Painted in 1989, Head of Catherine Lampert is a vigorous, rich, and painterly portrait by the renowned British artist Frank Auerbach. With a warm and earthy palette of sunny yellows, azure blues, and verdant greens, the artist depicts his friend and patron Lampert in fleshy textured swathes of oil paint. Throughout his career, Auerbach has focused on a small number of subjects, depicting a select group of close friends and family members. Painting the same model at regular intervals over long periods of time, the artist gains an intimate knowledge of his sitters, and his depictions become not recognizable likenesses, but vital physical presences with their own sense of life. Over many sittings, Auerbach continually works and reworks his canvases, a tendency that is vividly apparent in the present work, with its dense buildup of brushstrokes and interwoven layers of color. The head and body of the figure are rendered in a swirling sweep of brushstrokes and impastoed accumulation of pigment, projecting dynamically from the thinner areas of paint that articulate the background. As in his best work, Auerbach has created in Head of Catherine Lampert an almost-sculptural construction that reveals in its expressive rawness the tangible familiarity between artist and sitter, the boldly articulated brushstrokes enlivened by a palpable sense of emotional communion between the two.
One of Auerbach’s most frequent and celebrated sitters, Catherine Lampert worked at the Hayward Gallery before becoming Director of the Whitechapel Gallery in 1988 and would later go on to curate the artist’s retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2001. Describing Auerbach’s creative process and the experience of sitting for him, Lampert recalls, “With a portrait his aim is not exactly to convey likeness, more an experience: how the person looks (including under the skin); what’s going on in their life (and his); the conditions of that evening. Like an apparition, something totally unforeseen, possibly lasting for just seconds, may spring from making a few brush strokes, establishing an area of truth which ‘might actually expand into a whole truth’. The goal is a set of connections between the masses, the space, the sensations and a picture with a tense surface character.” (“To drag the past into the present and re-animate it,” in Tate Etc. 35, Autumn 2015, p. 56) The present work is testament to that organic, instinctual process. Trowelled thickly in deep, energetic marks, the familiar features of the sitter emerge from the layers of applied, scraped, and reapplied paint with their own sense of life.
While there are layers of accreted history within Head of Catherine Lampert, the calligraphic framework of thick zigzagging lines with which he has captured her outline and features has a vigorous, lively quality that speaks of the artist's own energy and his vital response to his model. In assured, confident brushstrokes with dynamic, kinetic energy, Auerbach succeeds in capturing concisely not just the recognizable physiology of the sitter through bone structure and posture, but something of her preoccupations, thoughts and inner disposition. In her colorful, mirage-like blurred features, there is a discernible cerebral quietude that arises from the intriguing balance between the cooler hues of the background and the luminosity of the more opulent foreground tonalities. At once impulsive and considered, revelatory and enigmatic, Head of Catherine Lampert encapsulates the qualities that make Auerbach’s painting so unique.
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