'This part of London is my world. I've been wandering around these streets for so long that I have become attached to them, and as fond of them as people are of their pets' (Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, N. Rosenthal & I. Carlisle (ed.), Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh.cat., London, 2001, p. 15).
Painted in 1991-92, Tree in Mornington Crescent is one of Frank Auerbach's rare and celebrated large landscape pictures. As opposed to the intimate scale of so many of his portraits, this expanse of thickly- and rigorously-worked canvas conveys a true sense of the space depicted, a sense of space, a sense of potential movement and openness. And yet enough of the almost claustrophobic quality of the portraits lingers that our experience of Mornington Crescent is made vivid, even visceral. For as well as giving us a sense of space and scenery, Tree in Mornington Crescent appears to enter our world, to leak from the wall and into the realm of the viewer. In this sense, his art is a strange revelation: 'I'm hoping to make a new thing that remains in the mind like a new species of living thing' (Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London, 1990, p. 12).
Auerbach loves London. It has been his home since just after the Second World War-- the events leading up to which had resulted in his being sent to school in England in the 1930s, far from his native but increasingly anti-Semitic Germany. Just as he returns to the same sitters on a regular basis for his portraits, he has regularly returned to the same places for his landscapes: his local environment. As such, through years of returning to the same subject, he has gradually come to master it, and Tree in Mornington Crescent is no exception. This picture shows not only Auerbach's passion for London, but also the distance that his own landscape treatments of the capital have evolved over the decades that he has treated it so obsessively. His love of London is completely uncompromising: 'I hate leaving my studio, I hate leaving [Camden Town], I hate leaving London. I don't think I've spent more than four weeks abroad since I was seven' (Auerbach, quoted in ibid., p. 83).
It is this intense familiarity that is reflected in the swirling, tangled mass of oils through which he has conjured this view. The contrasts of colour and texture alike fill the picture with a sense of movement and of near-organic matter, adding a physicality to the view that forces all the more visceral reaction from the viewer. At the same time, the almost abstract brushstrokes clearly coalesce into a vision of the street, the tree and the sky in which a factory chimney, the windows of buildings and the pavement are all visible. Auerbach has managed to capture not only the form, but also some tangible sense of his own emotional ties, his own familiarity, with Mornington Crescent.
In his landscapes, Auerbach usually makes sketches en plein air, before his motif, and then returns to the studio in order to translate them into oils. Of course, as is evident even in the amount of movement evidenced by the sweeping brushstrokes in Tree in Mornington Crescent, layers of subjective experience are piled into the work as it grows from its sketch origins into something often very different indeed. Auerbach himself has commented that as he has become older, the painting process has become one of increasing abandon, increasingly trancelike. 'I think my sitters would tell you that I'm usually fairly abandoned when they're there,' he has said. 'But there's a further degree of abandon when I'm doing the landscapes because I'm absolutely on my own' (Auerbach, quoted in ibid., p. 170). Of course, considering the scale of the canvas and the fact that Tree in Mornington Crescent was executed when the artist was already in his sixties, it is clear that this frenzied abandon involves a vast amount of exertion and energy. Indeed, Auerbach himself has talked about the extent to which his landscapes demand a
'tremendous physical effort because... the way I work means putting up a whole image, and dismantling it and putting up another whole image, which is... physically extremely strenuous, and I don't think I've ever finished a landscape without a six or seven hour bout of work. Whereas a person or a head is a single form and it can come about in a shorter period of time' (Auerbach, quoted in ibid., p. 171).
It is in part because of this effort that these large landscapes are so rare. The sheer physicality involved in scraping away one day's work and then covering the canvas once more in oils is vast, and yet it is by this process that Auerbach's oils come into existence.