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.

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“Minoan pendant”: a new poem by Mark Granier

“Yes – I press my nose / to the pleasantly warm glass – / it’s a copy of one I saw / cased in the cool museum”

Yes – I press my nose
to the pleasantly warm glass –
it’s a copy of one I saw
cased in the cool museum –
gold beaten to honey, a grainy
oval dollop, flanked by two
slim symmetrical bees –

garland for a civilisation’s
rise and collapse, eye-dropped
five thousand years: a flash
of evening sun on a windscreen
or wing mirror – Heraklion’s
scooter-life buzzing and humming –

as I step in to browse, become
mesmerised by the warm
dark eyes of the woman
who gives her spiel and moves
softly and with such grace,
that, after leaving, I hesitate

a moment on the pavement
then re-enter with a question
I know not to ask, but ask
anyway, to hear her voice
soften even more as she smiles
and shakes her hair – no.

Mark Granier is an Irish poet and photographer. He is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Haunt (Salmon).

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink