Frank Auerbach and the tormented surfaces of postwar London

There are echoes of Rembrandt in these paintings of building sites

There is something of the rugged craftsman in some of the photographs of the young Frank Auerbach included in the catalogue for an exhibition now showing at the Courtauld Gallery, "Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites 1952-62". We see the artist's overalls spotted with paint, surrounded by buckets, easels and canvases, sparse pencil sketches pinned on the walls. The photographs were taken in the early Sixties, when Auerbach, a Jewish refugee, was probably still working on his London building site paintings.

The paintings invite questions in the mind of the viewer: is that mud or concreted coal hanging on the wall? Or is it dried-up volcanic lava or soil? Auerbach created these thickly impacted oils on board in postwar London, where he was inspired by a cityscape pockmarked with bombsites. The paint is layered thickly and vigorously on these tormented surfaces, as if the artist was struggling with his material. In the densely massed forms of Earls Court Road: Winter, for instance, dried magma-like oil glitters with a mysterious vitality.

If Jackson Pollock comes to mind here, there is neverthless no hint of Pollock's light and airy drippings; nor is there any sense that Auerbach was interested in using real materials, in the way that, say, his contemporary Jean Dubuffet did. What seems really to have interested him was a kind of personal, involving journey into the flesh of the suffering city itself.

Whether he was influenced by American abstract expressionism or by constructivism is something I'll happily leave to the experts to decide. What struck me, standing in front of the rich yellows and ochres of Maples Demolition, was Rembrandt's use of exactly these same colours. The chaos of twisted steel girders has the same golden aura as Belshazzar's Feast. The surface is marked with slashes of built-up illusionist paint, possibly recalling fallen crosses, scars in the earth and dripping blood. Rembrandt's The Slaughtered Ox seems not so far away.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496