Committed to figurative painting, the painter Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) has worked in his distinctive style of painting for over seven decades, creating thickly impastoed portraits and expressive landscapes which he continues to make today.
Auerbach was born in Berlin, Germany to a middle-class Jewish family. Fleeing Nazi persecution in April 1939, at 7 years old Auerbach was sent to England on the Kindertransport and was enrolled at boarding school in Kent. His parents, who stayed in Germany, both died at the Auschwitz camp in 1942. Though he first dabbled in the arts during boarding school, he received no formal training until he moved to London in 1947 and he enrolled in a number of art schools to pursue academic training in the visual arts and art history, studying at Borough Polytechnic Institute, St. Martin’s School of Art, and the Royal College of Art.
1948 was a formative year for the artist, in which he met and began painting Estella Olive West, one of his principal sitters. He would repeatedly paint her portrait over the next twenty-three years, claiming that painting someone he was so close to transformed his work from representational to experiential. Over his career, his portraits have only featured a small coterie of sitters with whom he has had long-standing relationships, including family members, close friends, and art historians and critics. Fixated less on capturing likeness than the process of knowing and seeing a sitter, Auerbach’s portraits are characteristic of his greater practice; the artist’s work hovers between figuration and abstraction, rejecting the binaries of the pre-war period. His canvases are inundated with paint, his figures built up in layers of impasto that destabilize his subjects.
Always working from a seated model, the live experience of being with another human is a central tenet of his practice. The same is true of his landscapes, for which he paints scenes of the familiar area around his home and studio in London. Auerbach does not approach a canvas with a composition in mind, but reworks the image over and over until it is complete. In his earlier paintings Auerbach would paint over the previous day’s work if he was unhappy with the image. This led to extremely thick canvases built up in many layers of paint. Since the 1960s, he has scraped off previous states of his paintings, restarting the work until he is satisfied. Each painting is then a palimpsest of the many, sometimes hundreds, versions that came before it. His protracted process and sustained engagement with his sitters lend vitality to his paintings and amplify the sense of his models’ presence.
Auerbach’s first solo show was in 1956 at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London. As he gained critical recognition, he became associated with the School of London, developing close friendships with artists like Francis Bacon, Leon Kossoff, and Lucian Freud. Imagining new and expressive ways to envision oneself and others in the wake of World War II, the School of London painters were committed to the tradition of figurative painting and portraiture in the face of contemporary abstract avant-garde approaches.
Still painting today, Auerbach works out of his Camden studio, continuing to focus exclusively landscapes of the area and portraits of a small group of sitters. In recent years, Auerbach has repeatedly refused interviews and even declined a knighthood. He has participated in many group and solo exhibitions over his career, including winning the Golden Lion in the 1986 Venice Biennale. Most recently, he was the subject of a 2015 retrospective at the Tate Britain.