Frank Auerbach was a trailblazer amongst the new generation of artists who built their reputations amidst the embers of war-torn London during the 1950s. He had moved to London from Berlin in 1939 and attended St Martin’s School of Art but soon discovered David Bomberg’s evening classes at the Borough Polytechnic which were to prove inspirational to his development. Bomberg encouraged an organic, spontaneous approach to capturing form, what he termed the ‘spirit in the mass’ and Auerbach remembers that ‘he had this sort of idiom that allowed one to go for the essence at the very beginning to adumbrate a figure in ten minutes and then to re-do it and then to find different terms in which to re-state it until one got something… (Frank Auerbach, interview with John Tusa, BBC Radio 3, 7th October 2001).
Head of Jym III is the ultimate example of all that he had learnt from Bomberg but also demonstrates the dramatic innovations he brought to portraiture, that most traditional of artistic genres. Throughout his career Auerbach pursued the same subjects, close friends and admirers of his work, and none more so than Juliet Yardley Mills. An artist herself, she first posed for him in 1956 when she was a professional model at Sidcup College of Art, and continued to do so until her final appearance in Head of JYM III (1997, Private Collection) at the age of eighty. Catherine Lampert, who has sat for Auerbach since 1978, has accounted that JYM became the first regular sitter at the artist’s Camden studio, where he had moved in 1954.
The task of sitting for Auerbach was no easy feat. JYM arrived every Wednesday and Sunday having taken two buses from her home in southeast London and would sustain awkward poses for four hours or more. The two formed a close attachment throughout this forty year working relationship, as JYM later described after her retirement from sitting: ‘We had a wonderful relationship because I thought the world of him and he was very fond of me. There was no sort of romance but we were very close. Real friends. Sundays now I’m always miserable’ (quoted in Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings, op. cit., pp.26-7).
The intensity of Auerbach’s response to his sitter and subject is gloriously brought to life through his bravura handling of oil, his masterful treatment of paint application and structural composition. The paint has been acutely layered to create a textured topography of pigment where impasto seemingly drips from the surface enlivening the bold silhouette that emerges from the composition. Amid swathes of dramatic brushwork and sculptural surface reworked time and time again, the tangible intensity of Auerbach’s subject materialises. The colour palette is reduced - swirls of ochre, reds, and greenish yellow articulate the pose of the figure. JYM sits upright in the chair, the sharp angles of her face delineated by rich grey.
The intense accretion of paint mirrors Auerbach’s acute powers of scrutiny and reveals his passionate relationship with paint; building up the surface of the composition, scraping it away only to build it up again, always striving to capture the unique presence of the person, the very essence of the being seated before him: '…the paint became thicker and thicker, and I didn't notice it...the surface of the painting was eloquent, but it wasn't eloquent for its own sake... It wasn't intentional at all. But on the other hand I was quite prepared to let anything happen because I wanted to make something new' (Frank Auerbach, quoted in William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, Rizzoli, New York, 2009, p.231).
The immediate force and vigour of execution of the present work demonstrates Auerbach's intimate psychological response to his subjects and further serves as an outstanding exemplification of the emotional dialogue between the artist and one of his longest standing subjects.
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