‘I’m doing what may be my last paintings’: Frank Auerbach on his new self-portraits and turning 92
He has painted the same people over and over, sometimes for 40 years, dabbing, rubbing out, then starting again. Although the great artist now has to hold on to his easel to work, he still hopes to die with a brush in his hand
Frank Auerbach once said that London after the second world war was a “marvellous landscape with precipice and mountain and crags, full of drama”. It’s a description that could just as easily apply to his own aged face, judging by the works that have just gone on display at a new show in the city.
Entitled Twenty Self-Portraits and showing at the Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert gallery, the exhibition comprises paintings on boards and drawings on paper, all done since 2017. Here he is looking like a bird; there, like a tree; there, a boulder unmoved by a storm. The artist, just turning 92, still lives where he works, as he always has done – alone in a north London studio. I call him at 9am on Good Friday. He picks up on the first ring.For decades, writers have struggled to find the right words to describe Auerbach: a hermit, a recluse, a monk, an obsessive. His daily routine seemed like it would never change: up before 7am to draw in quiet streets, then work in the studio – every day of the year – with one of the handful of people who have sat for him over the decades. As one veteran sitter, the art historian Catherine Lampert, puts it: “He’s all by himself, every evening, by choice.”
“I don’t any longer do the daily drawing actually,” says Auerbach. “I’m doing what may be my last two little paintings in the studio, of a scene outside. But I have been working this morning. When I got up, I saw [in what I’d done yesterday] something that seemed perfectly adequate but totally unnecessary and I rubbed it all out. Of course, now it looks utterly different. But it still isn’t any good – and I shall go on with that process for as long as it takes.”
The critic Robert Hughes, who wrote an acclaimed Auerbach monograph in the 1990s, said that an “overriding sense of being alone in the world” was at the heart of the German-born British artist’s work. It would be tempting to link that summation to Auerbach finally arriving at self-portraiture. Yet, when seen in the round, it strikes me that his work is actually run through with steadfast relationships. The names of his sitters often make it into the titles: EOW (Auerbach’s erstwhile companion Estella Olive West), JYM (Julia Yardley Mills, a professional model who sat for 40 years), Julia (his wife since 1958), Jake (his son) and a trio of art writers, William Feaver, Lampert and David Landau. Their presences are captured by Auerbach’s exacting process of repeatedly trying, then erasing, then trying again to make an image that is true. And doing so, in most cases, for at least 20 years, sometimes well past 40.
When I suggest that his work speaks not of solitude but connection, he replies: “That is absolutely true. And it’s possibly true that our deepest experiences are other people. I do think subject matters. And it seems that the only thing worth using for one’s art is one’s deepest experiences. I think my drawings sometimes, in retrospect, tell me a lot about my relationship with people I’ve been drawing. People say they’re expressing themselves – but I’m not expressing myself at all. I’m trying to make an image.” Yet, years later, he might look at a work “and see how I felt at the time, but wasn’t aware of then”.
Auerbach has always rejected any notion that his work is expressionist. He speaks in formal terms, about needing to have or feel “the lump” of whatever he’s drawing in his mind. Feaver, the writer who has sat for him weekly since 2003, once described himself as “a useful lump”. I can’t resist asking Auerbach: “Are you a useful lump?”
“I’m an extremely useful lump!” he says brightly. “I don’t chat. I’m very well aware of the enormous sacrifice my saintly sitters are making when they come to sit for me. But if I feel I want to go next door for 20 minutes, to see the thing with a fresh eye on my return, I can do that.”
The catalogue for Twenty Self-Portraits features an article by Michael Roemer, the US film director and writer, who was among the very first to buy an Auerbach. It was 1950 and the painter was just 19. Roemer paid 10 guineas. He couldn’t explain why, but he needed the piece. And he went on to collect more and live surrounded by them for 40 years. Speaking by phone from Florida, he describes his favourite charcoal: the one with the paper completely worn away, and backed up with another piece of paper, also worn away and patched. I know what he’s referring to: one of the heads of EOW from the late 1950s.
The two men met as boys, aged 11 and 8. It was 1939 and they were at Bunce Court, a Kentish boarding school for orphans, mostly sent by their families from Berlin via the Kindertransport. Roemer, now 95, last met Auerbach three years ago. They said their goodbyes. But, adds Roemer, when they speak on the phone, they just pick up where they left off. “It’s as though there were no years.”
Roemer left the UK for the US at the age of 17. He remembers Auerbach, three years his junior, doing a watercolour of some boots, shortly before. “It wasn’t a finished thing but it wasn’t sketchy. It was just very different from everything the other children were doing and much better than anything I could do.”
Auerbach has described some of the lines in earlier self-portraits as being “an old man’s marks”. But these new works feel really fresh. They’re small with a markedly vertical emphasis, the brush and charcoal lines running downwards like spines or trunks. They’re sparser than previous works, too.
Auerbach used to work for longer periods. “It was a physical affair,” he says – a performance described by sitters in terms one might use for a boxing match, all shuffle and stomp. But his balance isn’t so good now. “It’s still physical, but I find I’m holding on to the easel with one hand and working with the other. Possibly the marks become slightly more summary and reduced.”
It’s also the distillation of a lifetime of, as he puts it, teaching himself how to draw. Even now, a work is only deemed finished and valid if it passes the final test: a black and white photograph is taken of it, to check the graphic structure. When drawing himself, I suggest, he must also feel his own structure, his actual bones. Does this feed into his understanding? Almost everything does, he says. “Sometimes I keep on drawing in my sleep. Before, I was hardly conscious of my dreams, but I now find myself working things out, thinking I should be doing this with that.”
Summer Building Site, a work from 1952 in which two yellow stepladders stand amid bold shapes in orange and green, has become essential to Auerbach’s origin story: this was the first time he felt he had done his own painting – and he didn’t know if he’d ever manage another. “I remember it all exactly,” he says. “I felt I was breaking the sound barrier. I was crossing through and making something new.”
As we talk, there is – as there always is – a book open on the studio floor. This time, it’s one about his old tutor David Bomberg. Auerbach can still hear the things – uncensored, impatient – that Bomberg would say. Auerbach once traced his painting lineage back, from Bomberg (“who attended Walter Sickert’s evening classes”) to Whistler to Degas to Ingres and all the way back to Raphael. These days he thinks about Picasso a lot, as well as Rembrandt and Michelangelo. He talks of these greats as being in the room with him: they’re his community, he says, his conversation.
In London’s Tate Britain hangs Auerbach’s EOW Nude from from 1953-4, a painting about the length of an arm, but utterly confounding. I go back to see it. Up close, I gauge the paint’s thickness then, from a distance, I see the prone figure emerging like cleft marble from a lava field. Nearly seven decades on, it is pure punk, obdurate, still Hughesian in its shocking newness. “My vision of painting,” Auerbach once said, “was of an explosion.”
Roemer tells me he is writing a book. He just hopes he’ll live long enough to finish it. Auerbach hopes so too. “As long as I can put on my painting trousers and have a brush in my hand, or a stick of graphite, I feel active. I wish for both of us that we fall over while still trying to work.”