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Wednesday23 August 2017

Auerbach: Opportunity from chaos

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Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites 1952-1962
The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, London WC2
Until January 17

courtauld.ac.uk/gallery
4/5 stars

Courtauld Gallery exhibition shows Frank Auerbach’s paintings were inspired by post-war destruction and the pace of change

The Courtauld Gallery’s new exhibition brings together a series of paintings of building sites that Frank Auerbach made as a young man. It is the first time the 14 canvases have been reassembled, together with a handful of preparatory sketches he omitted to destroy. Though rather carelessly treated, in a grim space with inadequate lighting, the paintings offer a stirring testament to the complex act of building.

The building sites series constitutes Auerbach’s first sustained exploration of a theme. He made his first painting, Summer Building Site, in 1952, after happening upon a large construction site on his way home from art school. He has said of his work that it marked “the beginning of my life as a painter”.

Frank Auerbach’s Shell Building Site from the Thames, 1959.
Frank Auerbach’s Shell Building Site from the Thames, 1959.

The building sites were compelling yet uncomfortable places for him. He described how, “I would go and draw them by inching along the planks, out over the excavation, just clinging on and dodging the wheelbarrows”.

The early years of Auerbach’s work coincided with a period of huge transformation for London. The destruction brought about by the Blitz allowed a dramatic scale of rebuilding that enabled the city to re-emerge in a modern guise. For the first time, tower cranes and vast steel structures appeared on the skyline.

Auerbach painted three large canvases of the Shell Building on the River Thames, which, at the time, was the first building to be higher than the Victoria Tower at Westminster, and nearly as tall as the dome of St Paul’s.

For a young man who had travelled to Britain in 1939 at the age of eight, facing a new country, language and culture, he must have been particularly responsive to the raw expression of destruction and reconstruction in these sites.

He later wrote: “London after the war was a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountains and crags, full of drama… and it seemed mad to waste the opportunity and not to take notice of the fact that there were these marvellous images … all around one.”

It was during this first decade of his artistic career that he developed his style of impasto painting, which involves applying dense layers of paint to the surface so it becomes grainy and deeply absorbent of light. David Sylvester wrote about these paintings, following Auerbach’s first solo show in 1956: “Their physical structure is virtually that of sculpture, but their psychological impact that of painting. The result is arrived at through the act of painting and painting and painting again, and its magic derives from the fact that in this clotted heap of muck there has somehow been preserved the precious fluidity, the pliancy of paint.”

Restricted to using predominantly earth tones, because they were cheaper and he used copious amounts, the early canvases take on the very texture of the raw earth he was painting. The building sites are depicted as deep and cavernous, with moments of radiant light and signs of activity that are mysterious in their scale and majesty.

Metaphysical nature

They represent the essential, metaphysical nature of constructing, of working on and with the ground and with matter. In The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade writes: “Every construction is an absolute beginning; that is, tends to restore the initial instant, the plenitude of a present that contains no trace of history.”

As architects, we are familiar with that moment of chaos that preludes the act of building, where demolition and the opening up of the earth presents us with a sobering ruin, before the vigour of a new structure takes shape.

It is another form of what Christopher Woodward, in his book In Ruins, describes as the “dialogue between incompleteness and the imagination”. In these 14 paintings, this “plenitude of a present” marks the beginning for a young painter, and another moment of beginning for a time-honoured city.

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