Frank Auerbach: Unseen review – art that restores the sense of what it is to be human | Paint

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lIt would be nice to write about Frank Auerbach once, without mentioning his childhood, and I suspect the artist prefers that. But as war once again destroys cities and people in Europe, his story is terribly relevant. Frank Helmut Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931. When he was seven, his Jewish parents sent him to Britain. He never saw them again: they died in Auschwitz.

This orphan of the Holocaust is one of the great witnesses of the modern world. It is utterly inexplicable that his portrait of Estella Olive West, called Head of EOW 1, and belonging to Tate, is not on permanent display near the Rothko room at Tate Modern. But that’s all the better for the enterprising Newlands House Gallery, which has raided the Tate shops for a wonderful group of Auerbachs, including this painting, who spend too much time locked up. They were ordered and bought by one man, David Wilkie – not your stereotypical international superyacht collector, but an art-obsessed insurance clerk from Brentford.

Drawing after Reynolds’ Anne, Countess of Albemarle, 1983. Photo: The National Gallery Photographic Department./Courtesy of The National Gallery, London

Head of EOW1 was not so much painted in 1960, but built up in thick layers of adhesive, like a sculpture of oil paint. Auerbach makes a protruding head of the wooden panel in 3D so that you can walk around it and see it as an object in space. But it is also a painting, a jumble of solidified colours. The face is a shadowy mask atop these grooves and ridges of red, orange, and yellow. Like an optical illusion created by Hans Holbein, it changes depending on where you stand, sometimes fading and suddenly dissolving so sharply that you feel like the real person has materialized in the room.

She’s in good company. Some of Auerbach’s old friends are here too, like savagely etched portraits: the ghosts of Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff are so sharply delineated that the framed little sheets of paper seem to hold a precious piece of them. And that is what makes Auerbach a great artist. Time and again, in this great selection in a spacious, meditative 18th century house, you will be gripped by fragments of human experience so vividly and powerfully understood that they restore your sense of what it is to be human.

Wilkie not only collected Auerbach, but formed a fruitful creative friendship with him. One of Wilkie’s ideas was that Auerbach would paint a ‘portrait’ of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Rome. Auerbach said he would rather paint the father of punk poetry Arthur Rimbaud in a baroque setting. A giant caricature of Rimbaud lit by candles like an icon towers over visitors to a grandiose theater-like space in his disorienting 1975-76 Rimbaud. Auerbach uses the same eerie architecture of struts and girders he’d discovered while painting post-war London construction sites to carve a deep, uncomfortable pictorial space, with Rimbaud on scaffolding above a void.

Frank Auerbach, Study of Titian II, Oil on canvas, 1965. Courtesy of Tate, London.
Terror… Study after Titian II, 1965. Photo: Auerbach, Frank/Tate/Tate Images

Is this an homage or a satire? Perhaps it is an image of modern art itself, floating above the abyss. In fact, this compelling image has much in common with the paintings of modern history Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz created in Germany in the 1970s. It shows that you cannot pin Auerbach to the dated and confused idea of ​​a ‘School of London’ supposedly devoted to figurative art. His paintings swallow reality, but explode with abstraction and fantasy. Wilkie seems to have encouraged that. Auerbach’s painting of a burned Hampstead Heath called The Origin of the Great Bear came about when Wilkie challenged him to paint a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses that Titian had missed. And in the final stunning works here, also from Wilkie’s estate and property of Tate, he takes on Titian in a dazzling paint battle.

Frank Auerbach, Bacchus and Ariadne, Oil on board, 1971. Courtesy of Tate, London.
Slashes and streaks of frenzy… Bacchus and Ariadne, 1971. Photo: Auerbach, Frank/Tate/Tate Images

Bacchus and Ariadne transform Titian’s famous painting of a princess meeting the god of wine and his deranged minions into slashes and streaks of fleshy red against ethereal blue. In his two 1965 Studies after Titian, he turns a brutal classic tale into modern horror. These thickly inlaid, twisting, formidable panels reef on Titian’s late, violent painting Tarquin and Lucretia. It’s rape. Auerbach carves the frenzied attack into the paint itself, a massive crust of charged colors. In Study after Titian II, Lucretia’s face forms a mask of terror, her eyes puddles black, her arms raised helplessly against human evil.

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