- Frank Auerbach
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1991
Close to the Camden studio he has worked in since taking it over from Leon Kossoff in 1954, the subject of Mornington Crescent has continued to fascinate Auerbach for over forty years. The capacious houses of the Crescent were originally constructed in the 1820s amid the fields of Camden just north of Central London, and the area has witnessed a storied cultural history: the painter Walter Sickert lived there and Charles Dickens attended a school nearby, while the street also boasts the great white edifice of the Camden Theatre that was built in 1900. In the present work, a tall chimney dramatically ascends into the sky; this totemic obelisk provides useful counterpoint to Auerbach’s composition as its leaning verticality punctuates the receding arc of the street.
While the exceptional palette of vivid colour injects the picture with an overpowering sense of warmth and vibrancy, the paint surface narrates the highly dramatic process of Auerbach’s facture. As is particularly redolent across the vast expanse of light blue sky, the spectator’s eye is invited to roam the multi-layered facets and crevices inherent to the slick encrusted landscape of paint: it is here that we read the history of the artist’s painterly assault. From the risk-laden strike of a palette-knife, to a brush skimming and merging ridges of material together, pigment and medium have been dragged, scuffed, and swiped throughout; resolving finally into a sensational and haptic unity. Cool blue melds with streaks of ochre and flashes of hot pink to create a painterly essay of extraordinary visual interest comparable to works by the greatest landscape painters in British art history. In its extraordinary evocation of the early morning light Mornington Crescent – First Light readily reminds us of the canonical oeuvres of J.M.W. Turner or William Constable.
Auerbach’s desire to emphasise the city’s “massive substance” and explore its condition of “fullness and perpetual motion” is manifest in a dogmatic working routine, which is tantamount to an ethical code (Frank Auerbach in conversation with Richard Cork, in: Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 83). Auerbach returns obsessively to the same views and sketches on the spot, before working each view up in the studio for extended periods of strenuous effort. By repeatedly applying paint in rich thick layers before stripping away, paring back, and starting again, he digs deeper and deeper into the essence of each of his beloved subjects. In this way, his method is reminiscent of the cityscapes of Claude Monet, who time and again returned to certain subjects like the Cathedral at Rouen. However, unlike the Impressionists, Auerbach was unconcerned by capturing a specific atmospheric effect, and more preoccupied with trying to fix in material the experience of urban reality. Morning Crescent – First Light recounts an individual experience of a specific place, and responds to the city as a living, breathing, and ever-changing organism. As outlined by the writer and civic historian Peter Ackroyd: “Auerbach’s artistic activity is a simulacrum of the city’s life, with his incessant revisions and accretions, with his scraping down the surface of the board or canvas to make a fresh start” (Peter Ackroyd in: Exh. Cat., New York, Marlborough Gallery, Frank Auerbach: Recent Works, 1994, n.p.). Mornington Crescent – First Light is rooted in more than mere representation. In the powerful depictive hands of Frank Auerbach, it becomes a gloriously tactile, consummately engaging, and profoundly affecting entity in its own right.