Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 99, no. 60, illustrated in colour
William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, p. 281, no. 389, illustrated in colour
Rendered in a thickly-churned impasto painstakingly scraped away and re-applied, To the Studios presents a unity of architectonic structures, organic swirls, swathes and daubs, and luscious chromatic combinations of earthy autumnal hues with vegetal, swampy greens. The viewer identifies gables, archways, stairwells and rooftops amongst a symphony of nameless shapes; each such item – familiar or otherwise – forms a component of this meticulous representation of a portion of the artist’s lived experience. Influenced by the landscapes of Delacroix, Courbet, Daumier and Cézanne, Auerbach describes his own method as “always a process of invention… always a process of suddenly seeing a unity in the disparate things one’s trying to hold together” (Frank Auerbach in conversation with Catherine Lampert in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Britain, Frank Auerbach, 2015, p. 152). The diligence and care with which Auerbach famously scrapes and reapplies paint in his compositions is an attempt to transmute the perpetual shift of lived experience – its constant alterations and corrections, its eternal and unstoppable flux. It is only “when the conclusion occurs and I feel I’ve been lucky enough to find some sort of whole for this overwhelming and unmanageable heap of sensations…[that] I think the previous attempts have contributed” (Ibid., p. 142). The raw tactility of the paint in To the Studios conjures not just the brute tangibility of the world around us, but also the sheer miracle of materiality itself.
For the majority of these paintings, Auerbach focused on a view involving the red-brick, Victorian house containing his studio to the left – signposted in crimson capitals – and a block of more modern houses to the right. These poles are separated by an inchoate, Escher-like hotchpotch of girders and beams reminiscent of vaulting Tudor stairwells. The backs of terraces are elided in the middle-ground, and the upper floors of the Egyptian Revival building Greater London House – often gleaming white, but in this case an ochre-framed blue – are visible in the distance at centre-right. For these compositions, Auerbach changed his practice and created sketches in situ before returning to his studio to work on the final painting over the course of many months. The earthy colour scheme with which Auerbach painted this space reflects not just the organic processes by which London breathes and changes, but the artist’s love and need for these buildings and their contents. Auerbach describes himself at this time as being “in continual fear”, fear “of being thrown out or something going wrong, and I may say that before [the studio] was re-built I think the Council… would have disapproved of it. I needed this space like a drowning man to a raft” (Frank Auerbach cited in: Catherine Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London 2015, p. 171). One has the sense, in looking at To the Studios, of a very human activity: the return to what one knows and what one does as a means of coming to terms with one’s nostalgia for a present too easily envisaged as past.
Auerbach’s studio was modernised by Long & Kentish in 1990. The resultant space possessed several advantages over the previous – including sources of radically increased natural light and facilities for storing and accessing Auerbach’s enormous stock of paint – but it was, of course, distinct from the previous. The To the Studios series is a kind of record or document of the architectural, chromatic and emotional properties of a certain place at a certain time, for a certain person. As Robert Hughes expressed, “what counts most in Auerbach’s work is the sense it projects of the immediacy of experience… Like all painting, good or bad, it is coded. But the clear purpose of its codes is to clarify Auerbach’s struggle, not to ‘express himself’, but to stabilise and define the terms of his relations to the real, resistant and experienced world: which is what art must do, today as yesterday” (Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 214).
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