William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, Catalogue Raisonné,
2009, Rizzoli, New York, cat no.937, illus colour p346 & illus colour (full
‘At the northern end of the Crescent, by the tube station with its maroon-tiled façade, Eversholt Street joins Camden Palace Theatre, built in 1901 and renamed the Camden Hippodrome when Chaplin appeared there. Later it became a cinema, a BBC studio (Ted Ray, The Goon Show), then the Music Machine, where the sex pistols performed, then a gay club. Lately it has been a rock concert venue called Koko, the beaux-arts frontage repainted pink. For over half its history Auerbach has been witness to the pageantry of the theatre’s changes of use. He has shown it dilapidated, flushed peachy red, as a palatial sand castle, as a domed obstruction sidled around by an approaching bendy bus. Around it the prospects have eased a little over the years; what were, at one stage, barren glades of poles and posts have become arenas dashed with incident. Among the traffic lights and street barriers, behind which generalized motor cars prowl, are early risers nipping along or jamming the entrance to the underground station. Boeings appear, glinting in the morning sky. Halfway along Mornington Crescent a tree interrupts, at times bursting with leafage but once or twice reduced to a spindly winter coat hanger eyed by a dog.’1
Depicting one of the most frequently recurring subjects in Frank Auerbach’s oeuvre and brimming with an array of vibrant colours, ‘Koko’ Mornington Crescent, 2006 exemplifies the artist’s assertion that ‘The closer one is to something, the more likely it is to be beautiful.’2
Since 1954, Auerbach has lived and worked in the same Victorian brick studio tucked down a side alley close to Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, and, whilst the whole of London has provided stimulus and subject matter for his paintings (Oxford Street, the Shell Building on the South Bank, St Paul's and Leicester Square all appear in the early building sites paintings), since the mid-1960s, he has almost exclusively painted locations within the immediate vicinity of his studio. For Auerbach, unlike other cities like New York, London had been somewhat neglected as a subject matter for painting, he explains, 'I haven't painted [Mornington Crescent] to ally myself with some Camden Town Group, but simply because I feel London is this raw thing...This extraordinary, marvelously unpainted city where whenever somebody tries to get something going they stop halfway through, and next to it something incongruous occurs...this higgledy-piggledy mess of a city.'3
Mornington Crescent has fascinating cultural associations - Walter Sickert occupied various addresses in the neighbourhood, Charles Dickens attended a school nearby and Auerbach himself inherited his studio from Leon Kossoff while still at the Royal College. Emphasising the personal significance of northwest London in particular, Auerbach declared, ‘this part of London is my world. I’ve been wandering around these streets for so long that I’ve become attached to them and as fond of them as people are to their pets.’4 Between 1965 and 2009 5 Auerbach made around 70 paintings of Mornington Crescent, a number of which are held in international public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 6; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humblebaek 7 and The London Jewish Museum.8 By the time he came to make the present work, Auerbach had been painting this subject for 41 years.
Here, as the title suggests, the focal point of this scene is ‘Koko’ – the renowned concert venue and nightclub located opposite Mornington Crescent underground station. The history of this iconic building (as outlined in the excerpt above) in its various incarnations as ‘Camden Theatre,’ ‘Camden Palace,’ and now ‘Koko,’ is charted in the titles of 14 of Auerbach’s paintings which date from different periods.9 By returning to the same subjects time and again over the decades, Auerbach’s paintings effectively act as records of a city which is continually changing.
While Auerbach paints the landscapes in his studio, each is derived from numerous sketches which he makes rapidly, directly from the landscape, en plein air, in pencil and/or felt-tip pen and crayon and these are pinned around the studio as prompts for the paintings. An essential part of his daily routine, Auerbach will typically sketch early each morning, so that he might start the day with a fresh idea or impulse for his painting.
In contrast to the manner in which he produces his sketches, Auerbach’s painting process is incredibly intense and lengthy. He will often rotate his paintings on the easel, working on the image from all angles to ensure the marks relate to each other in every direction, a practice he has likened to carving sculpture. As Catherine Lampert notes, ‘Auerbach works across the whole picture, all the time, with the result that the surface remains unusually unified, as if kept at a constant fresh temperature’.10 Auerbach paints the entire surface - canvas or, as here, board, in a single session, before scraping it back while the oil is still wet using a putty scraper, rag or an old newspaper, to be painted anew the following day, using new information he has acquired from his sketches. This process of painting, rotating, and scraping back continues until Auerbach instinctively deems the work complete, as he explains, 'The picture has its own laws, and when the thing suddenly stands up and you feel, well, there's this strange thing and I don't know what I can do about it, I can't do anything to it, it seems to have a life of its own…if you've painted yourself out of the picture then you leave it because it's an independent object and there's nothing you can do with it.'11
‘Koko’ Mornington Crescent is characterized by a strong sense of line - two long, vertical strokes of red (delineating the traffic lights) are the anchoring feature to a scene which is otherwise dominated by diagonals and verticals which cut across the composition in every direction, carrying the viewer’s eye around the surface. While the pedestrian barrier in the foreground, described in pink, green and yellow, forms an arrow which thrusts into the pictorial space, simultaneously foregrounding an awareness of corners of the painting, and the painting as an object.
While Auerbach's early oils are instantly recognisable by their thick impasto and limited palette, his later works are markedly flatter and saturated with a wealth of colour. Here the process of repeatedly laying down and then removing paint has produced a wonderful sense of depth and complex tonal range. Flooded with sunburst yellows, oranges and crimsons, with flashes of blues and greens, the present work suggests the intense heat of a summer’s day. Here Auerbach has elevated what could be said to a gloomy urban setting to an uplifting scene bursting with life. The non-naturalistic colours Auerbach uses here reinforce the notion of the painting as a constructed image, heavily reliant on the artist’s memory and feeling. This painting therefore shows the direct influence of David Bomberg, who taught the artist at the Borough Polytechnic from 1948-1954. The colour palette of the painting and the view of Koko it depicts is highly similar to that of the paintings ‘Koko’ Mornington Crescent II (cat no.938) and ‘Koko’ Mornington Crescent – Summer Morning (cat no.939) produced the same year. Speaking of the way in which he selects colours for his work, Auerbach explains,
‘There are many things on which I rely on instinct. Actually, when I think about colour I think about it as a form of drawing. That is, I think this is coming forward, this is making a connection, this is establishing an echo somewhere, this is cutting through the morass that I’ve got into: get another colour, something bright, and go across the sludge. And that, I think is all that I think about.’12
1 William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, Catalogue Raisonné, 2009, Rizzoli, New York p17
2 Auerbach in an interview with Hannah Rothschild for The Telegraph, 20 September 2013: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/10336972/Frank-Auerbach-An-interview-with-one-of-our-greatest-living-painters.html
3 Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, Thames & Hudson, London, 1990, p162
4 The artist interviewed by Michael Peppiatt in: Tate, no.14, Spring 1998
5 According to William Feaver’s catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work
6 Mornington Crescent, 1967 cat no.226
7 Mornington Crescent – Early Morning, 1999 cat no.821
8 Mornington Crescent – Summer Morning II, 2004, cat no.893
9 Although the building with its distinctive dome is glimpsed in numerous of Auerbach’s Mornington Crescent paintings, just 14 works include the building’s name in their title.
10 Catherine Lampert, Frank Auerbach, Speaking and Painting, Thames and Hudson, 2015, p167
11 Auerbach in conversation with William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, Rizzoli, New York, 2009, p230
12 Auerbach in conversation with William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, Rizzoli, New York, 2009, p231