From more than four thousand sittings over a period of 26 years, Frank Auerbach produced about eighty paintings and drawings of Estella (Stella) Olive West. There have been none made since 1973. At first he would kneel on the floor with the board propped against a chair, working under electric light and with more paint being applied to the floor than the board: 'It was quite an ordeal, because he would spend hours on something and the next time he came he would scrape the whole lot down. That used to upset me terribly. I wondered what I was doing it all for.' (E.O.W. quoted in John O’Mahony, Surfaces and Depths, The Guardian, 15th September 2001). Auerbach describes that during the first few sittings for a work his painting would be timid and exploratory, before he was eventually able to gain the confidence and vision to instinctively, almost unconsciously, repaint the entire work from top to bottom.
Aged just seventeen, Auerbach made his intentions towards the thirty-two-year-old widow clear by boldly removing the forty odd pins from her carefully arranged hair at the after-party to the production of Peter Ustinov’s ‘House of Regrets’ at the Union Theatre, in which both had acted. He soon moved into her house in Earl’s Court and the sittings began. The close relationship between Artist and sitter provided tension as well as slavish dedication, both of which are clearly legibly in the painted surface. Although the relationship was often fraught and at times explosive, reminiscent of that between Alberto Giacometti and his wife Annette, its longevity and intensity were integral to Auerbach’s laboured process. Indeed the process itself was perhaps an attempt to pin down the poignancy of their relationship, to solidify the liquidity of that experience.
In the early 60s, when Stella had moved to Brentford in West London, Auerbach would occasionally bring Lucian Freud for so called 'Saturday Night Nosh' of roast lamb and cake. Over this decade his paintings would develop a chromatic intensity which grew with the physical thickness of the painted surface. The sculptural surfaces of these works are vibrantly balanced and demonstrate significant restraint, despite their free fluidity, for with only a few short strokes the paint would blend into uncharacteristic uniformity.
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