Frank Auerbach is still painting every day – Andrew Billen meets the last of the postwar London school greats.
Seventy years ago, when he was 11, Frank Auerbach’s parents, a chemist and his art-school graduate wife, were killed in a Nazi concentration camp. Auerbach, one of the last and greatest painters of the postwar London school whose members included Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, does not particularly wish to discuss this brutal fact of his early biography. But when he does, he shows no emotion; not pity, not self-pity, not bitterness, not anger. Instead, he talks of his removal from Berlin to a liberal boarding school in Kent and of his orphaning, signalled by the cessation of the letters his parents sent him, as a kind of freedom.
He was sure his father and mother were fond of him and thinks they ran a comfortable home. “But I also felt slightly uncomfortable, as children do, at being too protected, too restricted,” he says. At 16, he left Bunce Court School for London. He shared a room with a flautist who had also lost his family. Abandoning an ambition to act, and exchanging one risky career for another, he won a place at St Martin’s School of Art. “At school, nobody suggested we’d have to make a living when we left. There was nobody to tell me, ‘Don’t become a painter: you’ll never make a living.’ I had the great advantages of freedom and no family to tell me what to do.”
So Auerbach did become a painter and at first there was no living to be made out of it. He sold ice cream on Wimbledon Common, drinks at the Festival of Britain. He worked on a bagatelle stall at the Battersea funfair and cooked for a catering company that did functions in Home Counties mental hospitals (“Young people in good clothes dancing, the patients with their backs to the walls of the passages, inching their way along and trying not to be seen”). He taught art at a school.
Then, in 1956, he held his first exhibition, at the Beaux Arts Gallery in Mayfair. If every one of his paintings had sold they still would not have paid for the paint on their canvases, so thickly did he apply it. But gradually his work gained in prestige and value. Its bold lines, viscosity and earthen colours were seen as something extraordinary, something new; the figurative turned abstract and back again. Four years ago, an Auerbach portrait was sold at Sotheby’s for almost £2 million. Auerbach says such sums are not achieved for works that he owns, but to his early tragic freedoms he eventually added financial independence.
Yet we each make our own prisons. Auerbach is an obsessive painter of a few square miles of North London, ranging from Mornington Crescent to Primrose Hill. One famous painting, of the view of the street on which he works, was called To the Studios, and the main oil of his forthcoming exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art is entitled Next Door, which is what it depicts: the house next to his studio. (The show marks the opening of a new Marlborough gallery, Marlborough Contemporary; a further exhibition, Frank Auerbach, Early Works 1954-1978, opens at Offer Waterman, London, on November 2.) His portraits are of a small group: friends, his wife, Julia, his former lover Stella West. There is no canvas celebrity-spotting to be had, as at a Lucian Freud show. “Well, there is Bill Feaver,” he says. William Feaver is an art writer; he is not Kate Moss or the Queen.
Although a hip-replacement operation necessitated by decades of standing off-balance at his easel has put Auerbach out of action for a few weeks, normally he works every day of the year, save for Christmas Day. He gets up at 5.30am, walks down the streets by his studio and sketches. Camdenites up at that hour know him and leave him alone, although the alcoholics of Primrose Hill were once inclined to engage him in philosophical discussion. His contemporary, the abstract painter John Hoyland, who died this summer, once described walking to a fashionable Hampstead restaurant with a beautiful woman and looking up and seeing Auerbach coming down Primrose Hill covered in charcoal dust. Hoyland thought: “One of us is going about this the wrong way, and I don’t think it’s me.”
Back in the studio, Auerbach might paint over his drawing, then start applying paint to a larger canvas. At the end of most days, he will scrape everything off, so only a trace memory of what he has done remains for him to build on the next day. If it is a day with a model, he will paint in front of them, but the annihilating finale is the same. A portrait or a street scene may take a year not being painted and then, one day, in a day, it will be done. “When I was younger and more disposed – although I’m not indisposed now – to make pretentious statements, I would say it was like breaking through the sound barrier.”
We are talking not in his Camden studio but in his wife’s flat near Finsbury Park, which upstairs contains a studio where we sit (actually, I sit and he perches on a medically approved stool). He lodges here three nights a week. “She has a place near the sea in Norfolk and goes down there one week out of four and draws trees and so on. We met at the Royal College.” Does he go with her? “No, I’ve never been there. I suppose it all sounds a bit weird, but Cyril Connolly, whom I no longer have any particular great regard for, said that these days marriage is people guarding each other’s solitude. There’s an element of that in it. On the other hand, I think the both of us would feel totally bereft if… No, Julia too, I think, finds the relationship perfectly acceptable.”
As I am discovering, it is hard to write about Auerbach without making him sound like an eccentric recluse. Yet he is also sociable – he makes me a coffee – and amusing. He talks like a refined Fifties film actor with just a dash of German dissonance to make it interesting. His stories are executed with deliciously cutting turns of phrase. Dressed in a black jersey and brown cords, with tufts of hair exploding from his ears, he probably does not care much about his appearance. Since, even at 81, he is strikingly and still darkly handsome, that doesn’t matter.
And if his orbit has been small, his presence clearly has its own gravitational pull. He first saw Lucian Freud in the refectory of the Royal College of Art, but got to know him after he had left. “Lucian was inherently glamorous, first because of his heredity and then because he was extraordinarily attractive, quick-witted, energetic and daring, with his own morality. A quicksilver person. Lucian got more into a day and more into a life than anybody I’ve ever known. I grew fonder and fonder of him as time went on, and he became what can only be called my closest friend.
“He used to ask me to come over and see his pictures sometimes. So I would go over at six o’clock in the morning and he would prepare an overly elaborate breakfast for me. And for all the harum-scarum aspects of his personality – the number of children and the unpaid debts, the gambling and so on – he was an enormously nice and loving person.”
For 15 years Auerbach was also close to Francis Bacon. “I must have seen him two or three times a week and we talked a lot. He bought me many, many meals, drowned in far too much alcohol. Almost all my firsts in eating, like the first time I ate lobster or fresh salmon or turbot, were all due to Francis’s enormous generosity. We fell out quite bitterly in the end. He fell out with everybody, including Lucian, but he had considerable faith in my painting. He lost it to some extent when his friend George [Dyer] died.
“In what now seems to me to be a priggish way – I was totally mistaken – I thought that Francis felt that one should be sorry for him rather than for this person in whose death he felt, perhaps rightly, to some extent implicated. He picked him out, brought him to another life and then, for prolonged periods, ignored him. George seemed to have come from a semi-criminal background, but was a very warm and simple person. He was, I suppose, more or less destroyed by the relationship.”
Auerbach, a master of the verbal character sketch, is just as eloquent about his work. More accurately, he is eloquent about the process of his work. About its meanings, however, he is silent. The bottom right of Next Door is dominated by his neighbour’s door, painted as an empty space. A figure, which he confirms is Julia, appears to be walking out of the canvas. The closed door has finality to it, Julia’s departure a valedictory feel. “Those sorts of interpretations never occur to me while I’m working. It’s very much a dumb activity concerned with formal problems, the prime formal problem being that which is true with every possible sort of creation: that is, unity and variety. One wants the thing to be as characterful and varied as possible while having an absolutely total unity.”
And these self-portraits that complete the new show – why should he finally be drawing himself? Isn’t this an old man’s introspection? He offers three alternative explanations: he was a bland-looking young man, so not worth drawing before; he sometimes likes working in silence and, when he is his own sitter, he gets it; there is no waiting for himself to turn up.
It is hard for an admirer to accept, I say, that these paintings are simply technical problems he has solved. His cityscapes brim with his feelings for the streets he walks. His portraits seem turbulent with love and fury. One looks at his paintings of Stella West, the ex-girlfriend he left Julia for not long after the birth of his and Julia’s son, Jake. West was a widow, an amateur actress, seduced by him at an end-of-run party. For 23 years they loved and they fought; the violence, she once said, mainly on her side. It ended in 1973 when she threw a bottle of vodka at him. He had spent decades, one might say, throwing paint at her. Do the paintings not tell something of that?
“The pictures knew better than me, because she was just marvellous. She’s still alive, although has no memory now. I felt very strong feelings for her, but I don’t think I ever said so, articulated them.” He pauses. “I’m now going to enter an area which I would have preferred not to, but since I am rambling away… Before my eighth birthday, I was taken away from my parents. I think it inculcated a certain necessary stoicism.”
But no one is inured to the traumas of love as an adult. “In my relationships? Well, yes, in the sense that when they do go wrong, if one were very attached to somebody, it can be extremely painful. A break-up of a close relationship on all levels can drive one slightly mad. But it is a situation about which something can be done. One might find oneself running for half an hour to catch the last train in order to see somebody, or knocking on their door at midnight. Whereas in the situation when I was a child, nothing could be done, and it never occurred to me that there was something to be done.”
After almost 20 years, in 1976 Auerbach was accepted back by Julia and they have been together – together apart, maybe – ever since. Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect an artist committed to his work also to be a committed father and husband. He did not see Jake after he was 5, which must have been hard for them both. “It was, but it was do or die. I felt I couldn’t cope. For a time I was seeing both of them and I just felt the whole thing became so difficult. Then some curious impulse got me and I split up with Stella and I got a photograph of Jake sent from Julia – who sent me messages occasionally – and I wrote to him and wondered whether he’d like to meet. I’m sure that he had a load of very justifiable resentment, but luckily we have found a sort of relationship with each other.”
Ten years ago, Jake produced a film about his father and in it spoke warmly about him. “Yes, he’s marvellous. I’ve been very lucky. And Julia is marvellous. So we got together again after this interval and, in fact, it’s a long time ago now. Forty years.” I love it that Julia is in this latest picture again. “Yes,” he says.
I tell him some of what it looks like to me. Here was a boy uprooted from his country, deprived of his parents, who unsurprisingly found relationships problematic. He grew up into an artist who created around him a family of portrait-sitters, and who marked his new home by the heavy application of paint. “You may be right. I am sure you are right. It is partly about sticking down roots. Lawrence Gowing [the painter and curator] said something like that to me 40 years ago. But I think life is too short for self-examination. The thing to do is keep on racing along.”
And I realise that while we are all prisoners of our lives, a few of us find within our cells an exhilarating freedom.
Published in the Times on 6 October 2012