ART FLOWS

Thick Brushstrokes of Life

Auerbach Getty images
Frank Auerbach in his studio.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Frank Auerbach defined his role as an artist as imposing order upon the chaos of the world by recording this in his paintings.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The exhibit runs through September 13 at the Bonn Museum of Modern Art (Kunstmuseum Bonn).
    • As a boy, the artist was sent from Germany to live in England. His Jewish parents later died in a concentration camp.
    • Mr. Auerbach’s portraits are especially known for the thick layers of oil paints that he applies.
  • Audio

    Audio

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The frames can barely contain the portraits and cityscapes. Flickering reds, luminous blues and greens catch the light as though the paint were still fresh on the canvases and could take a new shape at any moment.

Many visitors to a new exhibit in Bonn, however, know little or nothing about the Berlin-born artist who created them. That is now about to change.

At 84, Frank Auerbach is known one of England’s greatest living artists but his paintings are seldom seen in his native Germany. Now, people can enjoy them in abundance at a major retrospective in Bonn.

Mr. Auerbach is already well-known in England, where he moved as a boy to escape the Nazis and later became a naturalized citizen. Today, he enjoys the same regard and fame as his two friends and fellow “School of London” artists Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

Mr. Auerbach still receives women and men for portraits in his studio; his subjects have not changed for decades. Mr. Auerbach is not a psychologist and there is nothing in his portraits that reveals anything about his sitters – no clear contours, no truths to expose.

That’s not what interests Mr. Auerbach, who prefers to paint images full of twisting energy, painted with broad strokes and thick layers of viscous oils. Mr. Auerbach looks at the world and the world changes. Its ability to change is his art.

He had to find his way through life alone after his Jewish parents sent him away from Germany in 1939. Later they died at Auschwitz.

That’s what has kept him where he is to today – his studio. He leaves rarely and reluctantly, only to set up an exhibition or receive an award.

He occasionally headed for the hills to draw but usually, he only ventured a few streets away to sketch city scenes he had already sketched many times before. The same subway entrance, the same houses never became boring.

 

Auerbach painting dpa
Dark, dynamic, full of life. Source: DPA

 

For Mr. Auerbach, reality is an urgency, an inkling that bombards the eye. His art is larger than life; there is much to see, though little to recognize. He maintains a balance, bringing the world into his images – women with dogs, women on the sofa, turbulent street life – but also maintaining a distance.

In his early years as a painter, Mr. Auerbach covered the foundations of his paintings with colors that built up in thick, wrinkled crusted layers like magma that could break open any time, to release a flood of oil-paint lava.

Some have sought clues about Mr. Auerbach’s life in his art. He found his way alone when his Jewish parents sent him away from Germany in 1939. They later died at Auschwitz.

But tumult and instability did not shape his work, Mr. Auerbach said. He does not want his paintings to be read as witnesses to a century of violence. His paintings are devoid of despair – if anything, they celebrate the luck of instability.

Mr. Auerbach manages to do what so many artists aspired to in the twentieth century: In his paintings, life lives.

He doesn’t need huge installations or performances. He only needs a great deal of color, time and uninhibited energy.

 

This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: redaktion@zeit.de

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