'What I'm trying to make is a stonking, independent, coherent image that has never been seen before' (F. Auerbach, quoted in Frank Auerbach, New York, 2009, p. 229).
Dignified and deeply felt, Portrait of Gerda Boehm III is an arresting painting of Frank Auerbach's cousin Gerda Boehm, whom the artist painted on a number of occasions between 1961 and 1982. The brush strokes are vigorous and self-assured, Auerbach's energetic response to the physical presence of the sitter before him is palpable in the sculptural quality of the thickly applied paint. Eyes averted and gazing intently over her right shoulder, the portrait has a statuesque physical presence that reflects the artist's close relationship with the sitter, who was the only member of his family that he knew following his flight from Nazi-occupied Germany as a boy. The final in a series that Auerbach painted of Boehm on square canvases over a short period in 1967, this intensely worked portrait is rendered with a reductive palette of monochromes, with a subtle touch of blue. Limiting his palette in this virtuosic manner was a result of his admiration of Dutch old master painters, notably Rembrandt and Frans Hals, and evokes its tender sense of studied familiarity. This self-imposed restraint also emphasizes Auerbach's remarkable understanding of tone and gives the image its coherence. Strong dark lines carve confidently across the surface of the canvas, delineating the essential features of the sitter while creating a sense of movement and almost abstract dynamism within the composition. The delicate graduations of cool grey intertwine with the variegated texture left by the heavy application of oil paint to give the painting its sculptural modeling. Boehm's large, downcast eyes have been depicted with particular delicacy, providing a carefully observed contrast to the more flatly applied background, which recedes in favour of the bold diagonals that provide a powerful sense of the solid shape and weight of the head.
Auerbach has always worked in order to capture vitality from the real world and then translate it on to canvas through the language of paint. A student of St Martin's School of Art and the Royal College of Art, Frank Auerbach was also taught by David Bomberg, a pupil of Walter Sickert, at night classes at Borough Polytechnic. Highly atmospheric, Portrait of Gerda Boehm III reveals how he has earned his position as heir to Sickert's mastery of low-toned, quietly dramatic portrayals of everyday life. His brushstrokes are typically inquisitive, urgent and intuitive, resulting in the essential forms that we find in Portrait of Gerda Boehm III as well as the painting's characteristically layered surfaces. Describing the discovery of this repetitive and distinctive way of capturing an image, Auerbach has said that 'it seems to me the only way to get something that was both surprising and totally coherent. And so the paint became thicker and thicker, and I didn't notice it the surface of the paint was eloquent, but it wasn't eloquent for its own sake... It wasn't intentional at all. But on the other hand I was quite prepared to let anything happen because I wanted to make something new' (F. Auerbach, quoted in Frank Auerbach, New York, 2009, p. 231).
Returning to the same familiar subject time again remains at the heart of Auerbach's practice, as does choosing a sitter to whom he is personally close. This work is informed by this ritual. When he was eight years old he was sent to England in 1939 by his parents as a refugee from Nazi Germany, and never again saw anyone he had known in his childhood, nor his family, except for Gerda Boehm, ever again. Auerbach would stay with Boehm and her husband during school holidays. This early experience of separation might have fuelled Auerbach's almost devotional revisiting of the same subject over his career. He is insistent that his portraits are not merely about making a record of a person, time or place. They aspire to more - they are about capturing a meaningful likeness, an attempt to counteract a 'poignant sense of [a likeness] slipping away' (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert et al. (ed.), Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, London 2001, p. 23).
Auerbach maintains that being intimately acquainted with the sitter provides more of a challenge, but creates a more powerful painting. 'The person you're involved with most, say, is the most complicated to capture because you can't do a superficial likeness, you can't do a portrait painter's impression. You want something that measures up to the amount of feeling you have there. And that's what all the subjects are for. They're not there for their own sake; they're not there for sentimental reasons; they're there to feed this new, independent image that one's trying to make, that stalks into the world like a new monster' (F. Auerbach, quoted in Frank Auerbach, New York, 2009, p. 230).