The Israel Museum is currently showcasing works by Frank Auerbach, the British painter, in “Frank Auerbach: Portraits on Paper.” These eighteen works of drawing and etching will be of particular interest to lovers of drawing media, followers of representational art and fans of contemporary portraiture.
Auerbach is often grouped in “ The School of London,” a loose category meant to denote the British artists who were doggedly pursuing figurative art in a wider artistic milieu enamored with minimalism, conceptual art and other avant-garde pursuits. The sobriquet “School of London” was coined by R.B. Kitaj in a catalogue note for his figurative exhibit in drawing and painting at the Hayward Gallery in 1976, and referred to six artists as the main members working in England at the time: Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews, Leon Kossof, Frank Auerbach, and R.B. Kitaj, himself.
Kitaj’s reference to this loose grouping surprisingly stuck, even as its existence or its composition was debated. It was later reinforced by the British Council which underwrote a travelling exhibit for the group. The exhibit included a stop at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 1992, where the roster was expanded and included many accomplished representational painters, some little known outside of England. “British Figurative Painters of the Twentieth Century” brought the “London School” to general Israeli audiences and working painters who were introduced to the vibrancy and range of the British works, including, among others, Euan Uglow, Howard Hodgkins, David Hockney, Paula Rego, Gwen John, David Bomberg, William Coldstream, and Walter Sickert. If the art world in England was then enamored with conceptualism, the focus of many in the Israeli art world was still heavily influenced by lyrical abstraction, an -ism from a yet earlier artistic vogue.
Barry Schwabsky, in his 2001 Art Forum article regarding the exhibition of a private collection related to the School of London notes that the original six artists most associated with the School of London, as Kitaj defined it, also had in common “outsider” status.
On the other hand, and perhaps not coincidentally, all but Andrews and Bacon are Jewish painters in London. Just as the School of Paris was, essentially, non-French painters in France, the School of London is essentially a band of outsiders–mostly emigres (from Eastern Europe, Ireland, or the United States), mostly set apart by religious background (even Andrews, the one non-Jewish Englishman, was brought up as a Dissenter rather than in the Church of England).
The brochure published by the Israel Museum to accompany the current exhibit notes in Auerbach’s biography that he was born in Berlin in 1931 and in 1939, “Sent to England to escape the war.” The eight-year old Auerbach was a child refugee from Nazi Germany, having arrived in England, unaccompanied by his parents, as part of the Kindertransport in 1939, a last ditch effort to save some Jewish children from the still murky fate of European Jewry.
Auerbach went on to study at St. Martin’s School of Art in London where he took classes with David Bomberg, and continued his studies at the Royal College of Art in London. Towards the end of his student days, he acquired a studio in Camden Town in northwest London where he has continued to work throughout his career and still paints today.
Fifteen of the works in this exhibit are part of an anonymous gift of around forty works by Auerbach which the Israel Museum received of late, all donated in memory of Lily Sieff. An additional three works on display were gifted to the museum by Auerbach personally. All were completed between 1980 and 1998.
It will take a bit of determination on the visitor’s part to find this exhibition, as one is unlikely to chance upon it while wandering the collections. Starting in the newly designed impressionist art gallery, one may wend oneself through to the Old Master biblical-themed paintings, follow the circular staircase downstairs, continue through the temporary exhibit (now on angels in art), and coming to the last room, glance left. There you will see a small gallery, little more than an alcove, where the Auerbachs are displayed, some on the walls, others in glass-enclosed vitrines. Considering their relatively small scale, this diminutive gallery is actually a fairly good fit to view these works, curated jointly by Nurit Sharon-Debel and Eva Sznaiderman. As a bonus, there is little likelihood to need to careen over the heads of rambunctious school groups.
Many close associates and friends over the years have served as model for Auerbach while working on his paintings and drawings. Some of these sitters became dedicated to the task over a long range of years. The drawings on display include many of these familiar personalities from his inner circle, done variously in charcoal, graphite and felt-tip pen works. As is typical of his paintings, his drawings often show many layers of built-up re-workings until there is a dense mangle of lines, each mark thought through, erased and re-considered until he is satisfied. He has said, “I destroy things every day in the act of working and often recall a picture I had considered finished in order to rework it.”
Auerbach did not commonly work in print-making and this exhibit shows a1980-81 series as his foray into etching. Unlike drawing directly on paper, an etching is created on a metal plate, commonly through a series of steps. Sometimes one plate is scratched, marked and changed through various techniques, with all the work done on a single plate and run through the press when it is finished; sometimes a number of different plates can be used consecutively and then pressed onto a single sheet of paper to complete the etching.
One can observe the artist taking this relatively unfamiliar medium and making it his own. The 1980 etching of Joe Tilson is that of a simple scratching into a single plate to achieve a likeness. His later etching of R.B. Kitaj shows the use of two acids on two different plates. His portrait of Lucien Freud is brought off by the even more complex use of four etching plates. We can also see three graphite drawings of Julia, David and Catherine in their initial state in 1989, and adjacent we see the etchings which followed them. Drawing is done directly as the hand follows the eye. To transfer a drawing into an etching that appears as the drawing that preceded it, one must generally make a mirror image to achieve the same intended results.
His working process results in portraits that are both an expression of his reaction to the sitter, and his own idiosyncratic way of working, creating, destroying, and creating anew. These works show Auerbach’s hand and eye in a stark and distilled reduction of his unique approach to portraits and open a window to his work process in painting as well. Recommended.
Exhibit continues through August 25.