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24 November 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

Frank Auerbach and the tormented surfaces of postwar London

There are echoes of Rembrandt in these paintings of building sites

By Anna Maria Di Brina

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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