Scraping and Scumbling

Sliding from order into chaos: “Mornington Crescent”, 1965, by Frank Auerbach (image: Frank Auerbach)

Frank Auerbach is the third man in the great triumvirate of postwar British figurative painters. Like his older peers and friends Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud he was initially an outsider, born, as was Freud, in Berlin (Bacon was born in Ireland) and he too came to use paint not so much as a method of recording but as one of exploration. Not that Auerbach sees himself as part of a group: in 1961 he said, “I think of painting as something that happens to a man working in a room, alone with his actions, his ideas and perhaps his model . . . but he seems to be the sole coherent unit.” The key word here is “alone”; Auerbach, now aged 84, is the most personal of artists.

Auerbach was sent to Britain as an eight-year-old by his parents in 1939: he never saw them again and does not know in which concentration camp they died in 1942. After school he studied art in London, where one of his tutors was David Bomberg, and where he has lived and worked ever since. He is essentially a portraitist with two subjects: London — specifically the area around his home in Camden Town — and a very small group of friends and models. In the same studio he has used since the 1950s, Auerbach paints these subjects all day, every day. For each finished work there are innumerable failed versions since he remorselessly scrapes off each day’s work and starts again, over and over, in an attempt to get the “right” image. The work that does survive is not built in layers but painted rapidly and fluidly in a matter of hours.

The extraordinary thickness of his paint, in whose sticky whirlpools and scumblings buildings and people seem simultaneously to deliquesce and coalesce, has led his pictures to be likened to relief sculptures and Auerbach himself labelled an Expressionist. Neither term is quite right: as he told his biographer and model Catherine Lampert, “It’s got to do with sensation. It’s all done on one’s nerves.” Just how sensory Auerbach’s tight but tactile universe is is made clear in a major retrospective opening this month at Tate Britain.

Auerbach’s work serves as a chronicle of people and places. In the 1950s, using dark earth hues, he painted building sites and the destruction left by wartime bombs. People, such as Leon Kossoff and Estella Olive West (E.O.W. in his paintings’ titles), were given the same funerary treatment. Over the years as the city came back to life his colours lightened and by the 1960s he was picturing Primrose Hill in a literal primrose yellow, and Camden Town and Mornington Crescent in throbbing reds and oranges — colour schemes that owe a lot to the palette of Bomberg. “What I wanted to do was to record the life that seemed to me to be passionate and exciting and disappearing all the time,” Auerbach has said. It is hard though not to see the increasing lushness of his colouring and the generosity of his paint as a reaction against the wartime austerity that framed his childhood.

Interestingly, Auerbach’s pictures of both people and places start as traditional sketches. It is only as the pictures progress that recognisable forms begin to dissolve, stirred out of shape in the paint to the point of abstraction. It is the sketches that act as a crib that allows the viewer to make out the underlying structure of each painting, be that buildings or bones. What the pictures show is a perception of a world that perpetually slides from order to chaos and perhaps by controlling the paint Auerbach hopes to control that slide.

At the Grand Palais in Paris (until January 11, 2016) there is an opportunity to see the work of one of France’s most significant and most frequently overlooked portraitists, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842). She was a painter who transcended her gender to carve out a lucrative career in the age of sensibility. Where she excelled was in marrying Rococo prettiness with neoclassical clarity. She specialised in painting women and became portraitist to Marie Antoinette. A pair of paintings exhibited at the Salon of 1787 show something of her breadth and why she became so popular. The first, depicting Marie Antoinette surrounded by her children, was a mutually-agreed attempt to portray the queen as an emblem of maternity to counter the popular opinion that saw her as a foreign spendthrift and libertine. The second, based on Raphael, was a self-portrait with her own daughter Julie — a Rousseau-esque image of mother-daughter tenderness that borders on the cloying but never crosses over to it. The picture was initially controversial because she portrayed herself smiling and teeth were thought to be unseemly in a portrait. Both paintings show her as a faultless interpreter of the mores of the ton.

With the French Revolution and the fall of the royal family, Vigée Le Brun hastened into exile and toured Europe, from Italy to Russia and Britain, where her skills and associated royal glamour ensured a stream of commissions. What was perhaps remarkable is that the revolution had absolutely no effect on her art. Her patroness and many friends and clients may have lost their heads but Vigée Le Brun continued to paint a rosy-lipped world wrapped in muslins. Standing outside events did her career no harm and her sitters included, among others, Lord Byron, Emma Hamilton, the last king of Poland and Catherine the Great’s granddaughters (and a commission to paint the empress herself which was never completed).

Vigée Le Brun was allowed by Napoleon to return to France and outlived the emperor, just as she had the ancien régime and the revolution, and died during the reign of Louis Philippe. Taste had moved on but at her best she was an incomparable recorder of let-them-eat-cake French society.

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