Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain
Primrose Hill, Autumn Morning, 1968
The show, currently at Tate Britain, selected by Auerbach himself includes eight or 10 paintings, mostly private loans, from each of the past six decades.
“It is the architecture that gives his paintings such authority,” Lucian Freud noted. “The composition is as right as walking down the street. The weather changes, so does the light.” His painterly approach moves in sync with developments to the city itself. Standing before “Winter Evening, Primrose Hill Study” (1974-75), a spiky pattern of thick black lines — trees, poles, fences — flaring from a damp green rectangle amid patches of sombre red and far-apart streetlamps, one remembers viscerally chilly, dark, empty, large-skied 1970s evenings.
In portraits, too, Auerbach’s shift is from opacity to clarity, impasto to greater fluidity, darkness to luxuriant colour. Always hints of posture, gesture, gaze, define the individual aura of sitter and milieu.
Auerbach seeks “to pin down an experience in its essential aspect before it disappears”, in a raw idiom born of the postwar conviction that to sustain figuration, as Bacon foresaw, “reworking the image will demand more and more profound, sensational and evocative ways” of handling paint.
No living British artist has grasped that nettle more inventively and intelligently than Auerbach. “Painting for me is a set of connections,” he says, “a set of sensations of conflicting movements and experiences, which somehow one hopes has congealed or cohered or risen out of the battle into being an image that stands up for itself.” Many magnificently memorable images stand up for themselves in this memorable exhibition.