I visited the Frank Auerbach exhibition at the Tate Britain recently with a firmly fixed notion in my mind’s eye of what I would see, predicated heavily on the only painting of his that I have ever encountered, in situ or as a reproduction: the Ben Uri Gallery’s Mornington Crescent, Summer Morning II (2004). From my days as an intern there I remembered the painting as a paean to early morning light in the suburbs; of primrose yellow skies, glowing orange and pink buildings, recognisable architectural structures receding the distance. (It is, in fact, a little brighter and brasher than I remember, but that is hardly relevant; it is a wonderful painting and a glaring omission in this exhibition). So I arrived at Millbank expecting more of the same – bright, harmonious colours evoking joyous sensations, the unexpected beauty of a cityscape, just waiting for the right weather effects to illuminate it. I was sadly mistaken, and it is perhaps more of a reflection of me as a viewer than of Auerbach as a painter.
The exhibition, curated by Catherine Lampert (formerly of the Whitechapel Gallery) with significant input from the artist himself, was split chronologically (decades) rather than thematically. It soon became obvious why; Auerbach has about 3-4 subjects, which he has painted time and again throughout the last 6 decades: portraits of his muse E.O.W or his wife Julia; or landscapes of the immediate area around his north London studio: Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill.
We begin in the 1950s with multiple canvases of the mysterious E.O.W (unceremoniously demystified halfway through the exhibition as Estella West, a model), in which her presence is suggested through a compulsive application of paint, layer upon layer upon layer, until the painting becomes a 3D object. Palettes are dark and sludgy, and human forms are barely recognisable, as in E.O.W Nude (1953-4), with paint so thickly applied it’s sculptural, but appearing to form rocks and mud rather than human bodies. His half-length nude of the same subject in 1958 is more recognisably human, but looks raw, as though half her body has been skinned because of the red shadows contrasting with nude tones. E.O.W’s Head in 1955 bears striking resemblance to E.T., her head scrabbled out of dirty mounds of paint, the flesh under her eyes hanging heavy. It’s a depressing, pre-historic vision of humanity, as though Auerbach sees all human life as troglodytic cave-dwellers, and the surrounding natural world imbued with constant threat. Not only did I find it impossible to like these works, finding myself actually quite repulsed, I also found it hard to even begin to understand them, or to explore the mind and vision which created them. The conspicuous curatorial decision to keep interpretive text to a bare minimum did nothing to improve this.
With the 1960s we see the introduction of landscape into his oeuvre, with depictions of north London that are by turns bleak and barren – as in Primrose Hill, Spring Sunshine, in which this assumedly bucolic subject appears to be reimagined as the dusty bare steppes of Central Asia – or alarmingly busy and claustrophobic, as in Mornington Crescent 1965, where bold straight lines cut up the city geometrically by its windows, buildings, signs and telegraph poles, turning it into a map to be navigated. The 1970s saw a reduction in the great globules of paint hanging off the canvas, which were replaced with violently jagged lines and discordant hues: Primrose Hill in the summer of 1968 lies under a sickening and heavy, almost nuclear yellow, whilst the same scene on a Winter Evening in 1974-5 is sinister with the zig-zag dead branches of the tree which looms over a dark green and crimson park. Once more, I felt that I could not enjoy these works, but I couldn’t deny that they were beginning to draw me in, with their enigmatic and single-minded way of interpreting the world.
In the 1990s and 2000s I finally reached an aesthetic I can get on board with – probably because it’s much less challenging. Mornington Crescent – Early Morning, 1991 was the (almost) harmonious vision of a sleepy city that I had been expecting, with buildings glowing pinky orange, the pale green on the left-hand side balancing the slightly dizzying curvature of the street, drawing us into the scene, all under the loveliness of a peach-coloured sky. Finally, I felt I could place myself in the artist’s shoes, and imagine what he must have been seeing. I felt mildly disappointed in myself though, as though I had chosen the easy route, and this exhibition reminded me that paintings which challenge our tastes are important. They awakens our visual sense and shakes up what we think we know about “good” or “bad” art, about how important liking something is, compared to how important provocation is.
These works look so different in real life to how they look as reproductions – flattened and made two-dimensional, the mad accretion of paint which had repulsed me is almost completely effaced, and the picture becomes more legible; perverse, considering that seeing works in the flesh is usually a revelatory experience. Maybe it’s the idea of such dogged repetition that I find hard to get to grips with – we all love a narrative, a “journey” whether personal or stylistic, and Auerbach’s progression is subtle, although present. It’s as though, rather than taking the swirling looping path of an artist like Picasso, passing through so many movements, styles, aesthetics, occasionally going off the beaten track, Auerbach has followed a single, straight road, the end point forever receding on the horizon as he revisits the same scenes over and over again. I wonder, is he trying to reach some kind of perfect representation? Will there ever be a time when he’s finally satisfied with, say, a picture of Mornington Crescent, or Julia, and move onto a new obsession? As he nears his 85th birthday, I suspect not.
Frank Auerbach is on at the Tate Britain until 13 March 2016.