Frank Auerbach

British Pavilion, Biennale

Frank Auerbach’s 24 oil paintings and 8 drawings on display in the British Pavilion were done between 1977 and 1985. Their repetition of the same subjects and a coherent pictorial form testifies to the tenacity with which the artist has developed his formal language. The theme of the human figure is brought to the limits of representability, while Auerbach’s method of working is brought to the limits of obsession.

The faces and busts portrayed appear deformed in a superficially expressionistic manner. What actually lends some validity to this construction of form is an untamed pictorial practice that constructs while it cancels, that accumulates color, then scrapes it away Concessions to reality do not seem to concern Auerbach, only a desire to stratify portions of dense material that in themselves contain no possibility of anatomical representation. The result is a broken, fragmented, tortured surface within which resides the nucleus of the portrait. The face or body mercilessly impressed into that magma appears enclosed in the liquid material as if in amniotic fluid. But Auerbach’s figural compositions are without the constructive violence of, say, Willem de Kooning’s portraits. In the latter reside a will to extract a coherent form from chaos, a desire to affirm the essence of life in the face of an undifferentiated material that could suck the figures back in and cause them to be lost. Auerbach’s portraits do not succeed in achieving this anxious vital state, remaining bogged down in the vaporous trails of the artist’s hand. He confers no individual status on the real model: one face is worth another. No distinct personalities emerge, but, rather, a generic humanity on the verge of dissolution. What seems to be Auerbach’s real concern is his relationship to the act of painting itself. In this way the painting’s content becomes a well-constructed alibi. This also applies to the landscapes and building-site pictures, nine of which were exhibited in this pavilion. The desire to explore thoroughly the possibilities of pictorial construction is stronger than the need to represent a vision, and impedes the synthesis of object observed and object documented.

I cannot accept an affirmation of artistic skills, high as they may be—and Auerbach knows his craft—if they are not upheld by strong conceptual motivations. (The contrary is equally true.) In Auerbach’s case craft gains the upper hand. Jacqueline Ford writes in the catalogue that his work is the fruit of a very long process that can last for years. Despite this conceptual aura, the conclusive image, which is shaped spontaneously in a single sitting with the model, makes me suspect even more that the core of Auerbach’s work is a narcissistic, almost autistic sensuality, wholly concentrated on a single objective: the relationship between the surface and the material, not the relationship between the artist and his subject. And for someone like Auerbach, who has chosen the human figure as the object of his expression, this seems an enormous limitation. Because of his detachment, his work seems, in my opinion, to be like searching around a void, to which we can apply Shakespeare’s words, "much ado about nothing.”

Despite this, Auerbach (jointly with Sigmar Polke) won the Biennale prize for “best artist”. I believe this is a sad sign of the times. Today, appearances—the surface—win out over depth.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Mayta Munson.