- Frank Auerbach
- Primrose Hill, Summer
- titled and dated 1968 on the reverse
- oil on board
- 122 by 122cm.; 48 by 48in.
Dr and Mrs Alejandro Zaffaroni, California (acquired from the above in 1968)
Sale: Christies, London, Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 26 June 2003, Lot 18
Richard Green Fine Art, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2004
William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, p. 264, no. 245, illustrated in colour
Frank Auerbach quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Royal Academy of Arts, Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, 2001, p. 15.
The geographical environs of North London are as inextricable from Frank Auerbach’s oeuvre as his signature buttery application of pulpy pigment and nowhere are they more evident than in Primrose Hill, Summer. Since he moved to Mornington Crescent in 1952, Auerbach has seldom left this small pocket in the north of the city, apart from his almost weekly visits to the National Gallery with good friend and artist Leon Kossoff. Auerbach's dynamic paintings of Primrose Hill go beyond mere topography; they are a daring recreation, rather than representation, of a place that resonates on a profoundly personal level with the artist: “I can't think of paintings of London that are like my own… It's the fact that London has been so little painted that is my motive, rather than a legacy of showing London. London is a terra incognita” (Frank Auerbach in conversation with James Hyman, 1990, online resource). Executed in 1968, Primrose Hill, Summer is one of the artist’s earliest and largest painterly musings on Primrose Hill. Architecturally crafted with exclamatory zigzags, which act as compositional armatures connecting the canary yellow sky and the verdant ground with characteristic aplomb, Primrose Hill, Summer is a chromatic explosion of jubilant, vibrant colour, not seen before with such intensity in Auerbach’s early art. Attesting to its importance, the sister painting of the present work, Primrose Hill from 1967-68, is currently on view at the acclaimed Walk Through British Art exhibition at Tate Britain alongside seminal British works such as David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash and one of Francis Bacon’s infamous Black Triptychs of George Dyer. As such, Primrose Hill is nothing if not a stalwart icon of British art.
Auerbach’s inspiration for his landscapes were usually from northern models; in particular, he was fascinated by the awe-inspiring high skies and rigid shadows of Rembrandt’s pastoral Three Trees, 1643, and the wonderfully rich tonalities of Ruben’s bucolic scenes. Ultimately, it was the compositional ambition and infatuation with succulent, sticky paint displayed by John Constable, however, that became Auerbach’s great exemplar. Constable was to Auerbach what Claude Lorrain was to Constable. The manner by which Constable appeared to endow the qualities of his paint with those of the landscape he was depicting – a transformation of pigment into the substance of imaginative realisation – was something that Auerbach truly mastered in Primrose Hill, Summer. Here, the pulpy geometric lines of lustrous crimson that streak across the foreground emulate and evocatively express the swaying trees on Primrose Hill through their very materiality. Speaking modestly about how he related to art historical masterpieces, Auerbach remarked: “one hopes somehow to make something that has a similar degree of individuality, independence, fullness and perpetual motion to these pictures. But actually one hopes, though of course one won’t achieve it… to surpass them” (Frank Auerbach quoted in: Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 8). Perhaps the notion of ‘surpassing’ is not the best way to describe the relationship between Auerbach and Constable, but Primrose Hill, Summer is certainly ‘individual’ and ‘independent’, driving the abstraction of landscape in a pioneering direction.
To create his landscapes Auerbach had to radically alter his studio practice, conscious as he was of taking his easel outside to work in “the ludicrous way I do” (Frank Auerbach quoted in: op. cit., p. 160). Auerbach’s answer was to create deft sketches in situ on the Hill and then return to his studio to create the final painting. No longer confined indoors, the artist found great abandon drawing plein-air and the resultant paintings are largely characterised by the way that they conflate his memory of the Hill and the reality he recorded. Speaking about this intriguing fusion of the concrete and the illusionary, Auerbach expanded: “There has to be a conflict of what one wants and what actually exists; so one goes out and does a drawing, and it’s always easier to do a drawing of a place nearby. Also there is a kind of intimacy and excitement and confidence that comes from inhabiting the painting and knowing exactly where everything is, and a sort of magic in conjuring up a real place, a record that is somewhere between one’s feeling… and the appearance. Well more than appearance. Substance” (ibid.).
The impact of recording the landscape outdoors, a practice he only began in mid-1960s, further enabled Auerbach to free up his palette. The first large scale Primrose Hill pictures, of which Primrose Hill, Summer is an outstanding example, are like an explosion of iridescent colour in contrast to a largely muted, earth-toned early practice. Primrose Hill, Summer is literally the colour of the delicate primrose flower, as bathed in yellow as the sun-drenched landscapes of Arles and the dry shores of Collioure. The bold application of yellow renders sky and grass into a single immersive field, tinged green where great swathes of blue underpainting rise to the surface. With characteristic boldness and plasticity, Primrose Hill, Summer is a definitive example of how Auerbach has utterly revived and revivified the genre of abstraction in landscape.