RED OCHRE linen has the enveloping warmth of terracotta, a rustic colour that seems drawn from the ground like Italian tiles or dry earth parched by the sun. Yet for painter Frank Auerbach this shade of red, along with sandy yellow and burnt orange, reflects the mood and surroundings of his home in London, with its ever changing patina of earth toned brickwork that naturally ages and weathers over time. Having spent most of his life in Camden Town in London, Auerbach captures a view of London and the people in it through visceral, tactile passages of paint, marking him as a key player in the School of London. On Camden Town, where he still lives and works today, Auerbach wrote, “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 pets.”
The change and uncertainty of Auerbach’s childhood undoubtedly shaped his adult life, feeding into his language of erasure and reinvention. Born in Berlin to Jewish parents, at age 8 Auerbach was sent to live in Britain with a new family to escape Nazi persecution. Growing up in Kent, he later moved to London to study art under David Bomberg and found a natural home in the ramshackle, war-torn city, where survivors banded together in the hope of starting again. In 1954 Auerbach set up a studio in Camden Town where he would remain for the rest of his career, forging close, lifelong friendships with a small group who often frequented his paintings. The densely worked Head of E.O.W., 1960, is a portrait of the artist’s close friend Stella West, who appeared in over thirty of his paintings and drawings. Here Auerbach captures the ‘raw experience’ of his sitter rather than a direct likeness, with layers of paint applied, removed and reapplied over many weeks. Eventually he allowed mellow, warm pigments to permeate the canvas as thick, sculptural passages, portraying the slow, organic process of comfort and familiarity between artist and model as it developed over time.
In post-war London Auerbach found rare beauty and romance in a city being rebuilt from the ground up, and he often painted directly on location, writing “It was sexy in a way, this semi-destroyed London. There was a scavenging feeling of living in a ruined town.” In Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, 1962, Auerbach finds beauty in the urban sprawl, reconfiguring a worn out, rusty building site into rich, dense sea of umber overlain with vivid, structural streaks of brick red. Some years later, as his colour palette lightened and broadened to include more vivid hues, To the Studios, 1991 and Park Village, 1998-99 evoke the same sense of industrial deconstruction, imagining city views as broken networks of expressive bands in red ochre, mustard and brick red.
Throughout the following years Auerbach continued to paint outside and inside his Camden studio, working directly from life to capture the spirit and energy of the significant places around him, writing, “(Painting) arises entirely from my physical experience, my place in the world … I’d like my pictures to feel as though they were a page torn from the book of life.” In In the Studio, 2003, Auerbach transforms his studio into a loose network of glowing embers that seem to flicker and dance before our eyes, suggesting the energetic vibrancy and creativity of the place he calls home. Painted the same year, Head of William Feaver, 2003 documents writer and art historian William Feaver in a vivid array of tones, with red ochre creating depth, warmth and intensity amidst vibrant yellows and blues.
More recently, The Awning, 2008 conveys the anticipation of early morning London with bristling, energetic brushstrokes that dissolve into golden yellow sunlight and deep red shadows, revealing Auerbach’s ongoing infatuation with the city and its ever changing landscape. There is friction here between warm, familiar colours and subject matter on the brink of collapse, highlighting the instability under the surface of Auerbach’s art, on which he writes, “There is a tension between unity and difference; one great wave or wind holding it all together as one. A [good] painting concentrates the experience of being.”
FS RED OCHRE comes in Medium weight 100% Linen