Frank Auerbach’s London

T.J. Clark

That marvellous line from Thomas Hardy’s ‘At the Railway Station’: ‘And the man in the handcuffs suddenly sang/With grimful glee …’

Frank Auerbach to William Feaver

And the man in the handcuffs suddenly sang
With grimful glee:
‘This life so free
Is the thing for me!’
And the constable smiled, and said no word.

Thomas Hardy, ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’

I remember the first time I saw, or looked repeatedly at, a painting by Frank Auerbach was in the art historian Michael Podro’s living room – it must have been in 1968. The painting was Primrose Hill, Autumn Morning. I’d barely heard of Auerbach at that point (modern painting for me was French and American), and I certainly didn’t have a clue who had done the painting over Podro’s shoulder. I didn’t ask – partly because there were other things to talk about, and partly because I thought the painting was a crazy inconsequential daub, and assumed Podro thought otherwise, and couldn’t for the life of me imagine why. Weeks went by. I don’t know how many times I sat staring at the Van Gogh zigzag crows over a cornfield – I had no idea that they were English sunbeams over NW1 – but slowly, and not as a result of an act of judgment (or not one I was aware of), the painting took hold of me. I still didn’t dare, or didn’t bother, to ask who had done it. It took hold of me, and I began to see not just that it wasn’t an inconsequential daub, but that it was bloody marvellous – full of grimful glee, full of life and freedom.

‘Primrose Hill, Autumn Morning’ (1968) by Frank Auerbach, formerly in Michael Podro’s living room
‘Primrose Hill, Autumn Morning’ (1968) by Frank Auerbach, formerly in Michael Podro’s living room

This episode has stuck in my mind because it’s as close as I’ve ever come to what is supposed to be the primal scene of modern art: the experience of making (or if you’re a viewer, seeing) something that is truly senseless and preposterous as it comes into being, unknown and unidentifiable, and therefore, if you’re lucky, a glimpse of freedom, a unique particular, a way to slip off the mind-forg’d manacles. The zigzags are the manacles. I hope my elation at the yellow and blue wasn’t just the constable’s smile.

Why the way to freedom in painting should be via the incomprehensible is a question not asked enough of modern art. Many good critics (I think of Clement Greenberg) have grown impatient with the whole idea. But Auerbach’s painting takes it to be axiomatic. And the best of his painting convinces us, or at least me, that the axiom isn’t just assumed to be true in the first place and then the painting produced according to it, but has been discovered – discovered as a way of approaching the world, and then discovered to be a true way – in the painting, as the painting, as what ‘painting’ has become.

All of this, as Auerbach has admitted once or twice to interlocutors, is on the edge of ‘modern art’ mystagogy. But that does not mean we can abandon it:

I think all good painting looks as though the painting has escaped from the thicket of prepared positions and has entered some sort of freedom where it exists on its own, and by its own laws, and inexplicably has got free of all possible explanations. Possibly the explainers will catch up with it again, but never completely.

Elsewhere:

I don’t think one produces a great picture unless one destroys a good one in the process. And one doesn’t make a great picture by destroying a rotten one …

What I’m trying to make is a stonking, independent, coherent image that has never been seen before. To make something that is as blatantly public and as extravagantly new and strange as that, one needs material … And that’s what all the subjects are for. They’re not there for their own sake; they’re not there for sentimental reasons; they’re there to feed this new, independent image that one’s trying to make, that stalks into the world like a new monster.

It would not have altered things much, incidentally, that if I’d been better prepared in Podro’s living room I might have seen that the monstrosity on the wall had been made, partly, out of devouring – destroying – other people’s art. If I’d been able to glimpse a de Kooning landscape from ten years earlier – say, Suburb in Havana from 1958 – lurking under Autumn Morning, I might have been a little less at sea. But the problem would only have shifted ground. I would still have had to sort out why and how de Kooning’s elegant, lavatorial graffiti – his Cuban-blue depth, the lavish decisiveness of his foreground ‘V’ – were turned in the Auerbach into a kind of waterlogged storm-streaked slipperiness. Maybe I’d have twigged it had to do with the climate of London. (Constable smiling.) Just as likely, I’d have continued to be thrown by the blatancy of Auerbach’s kill-the-father.

‘Suburb in Havana’ (1958) by Willem de Kooning
‘Suburb in Havana’ (1958) by Willem de Kooning

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