Auerbach and His New Look at the Old Masters

By Lucia Hawkes

Eighteenth-century English poet John Elsum, observing Rembrandt’s portraiture, remarks upon the sheer ‘coarseness’ of the Dutch artist’s technique. The repetitive ‘strokes upon strokes’ and the construction of physiognomy through thickly layered, scratched and scraped oil meant Rembrandt’s painted surface formed to both enliven and scrutinise the human flesh. Elsum’s description of this ‘rugged way of painting’ finds itself manifest in the twentieth-century works of post-war artist Frank Auerbach – highly influenced by Rembrandt’s seventeenth-century works. In Auerbach’s Head of E.O.W.IV, however, ‘dabs upon dabs’ become ‘swathes upon swathes’. Any notion of realism is blatantly rejected; emphasis shifts from the capturing of a sitter’s likeness, to exploring the profoundly emotive capabilities of medium.

Auerbach transforms the human form into a weighty, encrusted mass; flesh is transfigured into a dripping, bubbling surface. The sitter’s bulbous cranium and skull-like, hollow features – rendered with a jagged angularity – evoke an eerie, ghostly quality. Auerbach’s style could be likened to German Expressionism, with its bold, direct and primitive aesthetic. The forceful licks of oil paint, for example, envelop the sitter until she is diminished to merely a few black lines; a slit-like mouth, two drooping eyes and a concaving, darkened nostril. Head of E.O.W is in fact an intimate portrayal of Auerbach’s long-term lover: Estella Olive West. West is somewhat claustrophobically confined in the understated size of Auerbach’s painting. In close proximity to the image, her features become indistinguishable from the intermingling, grey background. From a distance, however, West’s features convene to express a despondency. Her thin pillar-box mouth and downward gaze combine to create an atmosphere of apprehension and sorrow, reinforced by the monochromatic colour palette and agitated, sculptural paintwork. Auerbach’s use of stark lighting is, however, a result of the portrait being completed ‘by electric light’; the monochromatic palette also being more situational than deliberate, supposedly being all the artist could afford at the time.

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  Frank Auerbach, Head of E. O. W. IV, Oil on Plywood (1961)

Frank Auerbach, Head of E. O. W. IV, Oil on Plywood (1961)

Having trained in London, under the guidance of David Bomberg – and having also acquired an extensive knowledge of the Old Masters – Auerbach was alerted to the portraiture of Paul Cézanne.[1] The influence of Cézanne’s introspective portrait style is clearly visible in Auerbach’s Head of E.O.W, with its brooding, almost contemplative atmosphere. The tones of white, black and grey, for example, create a cold introspection, reinforced by Estella’s downcast vision. She also appears as genderless and indeterminate; her identity being concealed by the elusive title: ‘E. O. W’, which also makes the portrait increasingly enigmatic. Contestably, the isolated head is executed with the tenderness of a Rembrandt, having been obsessively reworked and re-examined over a long period of time. Dominated by hardened nodules of paint and trapped air-pockets – seemingly fit to burst – its globular, rippling surface is simultaneously inviting and repelling. The impasto seems to creep beyond the confines of the plywood panel and the frustrated rigour embodied in the brushstrokes generates a frantic energy, evoking the works of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix. Moreover, Auerbach’s thick painterly technique produces a cavernous surface, with protrusions and recessions, hidden cavities and undulations. Its tactile appearance is akin to living, organic matter and its hardened surface texture – containing gritty residue and visibly ossified paintbrush hairs – is redolent of petrified remains. Auerbach’s painstakingly and continually reworked plywood board, represents an apprehension of the momentary; an imprint of memory and experience. In an interview with Catherine Lampert, for instance, he describes the fundamental aims of an artist: ‘one tries to […] pin down an experience in its essential aspect before it disappears’. The solidifying process of oil paint is, therefore, not merely texturally effective, but symbolic. Layered paint thus becomes emblematic of the attempt to make tangible life’s fugitive experiences.

Contextually, Auerbach’s immediate political landscape was that of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, which had, during this period, highlighted the disillusionment of post-war British ‘prosperity’. A dissatisfaction with those in the so-called ‘Establishment’, coupled with a receding economy in 1961, arguably intensified a public sense of distrust and uncertainty. Auerbach’s Head of E.O.W., situated within this context, could be interpreted as a response to surrounding societal disenchantment and angst. Yet, his image delves deeper than mere ‘societal disenchantment’ and it is almost impossible to interpret Auerbach’s works without consideration of the psychologically, physically and emotionally traumatic experiences of the Second World War. Bombing had left millions homeless and devastated Britain’s city-scape, whilst austerity persisted in the form of extended rationing.[5] The ravages of war also transformed the artistic sphere and heralded, according to Frances Spalding, images of the ‘anxious and inconsequent.’[6] Auerbach’s suggestion of figural mutilation could conceivably relate to the availability of Holocaust photography. The dehumanizing effects of Nazi assembly-line killings were disseminated amongst the public, revealing the human body in a malleable, battered and brutalised state. Viewers were forced to visually confront the intensely barbarous and wicked capabilities of humankind. Furthermore, the Adolf Eichmann Trial of 1960-61 – also the date attributed to Head of E.O.W – intensified and revived discussions regarding the merciless operation of Nazi extermination.[7] Considering Auerbach’s own Jewish heritage and the death of his parents in a Nazi concentration camp, such a deeply personal experience of the war and its aftermath inevitably shaped – and continues to shape – his artistic development.[8]

Knowledge of the nightmarish consequences of war, and Auerbach’s personal victimization, unavoidably, therefore, infuses his painting with a sense of anguish. The contemporary exposures of inhuman cruelty are easily discernible in Auerbach’s haunting portrait. His vigorous brushwork, for example, could be interpreted as representative of the assaulted human body; a writhing, thrashed and abused entity. Auerbach’s figure is also reminiscent of French artist Jean Fautrier’s series of ‘Otages’ produced during the 1940s, through which Fautrier endeavoured to capture, visually, the screams of torture.[9] Fautrier’s crusted surfaces are evocative of maimed flesh. His shadowy, cave-drawing style, arguably, serves to displace or disguise the grotesque brutality of his subject matter. Focusing primarily on damaged ‘heads’, Fautrier conjures an intensely visceral representation of the violently inflicted human carcass. Whilst not explicitly referenced by Auerbach as being a direct artistic influence, Fautrier’s manipulation of surface texture in order to convey physical suffering, is synonymous with Auerbach’s technique. Contrastingly, however, Fautrier completely deconstructs his figures, often making them unrecognisably deformed. Being detached from his subject matter, Fautrier’s imagery is, debatably, more preoccupied with a carnal materiality than Auerbach’s Head of E.O.W, which remains to be a work of intimacy and affection. There is a tension within Auerbach’s image; a tension between familiarity and detachment. Head of E.O.W does present an air of anonymity and mystery, which is perhaps what makes it translatable as an image of universal human suffering. Auerbach appears to disregard the signifiers of everyday life to create an image that is both raw and timeless; it thus defies being pinned down to a particular time, place or situation.

Satchi Gallery

Satchi Gallery

Auerbach thus renders an image of inherent sadness; a deeply embedded, almost primitive sense of grief. His solidified impasto communicates a palpable sense of experience, as time, movement and the momentary are seized within the passionately handled lashings of paint. The art critic David Sylvester once remarked: ‘Auerbach’s pictures don’t sing out feeling or emotion’. Auerbach’s images, he thought, impressed with a ‘strength of design’, in which emotion reverberated and, gradually, demanded to be felt. Head of E.O.W reverberates an unavoidable and undeniable sense of emotion. Auerbach’s figurative portrayal is powerful in its arresting heaviness – both literally and psychologically. Auerbach himself described ‘good paintings’ as being ‘disturbing, itchy and actively repellent’, always ‘moving backwards and forwards’ to perturb, perplex and disconcert. The revulsion aligned with ‘good’ artworks, as defined by Auerbach, is perhaps what Head of E.O.W seeks to achieve: a ‘disturbing’, unsettling portrayal of the human condition, in its irreconcilably fragile and aggressively convulsive state.