I hesitated to write about Frank Auerbach exhibition at Tate Britain. With Lucien Freud gone, Auerbach is seen as the most prominent living British painter. The show’s press coverage is dressed with superlatives so much that were those pepper, one could choke to death eating the dish. I thought, “Who would be interested to read more on him?”
But as I went through rhapsodic newspaper reviews, I stumbled across a few dismissive comments in social media from celebrity intellectuals and art lovers.
I wondered if it might be useful to take a step back and talk about art that’s difficult to appreciate.
It is widely held that figurative art is more difficult to make and much easier to enjoy than abstract art.
It couldn’t be more untrue.
Great abstract art often takes more time to produce than a nice figurative painting; if you look up now, you’d see Rothko and Diebenkorn waving from the cloud at you and nodding in agreement. There’s a huge distance between “easily made” and “looking easily made”, which artists cover by working hard and (often) drinking a lot of alcohol.
Figurative art is often easy on the eye, true… but it can be hard-to-get as well.
Pre-Raphaelites are [mostly] easy.
Van Gogh is easy (or is made “seem easy” by mass media).
Claude Monet is so easy Cezanne referred to him as a “postcard maker”.
Even Francis Bacon is relatively easy, once you understand his view on life, universe, and everything.
Giacometti, some of Miro, most of Picasso, and Frank Auerbach are not easy at all.
We don’t like things we don’t understand. We get annoyed when something that we can’t get instantly is pushed our way. We are too busy to pause, watch, and ponder. That’s the way we are, it is the modern world, and it’s not our fault.
As a popular stand-up comedian put it,
She is right. When art is difficult, it often gets unpleasant instead of becoming a source of emotional uplift. Complicated art needs to be explained. Someone shall point out what is interesting, new, great, or exciting about it. Given time, years of education, and multiple visits anyone could, perhaps, “get it” entirely on their own. Alas, most visitors don’t have time for all this, and they need help. They are paying good money not to merely see art, but to enjoy it.
Does Tate offer any such help? Let’s read their comment to this Mornington Crecent:
Straight from Tate’s mouth:
“It is the architecture that gives his paintings such authority. They dominate their given space: the space always the same size as the idea, while the composition is as right as walking down the street. The mastery of these compositions is such that in spite of their often precarious balance, like a waiter pretending to slip while carrying a huge pile of plates, the structure never falters. It is the viewer who has to hold tight.”
Any sane person would read this commentary and wonder what exactly the curator wanted to say. How is this cityscape any different from any other similar work? Why should the viewer, who has to hold tight, enjoy this painting-induced giddiness? How is Auerbach giddiness (let’s assume such thing exists) better than the one a merry-go-round can give you? Because the latter is obviously better (fresh air) and safer (if you throw up you won’t damage expensive art). Does architecture always give authority to paintings? If not, what is so special about Auerbach’s buildings that makes them authoritative? These questions may go on and on, but Tate curators don’t come rushing to you with answers or ideas.
So I totally agree with Jenny Eclair (whose twit I quoted) that this show is unlikeable. Not because of the paintings though, but its curators.
I will now try to remedy this. I add “try” because Auerbach is one of those painters who can be truly appreciated only when you see his work live. It is important to watch it in live size, live colours, all the textures, and all the 3D effects created by layers of paint upon layers of paint. Also, I don’t have hi-res photographs of his paintings, which is a problem because some of the colour changes I will be pointing out are so minor that I really could use a quality picture to close up on them.
The comedian I am quoting could ask a legitimate question now, of course: “Why should I bother to try to understand something that’s not instantly clear and likeable?”
My answer is that the return on mental effort required to understand Auerbach’s work makes emotional life of the viewer richer than it used to be, which can lead to the viewer’s personal inspiration in whatever activities they are engaged in.
To put it simple, there’s a treasure buried in the ground, and to get it one needs to dig it out and break the rusty lock first.
Let’s get back to the Mornington Crescent of 1991.
Let’s abstract ourselves from all the wikipedia knowledge of Auerbach’s horrible childhood and later years of hermiting his life away in Camden. Is this painting, stand-alone and out of context, any good?
Think of a big city. Think of a busy street in it. If you happen to live in one, I bet you cross such a street at least once daily.
What do you remember of it? For most people (including myself) their home city (or any other city they’ve been to more than once) comes back as a blurred sensation of a place. It’s like a sea of people and cars with a few landmarks and familiar destinations perched up above the “sea level”.
Most people I’ve talked to about it believe they can “feel” their city but ask anyone to describe the building in which their office is located, and you’d be surprised they don’t remember what is the colour of the granite slab over the entrance they go through each day. So where do the “feelings” about a city come from? Perhaps, it is the crowd in the streets? Perhaps, it is the energy of the pedestrian and car traffic? Or, maybe, it is the layers of history hidden in its pavements, roads, and buildings? Or all this and something else, combined?
But do we know all these people or buildings’ history? Of course not. There is too much chaos, too many people, all following their own paths, going to their own destinations and destinies, for a casual observer to remember their faces, or their clothes, and to develop any interest in them.
Yet, they, their energies, the crisscrossing lines of their travels, their lives (which create all this chaos) are what makes the city or the street what it is.
If we take a photograph of the street (I am taking Mornington Crescent from Google maps from the spot Auerbach was standing at), we would lose the chaos, the dynamism of life, and, if we are lucky, we can “freeze” a few people here and there in this photograph in mid-stride, as if they have lost both their point of origin and destination. Mornington Crescent does look like a quiet neighbourhood that used to be slightly more pleasing until the industrially looking building on the right side was repainted white.
So, if our objective is to make a portrait of the city = a portrait of our “feelings” about it, a photographically realistic “snap shot” is never going to do the job.
Frank Auerbach has found a way that works for him, and, as it turns out, for a lot more other people.
This is how it is done.
The really funny thing about this painting is that in terms of contrast it is indeed reminiscent of a face, if the colour is removed and the contrast is maxed up.
Even if this effect has never been intended, Auerbach gives the viewer a bright spot towards which the eye gravitates along the lines provided by buildings vanishing in perspective:
Yet, the composition is a bit more complex: Auerbach doesn’t paint buildings standing perfectly vertically (or, like in a photograph, leaning towards each other), he changes the rules of the
game perspective and opens the street up for you:
The net effect is that you are invited to walk inside the painting, towards the white building in the centre, as if the buildings stepped aside to let you through.
But this is only the first step.
Next, Auerbach brings you this street and the whole of London the way he feels [about] the place. He has developed his own language to tell a story to the viewer. In mathematical terms, it might be called a model with varying parameters such as:
- colours, or palette
- length of brush strokes
- number of layers of paint
- strength, or energy of brush strokes (you can see it when you watch his paintings live, because energetic stokes leave furrows of varying intensity)
- change of colour in a single brushstroke from its beginning until its end (I’ll show this in a minute)
I start being boring, don’t I? Well, the magic of his paintings is that nothing, not a single “parameter” in them is left to chance, but they look spontaneously expressive. As you look closely, it turns out to be the spontaneity of a genius who makes decisions based on years of study and months of painting a single piece. Just as in a good novel all the characters and scenes are justified and play a role, in a great painting no brushstrokes are unnecessary.
So, let me translate Auerbach’s language the way I understand it (if you look at his paintings long enough you may develop your own view of his vocabulary and grammar, of course).
It is a given that an artwork is not interesting unless there is a conflict inside. We don’t read books that don’t have conflicts. We won’t laugh at a joke without a “contrapunto”. In painting, one of the ways to create a conflict is to use complimentary colours, that is the ones that are located opposite each other on the colour wheel.
Auerbach uses green and red for buildings on the opposite sides of the street (pun intended, I believe as I doubt they have even been painted in these colours) with specs of red on the green house and the green chimney towering next to the red building.
And then he creates a dialogue or struggle between them because the green building emanates green and blue radiance and the red building emits reds and oranges that clash in the sky above them. Look back to the colour wheel above: while green and blue are friends (just as orange and red) blue is the opposite to orange. Using four fighting colours instead of just two makes the whole conflict quite spectacular.
Now, as we look down at the pavement below our feet, we can see yellow. Have you even seen yellow pavement in London? I don’t mean the yellow line that can get you fined if you park by it. Really yellow asphalt road? Frankly, I don’t know why it is yellow, except that it legitimises the use of magenta in the sky, and besides the conflict that rages between the left and right side of the painting creates a conflict between the bottom and the top.
Thus, using just one “variable”, the colour palette, Auerbach offers us several conflicting situations that create tension between all parts of the painting.
Does it look like a visual trampoline to you now?
Now you may want to inquire what’s the meaning of these conflicts. The artist, in his turn, would be absolutely right to tell you, “you are a big boy/girl, invent your own meaning”. Auerbach involves you in watching his paintings and then tells you that if for some reason it starts resonating with you, talk to your own shrink. I believe he secretly hopes that things he expressed in these conflicts ring a bell for quite a bunch of art collectors or Tate patrons, but he’d never admit it.
I find that this particular painting represents quite a lot of London’s character to me. I think of a prestigious postal code bordering on a poor neighbourhood with envy, arrogance, fear, respect, pride, and curiosity creating emotional tensions between them. Eventually, all these micro tensions make London what it is, a unique multicoloured melting pot of cultures and civilisations. You can make your own story, of course!
There are a few more Auerbach’s variables you need to know about to enjoy his work even more.
He puts layers of colour on top of each other and then cuts through them with a single brushstroke. Its colour, upon contact with surrounding colours picks them up (or other colours interfere with it) and by the end of the brush stroke its colour becomes something else, sometimes, entirely different:
I have put “S” for “Start” and “F” for “Finish” for a few brushstrokes below. See how the colour changes each time:
This change-of-colour game reconciles “conflicting” colour areas and brings harmony out of chaos. It is also highly symbolic of change in general. Walk along a beeline through a few London neighbourhoods and see if your world view is changed. I am sure it will, but please stay away from those areas that tend to feature in evening crime news. We want a positive change, don’t we?
Another variable is the energy the artist used to make his brushstrokes, which makes tracing his streaks of paint a dynamic game, actually. The viewer goes with the line of the brushstroke and, without even touching the surface, can feel the energy with which the brush was making it because it leaves grooves in layers of paint beneath it (Unfortunately, this is something you can’t do with a photograph). As the viewer’s mind registers the artist’s energy trace (without any conscious effort, of course), it becomes attached to the colour, and you can have not just reds or greens now, but “energised green” and “quiet red” (yes, it is possible to find these contradictory colours in some of his paintings!)
And now, the last question:
Why do I (or anybody else) need a coloured heat map of Auerbach’s feelings about Mornington Crescent, London, Life, Universe, and Everything?
I guess, because it’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s stimulates both the left and right side of the brain. In fact, it’s very close to music, or rather listening to music, because just like with opera, you can’t fast-forward Auerbach’s performance. You need to watch it in full, and in the right tempo to enjoy. (I hope you don’t ask why should people listen to music)
And the very last question, at least for me, is whether Auerbach is indeed a great artist.
I think he expanded the language of painting significantly enough to secure a place in history. I also believe his compulsive choice of the same city scape motifs, and the very limited number of models he has used for portraits may prevent him from leaving a truly great heritage.
What is important is that if you are an artist you simply can’t skip a show of a man who [re]invented the lingo of painting.
Let me know what you think of Frank Auerbach! Especially if you see his work live.
PS. I am using the standard colour wheel, with pure colours. Auerbach doesn’t use pure colours, but their tonal values are more or less the same. What’s interesting, he chooses colours that are slightly different form being exactly complimentary. But describing this effect would be too much for this post. Truth is, I also didn’t cover the way Auerbach uses colours to create distance and space, which is often quite remarkable. Next time, then, when I am done with Part II on Chagall I promised some weeks ago.