The present work is an exemplary illustration of just one chapter in the longstanding relationship between the artist and his sitter, and Mills’ persistent appearance within Auerbach’s oeuvre illuminates her significance to his experiments with portraiture. The familiarity and intimacy of their friendship is evident in the thick layering of paint upon the surface of the canvas, and despite the artist’s tendency towards abstraction, the figure of J.Y.M. is nonetheless made apparent through heavy black brushstrokes amidst a plane of green, yellow, brown and white earth tones. Through this overt suggestion of the artist’s hand, the present composition offers a vigorous sense of velocity and motion, and while Auerbach confidently conveys an accurate image of his sitter’s psyche, his portraits are overwhelmingly physical, as much as they are mental. The artist noted himself: “Because if you’re drawing anything, even a person, your head goes up and down and swivels. What you’re seeing is in fact lots and lots of different linear perspectives that interpenetrate. So you’ve got to invent… the irrational marks actually seem a better record than the literal ones. They suggest things, and suddenly in a corner of the picture you get a little bit of truth, which might actually expand into a whole truth… What happens is that the painting begins to speak back to one” (Frank Auerbach cited in: Ibid., p. 195).
Auerbach’s portraits indeed offer a reflective sense of truth through their gesture and expression, and remain unique amongst the work of his contemporaries in Britain and further afield. While the vibrant colours and gestural abstractions of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and particularly the work of Willem de Kooning, are a critical influence on Auerbach’s work, a closer reading of the artist’s repertoire illuminates his innate reverence to art history and critical figures of the past, including Delacroix’s distinct use of colour, Turner’s sense of abstraction and the portrait compositions of Rembrandt. These artists remain Auerbach’s most dynamic influences, as made evident by his weekly visits to the National Gallery: “I went every day, for a long time. I drew from paintings then drew them as if I’d drawn them myself… [their styles] have tremendous brilliance, tremendous energy” (Frank Auerbach cited in: Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 7). Fusing art historical influences with contemporaneous relevance, J.Y.M. Seated II epitomises Auerbach’s unparalleled ability to capture the characteristic essence of his subject and create works far beyond the realm of traditional portraiture painting.
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