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Frank Auerbach - Biography and Legacy

British Painter

Born: 1931 - Berlin, Germany
Movements and Styles:
School of London

Biography of Frank Auerbach


Frank Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931 to an upper-middle class family that descended from a line of rabbis. His mother Charlotte was a former art student, and his father Max was a patent lawyer.

Hitler's persecution of the Jews was inexorably building during the 1930s, and when Auerbach was 7 years old, his panicked parents sent him to England as part of the Kindertransport, the mass emigration of Jewish children from central and eastern Europe. Auerbach never saw his parents again; they wrote letters for a few years but those were heavily censored and then eventually stopped in 1943. He never learned which camp they were sent to or when exactly they were murdered.

At English boarding school during his boyhood, Auerbach dabbled in acting as well as art, but had no proper training. He laughed to an interviewer that "it was such a funny and marvelous school that the teachers were either too highly qualified or not qualified at all so the art master was the gardener."

After graduating, he was essentially alone with very little money and a prevailing shyness about his heavy accent. He made his way in London, however, and soon decided to enroll in art school.

Early Training and Work

Auerbach enrolled in the Borough Polytechnic Institute, St. Martin's School of Art, and the Royal College of Art, and immediately enjoyed art school, recalling, as "you start doing [painting] more seriously you soon begin to have a nice time, you meet lots of girls...." However, he realized, "painting is not quite as easy as you thought. In fact what you are doing isn't really painting at all," and he had to devote much more time to it than he'd expected.

His Polytechnic tutor, the erratic but talented painter David Bomberg, became exceedingly useful to him, encouraging him in his drawing and his study of the history of art. Auerbach remembered, "There was an atmosphere of research and radicalism [in Bomberg's classes], which was extremely stimulating."

Though Auerbach was studying painting, he continued his acting. When he appeared in Peter Ustinov's debut play House of Regrets in 1948, he met a 32-year-old single mother named Estella "Stella" Olive West. The two became lovers, and Auerbach began to paint her over and over again; she would be a muse for decades. He commented that painting someone he was involved with improved his work on multiple levels, recalling "The business of catching her, as she felt to me, became far more urgent than producing a painting or drawing. It put on extra pressure. There was the desire to capture the experience."

Mature Period

Auerbach saw the Stella paintings as a breakthrough and continued to devote himself to portraiture as well as other series like scenes of postwar London. In 1954 he took a studio in Camden Town previously rented by his artist friend Leon Kossoff (he still maintains the studio today). He worked at the Kossoff family bakery as well as a moulders' business, knowing that he couldn't yet support himself as an artist. However, his connections with other artists expanded, and he became close friends with Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, among others. Quoting author Iris Murdoch, Auerbach mused, "The definition of a happy life is to find 13 people you find absolutely fascinating. Well, they gradually came together [for me]."

Auerbach's first successful one-man show was in 1956 at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London, but he didn't achieve serious fame until the 1970s. He found the recent art boom absurd but felt "extremely grateful... I used to sit in my studio with an oil stove for about an hour before I could move because it was so desperately cold and damp. I really don't think I would have been able to cope on the income I used to survive on."

Auerbach's fame grew due to his association with the School of London, a term coined by American artist R.B. Kitaj to encompass the work of himself, Auerbach, Bacon, Kosoff, Freud, and Michael Andrews, although like many artists, Auerbach prefers not to be pigeonholed with a group label. He was friends with many of these artists, particularly Freud, but the relationships faded over time, and Auerbach downplayed the existence of a group or movement. Auerbach had several shows at Beaux Arts and then moved to Marlborough Fine Art gallery, with whom he still shows. He shared the 1986 Venice Biennale Golden Lion Award with the German artist Sigmar Polke.

Late Period

Auerbach is notoriously private. He rarely goes beyond a few miles of his Camden studio and house and does not often consent to interviews. Writer and documentary filmmaker Hannah Rothschild, who managed to procure one, wrote of Auerbach's aversion to luxuries and that "according to his wife, Julia, he has two haircuts a year, wears his clothes until they disintegrate and is not interested in material possessions. He works seven days and five evenings a week and takes one day off a year." He revels in quiet routine, seeing the same sitters the same day each week for, in many cases, decades.

Auerbach did allow Rothschild and his son, filmmaker Jake Auerbach, to make a documentary about him in 2001 but was exceedingly reluctant, telling the two of them in a letter that "painting is mysterious and I don't want it demystified. It's no good presenting artists as approachable blokes who happen to paint, although some may have the coolness and the grace to lend themselves to this."

He declined a knighthood in 2003, but has not spoken publicly of his reasons for doing so.

The Legacy of Frank Auerbach

Auerbach is frequently deemed one the most significant post-World War II artists, especially in his adopted home of Britain. He is notable for his obsessive method of painting, in which he layers, scrapes, adds, destroys, and molds viscous oil paint on board or canvas. His adherence to both abstraction and figuration and interest in probing the nature of how we form an image in our mind and then translate it into the visual has inspired his peers and other contemporary artists.

British painter Glenn Brown painted about 20 works inspired by Auerbach, explaining, "There's a nice economy to his painting, which I think I've taken on board. He likes to reduce the colors and brushstrokes that he uses." Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie's ghastly but seductive portraits marry Auerbach's shifting conflation of perspectives and referents with Bacon's existential horror. London-based artist Antony Micallef, commented, "Looking at Auerbach's style taught me to work on an intuitive level. The thing with his approach is that it's a very direct way of working, where the mark making is paramount and it's all about instinctive decisions." Auerbach's love for the medium and its constituent parts, his cerebral nature, and his perceptive but exacting technique have been a touchstone for artists for decades.

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Content compiled and written by Kristen Osborne-Bartucca

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Frank Auerbach Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Kristen Osborne-Bartucca
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 28 Oct 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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