From City to Studio: Andrew Graham-Dixon on Britain's Visionaries

From City to Studio: Andrew Graham-Dixon on Britain's Visionaries

F rank Auerbach has spent most of his adult life in and around Camden Town in North London. It is a measure of his persistent fascination with this particular corner of the metropolis that he still works today in the same studio that he took on from fellow painter Leon Kossoff nearly seventy years ago, just ten years after the end of the Second World War. Walking the streets has always been a part of his studio routine, as well as part of his way of life. Immersion in the city is as important to Auerbach as it was to those artists of nineteenth-century Paris who were inspired, by Charles Baudelaire's call for "painters of modern life", to forsake the vacuous mythologies of the Salon for the precincts of the railway station, the building site and the slum.

In fact that ideal of commitment to the truth, however stained and dirty, first arrived in North London, eventually passing to Auerbach himself, by a process of direct transmission and inheritance. Edgar Degas, the most resolute French painter of modern life, taught Walter Richard Sickert, who went on to develop his own raw brand of urban realism in Camden Town. Sickert in turn taught David Bomberg who, in his turn, taught the young Auerbach. The line of descent from Paris to London, from Degas to Auerbach, is truly drawn tight.

How much might any of this inform our understanding of an Auerbach cityscape such as Mornington Crescent of 1969? It is not always easy to know exactly what is being described in the tangled forms of such a picture, which clearly seeks to capture the energies of the raucous dirty city rather than its literal appearance. They speak a language of metaphor rather than one of plain description. One of the things most vividly evoked by these grids and scaffolds of form, laid over thickly impasted paint which itself bears traces of other now buried structures, is the idea of transformation. Auerbach's city is a thing that endlessly makes and remakes itself, transformed by its own restless energies.

The artist knows (and tells us) that whichever particular London he happens to be painting, in this case the city of the late 1960s, is a very different thing than it was a decade earlier, and is destined to be transformed again, over and over, in the decades to follow. That is why so many of his structures aspire to the condition of the building site, or resolve into shapes that resemble bolted-together beams of scaffolding; and that is why the spaces between them, which might notionally be streets, resemble churned earth or freshly dug clay, or even some kind of primal ooze, glowing lividly with possibility. Nothing is ever still, nothing is ever fixed. The colours in the sky could be those of dawn or sunset; there is no way of telling which.

Frank Auerbach in his Camden studio.

Auerbach's earlier cityscapes, especially those of the 1950s, were morbid and melancholic, reminiscent of burial pits as much as construction sites - reminiscent, too, of open wounds or scars. Such pictures might be said to have offered up a bitter image of Western civilisation itself, as it must have seemed to many in the years just after World War Two (and particularly a Jewish emigre like Auerbach, sent to safety in England as a boy from Berlin): how much easier to rebuild a town than to take true stock of the evils of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust, yet no matter how much building takes place some memories cannot ever be effaced, replaced or filled in. They are dark paintings in every sense.

The feeling is very different in Mornington Crescent, lighter and more optimistic and charged with positive energy. If Auerbach's London pictures of the 1950s were the colours of mud and charred wood, the palette in this picture is dominated by a red like blood, by sharp accents of blue and green and expanses of pure, unmixed yellow. And if the presence of ghosts can be sensed within the image, they are not those of the victims of war, but those of other artists. One who springs to mind immediately is David Bomberg, whose muscular charcoal drawings of St Paul's Cathedral, created during the years of the Blitz, surely served as one of Auerbach's principal templates for the creation of an image such as this: one of the finest of those drawings, Evening in the City of London, which is to be found in the Ashmolean in Oxford, is indeed so suggestive of Auerbach's later pictures of London it might almost be a preparatory sketch or study for them, certainly some essential form of building block.

Yet of course Auerbach's work is essentially unique, being marked by his own idiosyncrasies, his own sense of touch and colour, his own feel for shape and space, and his own personal history. Despite sharing aspects of Bomberg's visual language and despite being animated by a not dissimilar ambition - Bomberg strove for what he called "the spirit in the mass", Auerbach for "fullness and perpetual motion" - he is of course and inevitably his own man and can be no other. Perhaps Auerbach's sense of that, along with his sense of fellow feeling, not only with Bomberg but many other artists too, is also part of the meaning of this deeply layered picture. The city has been remade in paint, in such a way as to prompt the thought that the art of painting is itself a kind of city: a place endlessly under reconstruction, its inhabitants inevitably coexisting with the spirits of their predecessors.

Auerbach's Portrait of JYM is a smaller picture created nearly twenty years later, in 1987. The subject is a woman, Juliet Yardley Mills, who sat regularly to the painter in his studio for more than 40 years. Despite the difference in genre and scale there is a striking similarity in approach, between this picture and the earlier cityscape. Just as Auerbach conceives London as a vector of forces and energies, he conceives the human being as motion and emotion: nothing still, for sure. Although Auerbach's portraits do not closely resemble those of Francis Bacon (whom he knew well) they exhibit a similar spirit of restlessness: in Bacon's case, this was conveyed by a brutal blurring of the face and body, often depicted as though wheeling in space; in Auerbach's portraits a similar effect is achieved by hectic zig-zags of heavily impasted paint dragged across or stabbed into the canvas. The vestige of a framework for an older and stiller kind of portrait is present, in the form of the high back and spindles of a rustic chair, only to be thoroughly subverted: out of that chair the figure seems to rise with enough force to lurch almost out of the picture, so fast that it is hard to say what she actually looks like. She is described not so much as a person, but as a power, quivering with energy. It is as if a lightning storm were to have been confined within a room.

Night Interior is a portrait by Auerbach's close friend Lucian Freud, painted in the late 1960s. It is one of the key pictures of Freud's career. Not only was it painted at a moment when he was on the verge of deepening his practice as a painter of portraits in all sorts of ways, it is also a picture that seems to define, with unsettling clarity, Freud's very notion of portraiture itself - so much so that it might be seen as a kind of manifesto, albeit a characteristically understated one.

The sitter for the picture was a woman called Penny Cuthbertson, whom Freud valued for her lack of self-consciousness. Here he shows her asleep or dozing in a slightly battered wicker chair on wheels, adrift on the floor of a corner of the studio, painted so fluidly it might almost be a kind of muddy sea. Freud was after bare human presence, without pose or pretence - a kind of naked reality - and everything else in the room is subordinate to that. The room itself is, in fact, a kind of trap laid to catch whatever moment of human reality his sitter might grant to him, by relaxing sufficiently for the truth to appear; and in this particular moment, that is just what has happened.

Lucian Freud in his Paddington studio, London, 1952-1953. © John Deakin / John Deakin Archive / Bridgeman Images.

Nothing else matters and nothing else exists, for the painter, at a moment such as this. He makes that plain in the virtuoso striations of black that define the panes of glass in the sash window. It is night outside, and maybe raining, but the truth is that as far as he is concerned the outside might not even be there: only this indoors exists, lit by a naked lightbulb reflected in the one pane of glass that is not pure black. There is no true vertical in the painting, every single thing - from wardrobe to window frame to floor to skirting to bath and boiler and sink - being aslant and askew. Perhaps this was the painter's way of saying that at this precise turn of the world's kaleidoscope he has found that which he has been looking for: a real human being, in all her vulnerability, who has not only agreed to be painted but has consented to be caught and preserved in the truth of her, in the fullness and plainness of her mortality, for which Freud finds a poignant metaphor in the clanking boiler with all its pipework.

The painter has included himself in the picture too, in the form of his own coat and boots half-spilling out of the cheap wardrobe squeezed into the narrowest corner of the room. Observation is not a one-way street. Her mortality has made him reflect on his own, and that is part of the contract agreed between painter and sitter: they are in it together. This is what makes the room, which at first sight seems so cramped, eventually open up, to become a space as large as life itself.

Contemporary Art

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