There is an overwhelming urge to grab the painting. Wrap your grubby hands around the thick, bulging paint that expands over the edge of the canvas. The satisfying fantasy of pulling the paint straight off, like a chunky slab of chocolate, is sometimes difficult to resist. Thank God the Tate Britain has most of Frank Auerbach’s work behind a sheet of glass.
The textured, three-dimensional surface of this work, on display since October 2015, pulls you to his heavily impasto paint. Building up a surface of oils, layer after layer, is sculptural. Begun as a painting, the heavier the texture is, the more the work becomes abstract. With a limited time to see this magnificent exhibition, ending on 13th March, now is the time to feed your inner-painter and visit the Tate Britain.
Wandering through the seven rooms, another dichotomy emerges as that line between realism and abstraction is blurred. Of course, his vast Primrose Hill vistas use paint akin to a relief sculpture, whereby each stretch of grass is like another road, coloured with a different tone. There is a busyness of Mornington Crescent, with tall buildings, road signals and windows cutting through. His technique, as the angular blobs are multiplied to an extent that it becomes as busy as the London it imitates. This retrospective does break down each room into a decade. The final large space is a broad selection of pieces from across his life. There’s no clear connect-the-dots progression here; no clear-cut phase to simplify an understanding. Mornington Crescent in 1967 doesn’t seem too different from the area in 1997. People go about their day and shops open and close. When the detail is dominated by broad brushstrokes, it all looks the same.
Auerbach’s portraits and reclining nudes, equally breathtaking, are like ghostly figures emerging from the surface. In Studio with Figure on Bed II (1966), you can see the paint has been squeezed directly from the tube and onto the canvas. No artist in between to soften the colour. The tube is the pencil, controlling and directing elongated forms onto the painting. Portraits are melted souls, and like wrinkles on an old face, every layer is another day of work. Pieces are so heavy, that when a section slides through the many colours of paint, it directs your attention: the reach of the neck; the sharp, defined nose; a shard of light.
We’re not lost in his work either as his depictions of land, city or sitter is considered and balanced. Each colour appears carefully selected. His work is expressive, innovative and alive. Ignorantly, some may assume it’d be a doddle to imitate. Hand me the oil paints, palette knives and a sheet of hardwood, and I’ll make another. But notice how the colours aren’t muddied in the foreground. Observe the creeping colours hidden beneath and sneaking through the areas scraped a little too deep. Nothing feels random or uncertain. His marks are bold and defiant. The wisps of a thick drop, possibly teased into place or those vivid greens and yellows of Primrose Hill are part of Auerbach’s unique palette. It is powerful and demanding and what an experience to soak it all in.