Figure on a Bed III is one of a series of paintings completed between 1967 and 1970 depicting Julia Yardley Mills, otherwise known as J.Y.M in a variety of abstracted, contorted poses. J.Y.M, a professional life model whom Auerbach had met whilst teaching at Sidcup College of Art in Kent, began posing for the artist in 1957, continuing to do so for the next more than thirty years. Enthusiastic and quite literally indefatigable, J.Y.M was the first person to be painted in Auerbach’s now much mythologised Mornington Crescent Studio, formerly that of close friend and fellow Royal College of Art alumnus, Leon Kossoff.
‘The dark embryo’ necessary, according to arch modernist T.S Eliot, to accomplish anything in art, is transformed in Figure on a Bed III by Auerbach’s enervating use of colour: bright yellow, dark green, a hint of royal blue and a truncated gash of cadmium red. Instinctual and yet in part circumstantial, Auerbach’s relationship with colour is entirely unique. Dun, earthy colours - terre vert, ochre, indian red, black and flake white had been all that the artist could afford until around 1960 when an annuity of £1,500 from the Beaux Arts Gallery enabled him to buy rarer and more expensive pigments. And yet, unlike works dating from the mid 1960s which boast the thickest impasto of his career, in these later works Auerbach uses his fingers and as well as brushes of no less than two centimetres in width, frequently doused in turpentine, to manipulate the paint across the canvas, creating areas of significant textural difference.
Far from the interminably re-worked, heavily encrusted surfaces of paintings completed only three of four years previously, Figure on a Bed III succeeds ‘making it new’, getting the paint moving in more electrifying ways than one, thereby integrating the artist’s growing sense of paint as an ‘accumulating substance within which the whole world can be experienced’ (Auerbach, quoted in Frank Auerbach, Robert Hughes, London, 1990), with his commitment to patient and repetitive scrutiny.
Indeed, there seems something both fundamentally and methodologically enlightened about Figure on a Bed III, arguably key to which is a kind of wildness, inherent not only in the liberated application of paint but in the essentially unpremeditated agenda of the painting as a whole. Unlike the ostentatious urgency with which Bacon privileges the figure, Auerbach treats the space, the bed and the figure with equal intensity, allowing the dialogue between plasticity and violent feeling initiated by Chaim Soutine and Nicolas de Staël, whose work he admired, to inform and to invigorate the whole. For, although ‘the lump’ on the bed is the focus of the painting’s cryptic energy, one feels a sense in which it is very much a product of cumulative forces.
Beginning ‘as an almost nothing, an incoherence worked on, worked with, worked at’ (Auerbach quoted in W. Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York, 2009, p. 19). Figure on a Bed III seems the very epitome of Auerbach’s quest not simply ‘to paint another picture’, but to ‘make a new thing for the world that remains in the mind like a new species of living thing’ (Auerbach quoted in ‘A Conversation with Frank Auerbach’, exhibition catalogue, Frank Auerbach, London, Arts Council, Hayward Gallery, 1978).