Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M. II, 1984–85, oil on canvas, 26 × 24".

Frank Auerbach

Tate Britain

Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M. II, 1984–85, oil on canvas, 26 × 24".

Frank Auerbach’s unambiguously palpable paintings keep getting more mysterious the more I look at them. T. J. Clark, in a characteristically rich, knotty, and self-dramatizing essay for the catalogue of this oddly shaped retrospective, writes of seeing one for the first time and thinking it “a crazy inconsequential daub.” That was not my initial impression, but it’s where further acquaintance with the work seems to be leading me. Curiously, the phrase Clark used to sum up his erstwhile disdain for the paintings started to sound like apt praise.

After reading curator Catherine Lampert’s 2015 book Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, as well as her 1978 interview with the artist (reprinted in the exhibition catalogue), I am impressed with how deeply unilluminating the painter’s words are about his practice. Yet, to turn back to the paintings, what is clear above all is a sense of

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