Tribute to Frank Auerbach

Head of J.Y.M 1981 oil on board

Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M 1981 oil on board 55 x 50 cm

It was 1994 and my lecturer presented me with a monograph on the English painter, Frank Auerbach written by Robert Hughes. Pouring over this book I felt immediately drawn to his observations of his world, his acknowledgement and connection to the tradition and history of painting. I had no idea at the time the impact this artist’s work would later have on my approach to art and seeing the world.

People have enquired about Auerbach’s influence on my own painting and drawing over the years, and for anyone familiar with his work, it would be obvious. But for others it might not be so clear and I wanted to mention here a few things I found most inspiring about him.

Singularity of purpose – Auerbach has, against the dictates and lure of fashion, been dedicated to drawing and painting the human figure and urban landscapes for most of his professional life. In the face of criticism from others keen to embrace more recent developments in art during the 60’s and 70’s (performance, conceptual, abstract), Auerbach continued to develop the craft of drawing and painting alongside some of his School of London contemporaries such as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Leon Kossoff and R.B. Kitaj.

Historical Connection – Auerbach has always had a strong sense of painting as a cultural tradition, a library from which he could draw continued inspiration and to which he could add his own findings and voice as painter for later generations. His practice has been informed by a routine of study of other artists in galleries and museums, of continuing to engage and respond to art in person (He was known for weekly pilgrimages to London museums to study and draw from old master works first-hand).

The most immediate impact came through a study of Auerbach’s drawings, just one example of which is depicted below.

While not my favourite of his works on paper, it still demonstrates his keen ability to respond to and interpret form in a way that evokes more than just our sense of sight. I am referring to its profound sense of tactility, none of which I could appreciate in person until I saw actual samples of his work at Rex Irwin gallery here in Melbourne in 1996. The density of varied charcoal applications, the broken and delicate surface of marks on paper, and the atmosphere created through hours, days and months of observation result in some of the most powerful work I have ever seen. And this is just his works on paper.

Head of E.O.W. 1959-60

Head of E.O.W. 1959-60

Seeing through touch – In an interview held with BBC, Auerbach describes the influence of David Bomberg’s tuition which, in relation to drawing from life,  aimed to “go for the very essence [of the figure] at the very beginning” and then to attempt re-statements of the figure that would reflect a very personal understanding or grasp of this experience of observing; studying and responding to the human body through the act of drawing. It was not about achieving correct anatomy or harmonies, but about experimentation and the courage to reassess your own responses to the world. This was probably the single most important influence on my own approach to art making, largely because the process (as intensive and laborious as it can be at times), may yield benefits to understanding your own voice as an artist.

It was in Robert Hughes well known monograph on Auerbach that I first encountered such a superb documentation of an artist’s work in progress. Seeing a sequence of development shots of a single drawing in progress was an incredible insight that would later feed into my own process. I have used this process to review and re-consider works of mine that I feel have stalled. This process of documentation has become a key factor in being able to understand the tendencies and rhythms of my work, and it is a technique highly recommended for any of you artists out there wanting a further insight into your own studio practice. Even from the previous post on Ellen you can see the application of the principle of journaling and documenting your own work – it can effectively re-energise an image or provide an opportunity for recycling something once discarded.

So if I had to sum up what inspired me most from my exposure to Auerbach’s work, then it would be his conviction and commitment to re-inventing and responding to the traditional mediums of drawing and painting. His work is a testament to the validity of these expressions in an art world saturated with new media.

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2 thoughts on “Tribute to Frank Auerbach

  1. It was 10 years earlier that Auerbach had an impact on me. One of his paintings was used for the cover art of a ‘Japan’ Album, Oil On Canvas. A little while later I asked my art teacher if they knew the artist and they told me with no hesitation.

    It subsequently led me to follow his footsteps to the same art school in London where I spent 3 years doing anything but Auerbach influenced art.

  2. Hi Carl, thanks for sharing that… Am sure we’re not alone in having been moved by Auerbach and his work. Hope the experience at St. Martins was a great one for you. I checked out your site and see that you are a many of diverse creative abilities.

    Speaking of inspirations and influence, I trust your music and teaching practice have had a comparable effect on others. Hope that continues to go well for you. P

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