BRITISH FIGURATIVE PAINTING A MATTER OF PAINT
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Frank Auerbach corrects the comparison between art and travelling: ‘It’s not a question of a protean adventurer – the traveller’s unaltered and what he sees changes. Likewise the art¬ist is the man in front of the writing-pad or in front of the easel, and things around him change and he doesn’t change – that’s the connec¬tion.’ Auerbach has worked in the same studio since taking it over from his friend and fellow Royal College student, Leon Kossoff, in 1954. Just over the way, on the junction of Camden High Street, Mornington Crescent and Crowndale Road, the Camden Theatre is another stayer. It opened on Boxing Day 1900, and has seen out over a century of bombs, demolition, and passing trends, playing host to the music hall, cinema, BBC radio, all-night parties and pop concerts, through assorted rein¬carnations (the Palace Theatre, the Camden Hippodrome, the Music Machine, the Camden Palace, Koko). It is on the periphery of a network of theatres designed by W. G. R. Sprague, whose ice-cream architecture (cloudy pastiches of Georgian, Baroque and Louis XVI styles) pervades the West End, a London peculiar.
Auerbach derives a compost of delicious surprises from ‘this higgledy-piggledy mess of a city’, and has returned to the Camden Theatre repeatedly. More than the lump sum of its walls and angles, a haptic understanding of the theatre and its environs is translated, oil and board, into something organic. Auerbach illustrates his ambition in painting with reference to Robert Frost: ‘A great painting is like ice on a stove. It is a shape riding on its own melting into matter and space, it never stops moving backwards and forwards.’ Here, the theatre is a watery façade, its pillars and copper dome blotted out in a lachrymose haze, quivering all over with the tangibility of its relation to other things. Tomato purée zigzags streak across the road in the foreground, straight from the tube. High street and pavement, hot orange and chocolate daubs, ooze in contact with the cool breeze of sky. Auerbach admires the loose body of English paintings in the National Gallery, as if ‘it was arrived at empirically, out of sensation, as though there is a sort of fresh wind blowing through a room of English painting’. The same wind blows through The Camden Theatre, airing out the theoretical. Its sur¬face – like a finger pushing through cooling jam – ripples with sensory experience.
When he first moved to London in 1947, aged 16, Auerbach’s dreams of being an actor were superseded by art classes at the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute and, under David Bomberg, at Borough Polytechnic. As an artist his process was to have all the rigour of method acting. Starting with morning drawings on the spot, he paces through lines of charcoal, crayon or pencil just as actors pace through their lines each evening, in an attempt to make each performance new. He limbers up for the act of painting, a performance reserved for the studio, establishing an image then scraping it off, maybe many times in a single session, for up to eight hours. ‘It is very much a ques¬tion of rehearsing until one becomes the part, the object, the subject.’ Although these landscapes, as in The Camden Theatre, often take a smaller scale than the portraits, they are feats of exertion. They meet that persistent exhortation from another great fan of the music hall, Rudyard Kipling:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss
, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss ‘If...’ iii.1–4
. Auerbach in conversation with Catherine Lampert, Frank Auerbach, exh. cat. (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978), 13.
. Auerbach in interview with Judith Bumpus, Art & Artists (June 1986), 27.
. Auerbach in conversation with Lampert (1978), 20.
. Frank Auerbach and the National Gallery (London: National Gallery, 1995), 16.
. Auerbach quoted by Lawrence Gowing, ‘Introduction’, Eight Figurative Painters, exh. cat. (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 1981), 14.
Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009
- Accession Number P3050
- Dimensions 35 X 38.1 CM
- Media OIL ON BOARD
A medium in which ground pigments are mixed to produce a paste or liquid that can be applied to a surface by a brush or other tool; the most common oil used by artists is linseed, this can be thinned with turpentine spirit to produce a thinner and more fluid paint. The oil dries with a hard film, and the brightness of the colour is protected. Oil paints are usually opaque and traditionally used on canvas.
Work of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is a tightly stretched piece of canvas, paper or a wooden panel. Painting involves a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's intellectual concerns effecting the content of a work.
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