Frank Auerbach – Tate Britain, Jan 2016


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As is often the way, being late has actually turned into a bit of a bonus for me today. I rush from train to busy Victoria line tube, hit with squally winds as I dash along Millbank to a media view of Frank Auerbach at the Tate Britain. But being late means everyone has gone and with 20 minutes till the Tate opens up to the public, I get the most wonderful privilege of having an exhibition all to myself. It is for rare beautiful moments like this that I love all the blogging and late nights tapping away.

I am no expert, I have no history of art background and I used to worry about writing reviews of ‘art’ exhibitions. But you know what? I am very much from the ‘say what you see’ school of blogging and if people want to read it then that is an added bonus.

Why I love broadening my blogging horizon is that I am learning all the time and it is just the best thing in the world. So whilst I might be new to Auerbach’s work, having this intimate one to one experience is the best introduction I can think of.

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Just me, Auerbach and a seat

The exhibition starts in the 1950s with Auerbach’s early works, the canvases are thick with paint, the surface is almost sculptural and you are immediately drawn to the textural quality of the pictures. The ‘Head of Leon Kossoff, 1954‘ is oozing and quite honestly weird. It reminds me of the paint trays at school with thick, dried, pigment coating the bottom, the skin of the paint is like rice pudding in places, thick and rippled. ‘Head of E.O.W.’ (his companion Estella West), becomes a melting plastic skull. With ‘E.O.W. Nude’. I can see the thickness of the paint and I wonder at the time spent building up those layers on the bare canvas.

With the 1960s comes vibrant pictures of Mornington Crescent, the location of his studio since 1954, the sights and sounds are captured in a number of paintings, ‘Mornington Crescent, 1965’ feels buzzy, and alone in the gallery it feels so very alive. Another picture of Mornington Crescent has bright yellows and reminds me of an old fashioned wooden child’s playground I used to see from many train journeys into London. The colours  are inviting and asking you to come and escape the day to day routine. This particular painting has been lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I wonder how it sits across the pond, a kindred urban landscape, so many similarities but so many differences to a New York city setting.

The colours mean they are not landscapes I recognise, they seem a child’s version but only in colour not composition. The curious mix of the time taken to build up the layers and yet the energy for quick bright strokes mean each pictures is an enigma. I always wonder at the artists skill to work up close and yet get a sense of the whole too. I pace backwards and forwards, my nose pressed up close, then I scoot across the empty gallery to see the portraits in all their glory.

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Auerbach works by scraping back the surface of the canvas or board, and repainting some pictures many, many times. With the ‘Head of William Feaver’ 2003, I see one area almost scraped back to the canvas, other areas where the paint has merged and another where the paint is crisp and bright. I wonder how many sittings and how many brush strokes are enough for the artist to finally declaim he is finished.

In contrast to the early rooms and paintings picked by Auerbach, the final room has been curated by Catherine Lampert who has had a long working relationship with the artist. The room works very well, there are three portraits of J.Y.M. (model Juliet Yardley Mills) they are similar and yet different – you could almost imagine them as different versions of the same sitting, snatched away at different moments in time, a certain posture and a certain light caught in each one of them. It helps you see Auerbach’s works as no longer complete canvas, but a continual echo of past paint and energy where a new future interpretation is just a brush stroke away. Before I leave I catch a glimpse of ‘Hampstead Road, Summer Haze’ 2010, and I can almost feel the warm summer air. I can almost imagine leaving the Tate and being immersed in a warm summer’s day, not a blustery cold January one.

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As I finally leave I stop to buy a few postcard mementos of my visit and it is looking up at the prints on the wall that I realise how little they represent and capture Auerbach’s work. It is as if the flat surface robs the paintings of their visceral energy. I turn away quickly, wanting to remember his vibrant work and find myself filled with such a creative urge that I feel the need to write a blog straight away. It may only be my second visit to the Tate Britain but I am not sure I will better a visit where I wandered the rooms alone with Frank Auerbach’s work.

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Frank Auerbach is on at Tate Britain till 13 March 2016 – free for Tate Members, Adult £16.00 (without donation £14.50)
Concession £14.00 (without donation £12.70)

For more information please check their website –

For more on Frank Auerbach by Catherine Lampert – read

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