The slow art of Frank Auerbach

Once, not so very long ago, people only occasionally looked at their own image or those of their friends and family. Even mirrors were uncommon. With the invention of photography that changed. I suspect, although I don’t know it for a fact, that mirrors multiplied so that we could arrange ourselves for all that picture-taking.

It hasn’t been much longer than a century ago that many of our ancestors sat in parlors passing a stereopticon from person to person, marveling at 3-D images of foreign wonders. Not long after that postcards became all the rage. At last, we could all see what the world beyond our own town looked like.

So it was that portraits and landscapes, especially exotic landscapes, were the camera’s first subjects, and the two were frequently combined.

Today, I know people, I guess we all do, who take pictures at a furious rate—watching the children grow, marking every rite of passage with dozens of snapshots, and especially recording every holiday and the family’s presence in front of distinguished buildings and magnificent mountains. One of my favorite memories of an early trip to China was the woman who on every occasion handed me her camera so that her picture could be taken in front of something or some place important.

We consume more images today than any culture before us and, in a digital age, we throw them away almost as fast as we make them.

I spent part of the last day reading about Frank Auerbach. Like the rest of us, he’s mostly interested in pictures of people and landscapes. I looked at pictures of his paintings, of course, but while most copies of most paintings are of little worth, those of Auerbach’s work are especially so. His paintings are many-layered, thick with brush strokes, scraped, gouged, cross-hatched. His early paintings especially were so thick they were almost sculptural. No one-dimensional copy could reproduce that, or even come close, and so this post will be my first not to include a picture. From a 2001 gallery guide description of a painting of Primrose Hill, and quoted by Wikipedia: “Reading an Auerbach painting is an energetic experience… Furiously worked pink vibrates in a different way to swift interlinked zigzags of red and green, while a marbled sky offers an area of tranquility.”

That gives you some idea of the problem.

Auerbach, who is 78 years old, still paints long solitary hours. For his landscapes, he sketches hundreds of preparatory drawings. Like the digital picture-taker, he frequently throws away canvases he doesn’t like, but in his case he may have committed weeks and even months to the painting’s construction. He’s been known to buy back paintings that don’t meet his expectations in order to destroy them. What’s important to Auerbach is finding the truth of the art he’s making.

Auerbach is the very epitome of slow art. He has only a few subjects, subjects he’s painted for over fifty years—primarily the three women he’s loved in his life and the neighborhood of his art studio London’s Camden Town. He’s never had much interest in travel or seeing the world. There’s still too much to see in his several subjects. The exploration never ends. His paintings are more than images. They’re a response to the very fact of physical existence.

We can only see Auerbach’s paintings if we look slowly. Every stroke of the brush, every blunt attack with the palette knife is a fresh approach to something that is familiar and ordinary. If we let the paintings work on us, our tired ways of seeing can be shaken loose. We can learn to see and to celebrate what is no longer ordinary.

Surely this is what art is all about: “What I’m not hoping to do is paint another picture — there are enough in the world,” Auerbach says. “I’m hoping to make a new thing for the world that remains in the mind like a new species of living thing.”

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