‘What I wanted to do was record the life that seemed to me to be passionate and exciting and that was disappearing all the time. It’s the same thing that makes other people invent stories for themselves and adhere to religions. I just couldn’t bear the idea that all this was finite. So I would try to pin down the people I was involved with because those were my most intense experiences’
(Frank Auerbach, quoted in ‘Frank Auerbach in conversation with William Feaver’, 2007, in Frank Auerbach, New York, 2009, p. 229)
‘it’s not as if the painting isn’t about our relationship. It is – it’s about everything’
(Jake Auerbach, quoted in L. Barnett, ‘Sitting for Frank Auerbach’, The Guardian, 30 September, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/30/frank-auerbach-sitters-interviews-tate, accessed 5 April 2016)
From a vigorous web of thick, viscerally applied brushstrokes, the just visible form of a head emerges in Frank Auerbach’s Head of Jake. Painted in 2003, this painting depicts one of the artist’s favourite and most frequent sitters, his son, Jake Auerbach. Throughout his career, Auerbach has devoted himself to the study of the human form, working directly from a small group of sitters each of whom he knew well having forged intimate friendships during repeated sittings. These paintings provide an intimate glimpse into the artist’s world, their highly textured surfaces creating an enigmatic glimpse of reality. With a radiant palette of verdant green tones, in Head of Jake Auerbach has not created a recognisable likeness of his model, but has constructed and construed, through the swathes of dense oil paint, the physical presence of his son on the canvas.
Jake Auerbach was born in March 1958, the same year that the artist had married Julia Wolstenholme, a fellow student at the Royal College of Art. Soon after Jake’s birth, the couple drifted apart and it was not until 1976 that the artist reunited with his wife and son. ‘I suddenly had an impulse that I wanted to see Jake’, Auerbach recalled, ‘and we did meet, thank God, and I met Julia again and we got together’ (Auerbach, quoted in W. Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York, 2009, p. 18). From this time onwards, Julia and Jake, a documentary filmmaker, have sat regularly for the artist, fitting into a routine pattern of sitters, which also includes friends such as Catherine Lampert, David Landau and William Feaver. Jake, it has been stated, sits on Tuesday evenings, during which father and son talk, discussing a range of subjects before falling into a contented silence as the artist becomes more and more consumed by the process of painting. Jake has described his sittings, explaining that the pair, ‘tend to find in the first hour a bit of disagreement. That’s fairly consistent. There are various things he appreciates which he knows I don’t. On occasions one of us will pick those up. It might be Bob Dylan, John Denver, or the acting of the young Warren Beatty’ (J. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, exhibition catalogue, Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, London, 2001, p. 30).
Throughout his life, Auerbach has focused on a small number of subjects, depicting the landscape around him and a small group of models, friends and family members, choosing only to paint those whom he knows well or is close to. ‘I’ve got certain attachments to people and places, and it seems to me simply to be less worthwhile to record things to which I’m less attached, since I know about things that nobody else knows about’ (Auerbach quoted in C. Lampert, A Conversation with Frank Auerbach, 1978’, in exhibition catalogue, Auerbach, London, 2015, p. 147). Painting the same person at regular intervals over often-long periods of time, Auerbach gained an intimate knowledge of his sitters, and his depictions track the subtle and highly nuanced changes in the person who sits before him. ‘He’s recording lives, their different facets, bit by bit’, Jake has stated about his father’s paintings, ‘Looking back, I can tell from certain portraits when I was feeling low or unwell. But it’s a feeling, rather than anything specific’ (J. Auerbach, quoted in L. Barnett, ‘Sitting for Frank Auerbach’, The Guardian, 30 September, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/30/frank-auerbach-sitters-interviews-tate, accessed 5 April 2016).
Starting from this point of deep familiarity, Auerbach sought not to depict a physical likeness of his sitters as they sat posed within his studio, but instead capture their physical presence, memorialising in paint their idiosyncratic expressions and changeable moods: distilling the essence of the sitter onto the canvas. As he explained to Catherine Lampert, another regular sitter, ‘All sorts of artists, perhaps most of the good ones, have painted “models” “posing”, but I am interested in recording things, not models posing, but people who come to the studio as it exists’ (Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London, 2015, p. 194). He went on, ‘if you’re drawing anything, even a person, your head goes up and down and swivels. What you’re seeing is in fact lots and lots of different linear perspectives that interpenetrate. So you’ve got to invent…the irrational marks actually seem a better record than the literal ones. They suggest things, and suddenly in a corner of the picture you get a little bit of truth, which might actually expand into a whole truth… What happens is that the painting begins to speak back to one’ (Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, ibid., p. 195). His sitters are not immediately identifiable to the viewer yet it is this ambiguity that reflects the intense and emotional relationship between artist and sitter, a mutual understanding and regard for one another. This sense of complete complicity and intimate form of personal knowledge is reflected in Auerbach’s Head of Jake.
Though Auerbach’s works appear spontaneous and rapidly executed, they are in fact the result of a long working process. The artist scraped off layers of paint before applying more in thick layers both with his brush and his fingers, and then scraping it off again, repeating this process over a long period of time until he finally felt the work was finished. This technique results in a heavily impastoed paint surface, such as can be seen in Head of Jake, in which visceral swathes of paint create a vigorous sense of texture and movement. At once impulsive and considered, revelatory and enigmatic, Head of Jake encapsulates the qualities that make Auerbach’s painting so unique. ‘If something looks like a “portrait”’, Auerbach has stated, ‘it doesn’t look like a person. When the forms evoked by the marks seem coherent and alive and surprising, and when there are no dead areas, I think the painting might be finished’ (Auerbach, quoted in W. Feaver, op. cit., p. 22).