David Landau, businessman, art historian and arts patron, first met Frank Auerbach in 1983, whilst selecting an artist to commission for a portrait of Lord Asa Briggs, the historian, for Worcester College, Oxford, of which Landau is a fellow. ‘I thought – and still think – he is our greatest living painter.’ (David Landau, quoted in Laura Barnett, ‘Sitting for Frank Auerbach: “It’s rather like being at the dentist”’, The Guardian, 30th September 2015). Between them, they quickly decided that Auerbach’s working methods and studio were neither suitable nor sustainable for a commission. Instead, Landau offered himself as a sitter: ‘“Well”, he said, “if you are reliable and can come on Fridays, then yes.” I have been doing so more or less ever since…He is a tremendous friend: the only person, apart from my wife, who I’ve seen so consistently for so long. He has shown me how art is produced: how hard it is to achieve greatness, and how exciting it is to be there when, after 10 or 12 months, a painting is finally finished. It’s a magic moment – like witnessing a birth.’ (ibid). Progress was initially slow: sitting for two years resulted in just one drawing. Auerbach’s Camden studio in the 1980s was, famously, cramped and basic, splattered in globules of paint and strewn with the detritus of his work. In this space, Auerbach produced a body of work that stakes a claim as one of the greatest of the post-war period: ‘I think of painting as something that happens to a man working in a room, alone with his actions, his ideas, and perhaps his model.’ (Frank Auerbach, 1961, quoted in William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, Rizzoli, New York, 2009, p.4).
Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931 and sent by his parents in 1939 to England to escape the Nazis: he never saw his parents again. He studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art, 1948-52, and at the Royal College of Art, 1952-55, but it was his evening classes with David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic, where he met close friend Leon Kossoff, that were to prove formative. He moved to Kossoff’s old studio in Mornington Crescent in 1954 and never left, painting and drawing London sites within walking distance of his studio and a small, infrequently changing, group of models, his constant motifs. His models sit religiously for him at the same time every week. The most well-known of them, Catherine Lampert, curator of his 2015/16 Tate retrospective, Jake, his son, Julia, his wife, E.O.W., J.Y.M., and David, were fuel for his incessant obsession, not with people but with paint. ‘I’m not trying to make a record of them. What I’m trying to make is a stonking, independent, coherent image that has never been seen before…They’re not there for their own sake; they’re not there for sentimental reasons; they’re there to feed this new, independent image that one’s trying to make, that stalks into the world like a new monster.’ (Frank Auerbach in conversation with William Feaver, op.cit., p.229).
In the present work, David Landau is seen full-length, seated in a chair, hands clasped in his lap and arms balanced on the chair’s armrests. As with the best of Auerbach’s work, the presence of the sitter unfolds slowly, with examination by the viewer close-to and at a distance: ‘What begins strange and disconcerting, ugly and repellent even, attains through our attention a singular kind of unfixed and fugacious beauty.’ (Mel Gooding, Frank Auerbach: Recent Work, exh. cat., Marlborough Fine Art Ltd, London, 1990). The painting contains passages of Auerbach’s idiosyncratic handling of paint at its very best. Strokes of paint are rapidly and boldly worked into just applied, still-wet marks with broad brushes and fingers. Paint is pushed and pulled across the canvas with a vigour and animation that is immortalised in the final picture. The palette of this piece is particularly vibrant: purples, browns and oranges are enlivened by the mandrake blue of Landau’s trousers and the vermillion red to the right. This red is worked in immensely thick impasto, an episode of bravura painting that elevates the work to amongst Auerbach’s most spectacular realisations of Landau. ‘One recognizes an individual likeness by the deviation from the norm. The deeper the portraiture, the deeper the deviation.’ (Frank Auerbach, quoted in Catherine Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, Thames & Hudson, London, 2015, p.199).
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