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Being Frank: this retrospective reveals the creative impulse at the heart of Auerbach's repetition.

Frank Auerbach

9 October 2015-13 March

Tate Britain, London

Catalogue by Catherine Lampert

ISBN 9781849762717 (paperback), 24.99 [pounds sterling]

(Tate Publishing)

Mounting a Frank Auerbach exhibition at a museum like Tate Britain is a tall order. Although a great painter, and well deserving of a retrospective, Auerbach goes out of his way to prove that an artist's life is a boring one. His working routine has changed little since the 1950s, when he first set up shop in his Mornington Crescent studio. If anything, he's become more devoted to his work in old age, explaining in a recent interview that he has not 'done enough pictures to justify my existence'. Apparently, he doesn't even stop for Christmas any more.

Then there is the fact that the essence of Auerbach's work lies in repetition, revisitation, and familiarity: much of his oeuvre depicts one of two things--the parks and streets around his studio, and portraits of close friends or relatives. The paintings also resist any kind of biographical or symbolic reading--the horrors of his childhood as a refugee from Hitler's Germany, his time as a pupil of David Bomberg at the Borough School, his involvement with the wider British painting scene of the 1950s and '60s--making it difficult to create the kind of accessible, thematic show that is the current vogue.

Auerbach has curated the first six of the seven rooms in this exhibition, writing in his introduction: 'My hope is that items might not be considered too relatively--that is, not over chronologically, stylistically or by subject or context--but that each be considered as an absolute.' Yet the exhibition is chronological, and it's hard not to see it as charting his development from the early 1950s to the present day: it plots a course from precocious brilliance in the 1950s, to a mild stylistic crisis in the 1960s, to the portraits and cityscapes he continues to paint today (Fig. 1). 'If I have changed, it hasn't been by a conscious change of direction,' he told an interviewer in 1983. But changed he has.

The first thing you see on entering the astonishing opening gallery is a 1958 self-portrait in chalk and charcoal. Auerbach's materials have warped the paper so that it seems as if it has survived a house fire. The artist has rendered himself in an almost photorealistic style, but the kinetic sheen of snags and smudges that overlay the image make his likeness barely discernible. The other highlight from the same decade is Building Site, Earl's Court, Winter (1953). a work Auerbach credits as his first truly original painting. He trowels on paint so that its texture is almost faecal; if that self portrait blurred out its professed subject, this painting does away with representation altogether. The paint is monstrously thick: a red form in the centre of the image is the only distraction from the varying shades of dark brown oil clumped together on the hardboard. The next stage gives us E.O.W., S.A.W. and J.J.W. in the Garden I and II, two huge paintings from the early 1960s for which Auerbach deployed fleshy tones --unusual, next to his near iconic palette of primary colours, and figures quite unlike any he painted before or since. While it's intriguing to see Auerbach experiment, this pair of paintings count as the only real failures in the show. By comparison to the glorious 1965 painting of Mornington Crescent that hangs opposite (Fig. 2), the first Garden scene seems oddly lifeless. Given that even minor Auerbach paintings give off the crackle and spark of live electricity from a distance, it seems a waste to devote space to two of these works.

That electrical spark comes back with a vengeance in a room devoted to his paintings of parks in the late 1960s and early '70s. Jagged, bird-like lines interrupt what, by Auerbach's standards, is a fairly conventional view of the hump of Primrose Hill, turning a pastoral scene (he describes this particular park as 'countryside') into something as violent and unpredictable as a Turner seascape. From this point on, Auerbach settles into a more or less consistent style from the mid 1970s to 2015. This is not to say there are no surprises. The construction site we saw earlier in a bustling 1965 view of Mornington Crescent has sprung up into a tower block that becomes the focal point of a series of views of the area; a 2014 self-portrait turns the zigzag outline of brushstrokes in those Primrose Hill paintings into an unmistakeable likeness. Best of all is Head of Jake, a 2008 portrait in which he co-opts the palette of Sickert's Camden Town Nudes.

The final gallery is curated by Catherine Lampert, and after the artist's wordless personal pick, we must now draw our own conclusions from an unchronological grab bag of his work. After six galleries of adjustment to the show's idiosyncracies, the rhythm is abandoned. Maybe there's good cause for this, but it doesn't work. By this point, the show's emphasis on repetition and (very) gradual change has already cast its spell.

Digby Warde-Aldam is a writer and art critic based in London.
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Author:Warde-Aldam, Digby
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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