Frank Auerbach’s art was once described as impressive and as exciting as Francis Bacon’s, yet, for one reason or another, he remains much less famous. Not that the German-born but British-based Auerbach cares about fame and fortune, or perhaps even recognition for that matter. But with the kind of sinister, horrific but hugely eye-catching portrait art he produces, it’s hard to fail to recognise his very idiosyncratic work. Finally, in 2014, Auerbach was granted his first major Tate UK retrospective.
Auerbach arrived in Britain on the cusp of the second world war, when he was just eight-years-old. His parents remained behind. In the fifties and sixties he quickly made friends among British art’s elite, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud among them, and established himself as a bold portrait artist who applied (very) thick paint to his canvases. The paint is so thick that, at times, it’s difficult to make anything out amid the chaos of colour and texture. Layer after layer of paint is applied which, fifty or sixty years ago, would have made Auerbach appear very daring indeed. He had little in common with his British art associates, instead taking cues from America, in particular the radical abstract expressionist artist Willem De Kooning.
Auerbach’s unsettling art is no doubt influenced by the fate suffered by his German Jewish parents, who were executed in a concentration camp sometime around 1942. Life for the young German artist was not a happy one and, as a result, he does not paint nice things. Where Willem De Kooning had a relatively easy upbringing, yet still produced radically different, and radically unsettling portraiture, Auerbach, who had a tortuous childhood experience when he was sent abroad without his parents aged just eight, clearly had personal crises to add to his De Kooning-inspired art. The result was De Kooning on another, far more emotional level. He wasn’t just indulging in experiments, like many modern artists; he was involving himself completely. He is his work.
The word emptiness has been used to describe Auerbach’s works, and when you glance through his art, it is easy to feel a moral vacuum created by violations of humanity, such as the Holocaust. Auerbach’s colours more resemble human sources than anything else; vomit, excrement, urine, saliva, blood and so on. His art follows the great sludgy tradition of British artists since the turn of the 20th century; from Walter Sickert, who was once thought to be Jack the Ripper, and who painted prostitutes and all the grim and fifth of life life on the wrong sides of the track in London, to Francis Bacon, who painted all the gripping terror and suffering of being born. Auerbach may well have been German, but he loaded his experiences with 20th century British art that explored the darker corner of humanity.