Frank Auerbach
Biography of Neo-Expressionist Semi-Abstract Portrait Painter.

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Auerback produced some of the greatest examples of semi-abstract portrait art.

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Frank Auerbach (b.1931)

Born in Germany, Auerbach was exiled to England as a child by his parents to avoid Nazi persecution of the Jews, and remained permanently when his parents were killed in the concentration camps. Auerbach is usually classed as a Neo-Expressionist and is known for his semi-abstract portraits and London cityscapes. Along with Lucian Freud (b.1922) and Francis Bacon (1909-92), Auerbach has become one of the best portrait artists in post war British art, and is internationally recognised. His oil painting is characterized by heavy impasto brushwork, and are built up layer upon layer with plenty of scraping and repainting. Employing delicate colour and tone, he creates powerfully evocative and contemplative works. It has been said that if drips are associated with Jackson Pollock (1912-56), and spots with Georges Seurat (1859-91), so gashes of thick paint are associated with Frank Auerbach. He had a classical art training at St Martin's School of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art in London, and was influenced by teacher and artist David Bomberg, a leading member of the Vorticism Group and the Whitechapel Boys. Today, Auerbach is seen as one of the top 20th century painters in Britain.

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Early Life, Artistic Training

Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931 into a Jewish family. In 1939 his parents sent him to England to avoid the Nazi persecution and they were subsequently killed in a concentration camp. In England, Auerbach attended a boarding school in Kent, showing an early interest in art. He went on to study at the prestigious St Martin's School of Art and Design, which had a reputation for pushing the boundaries of contemporary art. This was followed with studies at the Royal College of Art. He was particularly influenced by David Bomberg (1890-1957), one of the Whitechapel Boys (a name given to a group of Anglo-Jewish artists in the early 20th century which also included Mark Gertler, Joseph Leftwich, John Rodker, Clare Winsten and Isaac Rosenberg). Bomberg taught at the Borough Polytechnic (now London South Bank University), where Auerbach also studied. Bomberg was a leading member of the Vorticism Group, which was a short-lived but significant British abstract art movement. The movement grew out of Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism and was futuristic in nature. Bomberg's The Mud Bath (1914, Tate Modern, London) is a typical example of the group’s style, with lots of straight lines, blocks of flat colour which gives a feeling of movement and dynamism. Auerbach inherited a pictorial language from Bomberg, which focused on a concern for the tangible surface. In an interview with BBC Radio 3 in 2010, Auerbach commented that "what he [Bomberg] taught wouldn't have equipped any of us to pass any exam." In the same interview Auerbach stated that Bomberg never tried to convert him to Vorticism but said nevertheless "he had all these things in him. He had after all copied Holbeins when he was a student. He had been a prize draughtsman at the Slade. He had been a Vorticist and I think for me, by far the most talented of people who worked in that neo-Cubist idiom, and he had been an extremely adept landscape painter of very, very topographical landscapes - marvellously done in Palestine in the 20s. So, this wasn't a man who had some sort of single mission. He had a mission and he had an idiom and I think it probably would have developed, but he knew a great deal about painting, had a deep knowledge of painting from all sorts of angles".


When Auerbach was 17, he met 32 year old Estella Olive West, a widowed actress. She became his model and lover for the next 23 years, even when he married fellow artist Julia Wolstenholme. His paintings of Estella were titled 'E.O.W', and they are numerous. In 1955 he entered several paintings of Stella into his graduation show at the Royal College of Art. The Beaux Arts Gallery, London spotted his work and gave him his first solo show the following year. Reviews were mixed but one reporter wrote it was "The most exciting and impressive first one-man show by an English painter since Francis Bacon in 1949". There were similarities to Bacon, in the thick impasto brushstroke, the focus on portrait and head studies. However the critic David Sylvester countered that the artist's work was more like sculpture than painting in spite of the heaped-up paint: "these are painterly images, not sculptural ones, have to be read as paintings, not as polychrome reliefs, and make their point just because their physical structure is virtually that of sculpture but their psychological impact is that of painting".


Auerbach would go on to have another five solo shows at the gallery. Outside of Stella, his other principal models were his wife Julia and Juliet Yardley Mills ('J.Y.M.'), a professional model he met in 1957. From 1965, his exhibitions were held at the Marlborough Gallery and in 1978 he received a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, London by the Arts Council. In 1986 he had a solo exhibition in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and in 1989 at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. He also participated in group shows at the Carnegie Institute and Tate Gallery, London. There was a retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy, London in 2001.

Painting Technique

A legendary workaholic, Auerbach spends from 7am until 9pm, 364 days a year, in his studio. His subject choice is mostly close friends and cityscapes of London, particularly Camden town. Of his passion he says: "I think I've been trying to do the same thing all my life in different ways. It is trying to find the essential painting: a new, raw, exciting and unpredictable invention, one which stands absolutely and convincingly for something". He does not make preparatory sketches for his portraits, instead he relies on his sitters to reassume a pose after a session. However, with his cityscapes, he is known to take anything up to 200 sketches as a preparatory for one painting.

His brushstroke and thick use of impasto aligns his work with Expressionism. Over the years he has increased the amount of paint he applies to canvas, resulting in the comments that his painting is more akin to sculpture (with influences of Alberto Giacometti 1901-66 and Karel Appel 1921-2006). More recently the artist has started scraping back some of the paint as he works. His drawings also show an influence of sculpture, in the fact that he layers pages of paper on top of each other, sometimes resulting in as much as half an inch in thickness. Sometimes he erases so hard that he rubs through several layers of paper. This can best be seen in his sketch Head of Julia (1960) where he has rubbed through areas surrounding the upper part of the head. In the catalogue for his 1978 Arts Council, Hayward Gallery exhibition, an art critic wrote: 'in spite of the excessive piling on of paint, the effect of these works on the mind is of images recovered and reconceived in the barest and most particular light, the same light that seems to glow through the late, great, thin Turners ... an unpremeditated manifestation arising from the constant application of true draughtsmanship.'

The largest collection of Auerbach's paintings can be seen at the Tate Gallery including E.O.W. Nude (1953-4), Small Head of E.O.W. (1957-8), Primrose Hill (1967-8), Rimbaud (1975-6), J.Y.M. Seated No. 1 (1981) and To the Studios (1990-1).

As one of the most innovative portrait artists of the 20th century, Auerbach is in high demand among buyers at auction. At the July 2010 Bonham's 20th Century British Art sale in London his painting of his long-term lover Estella entitled Head of E.O.W (1961) fetched £860,000. It was only expected to go for between £400,000 to £600,000. Also a rare chalk and charcoal on paper sketch entitled Portrait of Christopher Dark (1977) sold for £53,000. Paintings by Frank Auerbach can be seen in the best art museums around the world including at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum; the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh and the Arts Council of Great Britain.

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