (Tusa).
The parameter of time applies not just to the process. Robinson quotes Lyotard:
‘..between the time it takes the painter to paint the picture (time of ‘production’), the time required to look at it and understand it (time of ‘consumption’), the time to which the work refers (a moment, a scene, a situation, a sequence of events: the time of the diergetic referent, of the story told by the picture), the time it takes to reach the viewer once it has been ‘created’ (the time of circulation) and finally, perhaps, the time the painting is.’
(Robinson 2018:210, Lyotard 1991:78)
Robinson’s contention is that a painting by Auerbach (she is specifically discussing his landscapes but I think the proposition would hold for his portraits which can be viewed as landscapes of the face), is an accumulation of all the times spent drawing his subject, embodying many moments and that these layers of time can be perceived by the patient viewer as a ‘temporal unfolding’.
The Tate introduction to Auerbach says that he draws everyday but this is an historical statement. I suspect it is still true. The most recent work I have been able to find is ‘Reclining Head of Julia II’, 2016 (when he was 84 or 85). Comparing this with an earlier painting ‘Reclining Head of Julia III‘, 1995, this process of drawing over time has allowed him to become more economic, more focused on recording only the necessary and sufficient information to say what he needs to say. No more and no less.
Revisiting my preference for Auerbach’s drawings, I am forced to reconsider. His paintings (the 2016 work being an excellent example) have more in common with drawings than most artists’. The hand of its creator is very evident and the physical manipulation of the materials clearly displayed, and as so often observed, almost sculptural. I need to go and sit in front of his painting and absorb it in the same way that I did with his drawings in the British Museum although he says, ‘I feel very strongly that if a painting is going to work, it has to work before you have a chance to read it.’ (Tate).
Our course notes talk about the need for ‘courage and perseverance’ and these two attributes sum up the work of Frank Auerbach for me.
LYOTARD, J.F. 1991. ‘The Inhuman: Reflections on Time’, Cambridge: Polity Press
ROBINSON, A. 2018. ‘The viscosity of duration: Painterly surface and the phenomenology of time in the London paintings of Frank Auerbach’, Journal of Contemporary Painting, Volume 4, Issue 1 pp.199-217.
SCHWABSKY, B., 2016. ‘Frank Auerbach’, Artforum international., 54(6), pp. 247-248.
Tate. 2017. Who is Frank Auerbach?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/frank-auerbach/auerbach-introduction. [Accessed 18 October 2017].
TUSA, J. 2002 [radio]. ‘The John Tusa Interviews’, BBC Radio 3,14 August 2002 21:15