'I wanted to make a painting that, when you saw it, would be like touching something in the dark'
(F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 86).
'I have a strong sense that London hasn't been properly painted... Monet on the Thames, Derain at the docks; bits and pieces, rather spottily, by Whistler and Sickert. But it has always cried out to be painted, and not been'
(F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 84).
Rendered with exquisite swathes of lustrous oil paint, Frank Auerbach's Primrose Hill Study - Autumn Evening, 1979, is a near sculptural painting that leaps from the canvas with tactile eddies of paint. Perfectly controlled by the painter's hand, the brush fills the picture plane with a wealth of expressive strokes that embody a verdant landscape of trees on the sloping hills of the north London park near the artist's studio in Mornington Crescent. Rising off the picture plane, Auerbach's image captures the visual opulence of a seasonally brisk evening. In Primrose Hill Study - Autumn Evening, Auerbach orchestrates broad directional strokes of paint in a palette of ochres, oranges, crimsons and plums, suggesting the vividness of autumnal leaves at the height of the season. One of the most important vistas in Auerbach's oeuvre that he has returned to time and again, his works exploring Primrose Hill are held in such prestigious international collections as the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Tate Gallery, London and Art Gallery New South Wales, Sydney. The present work relates importantly to the pair of paintings depicting Primrose Hill in the Summer and Winter, exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1986. Drawn to its pastorality in the heart of the ever-changing metropolis, the first examples of Auerbach's investigations of the park began almost sixty years ago in 1954. Of this preoccupation with London as a subject Auerbach explains: 'I have a strong sense that London hasn't been properly painted... Monet on the Thames, Derain at the docks; bits and pieces, rather spottily, by Whistler and Sickert. But it has always cried out to be painted, and not been' (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 84).
Constructed with a sumptuous density of paint, Auerbach's gestural impasto emits the sensation of the softly glowing light of an autumnal evening while also retaining the essential qualities of the material itself. In topographical abundance of painterly peaks and valleys, the artist communicates the tension conveyed by the material as it was traversed across the work's surface. With his successive sweeps of the palette knife and brush, Auerbach's direct application of pure paint picks up flecks of other colours, producing a variegated surface suggestive of both the artist's visual experience and the creative act. Redolent of the artist's hand, the gestural traces coalesce into an energetic composition that convey his experience and set the rhythm for the eye to cast around, unfolding the memories that have been rendered into the surface of the canvas. In its very materiality, Primrose Hill Study - Autumn Evening is a physical iteration of the reality that the artist experienced, with paint acting as the substantiative proof of his realisation.
Setting out early in the morning, Auerbach would go to the park to complete rough sketches that he would later work up into paintings in his studio. Not completed en plein air, Auerbach's process enables him to conflate his memory and experience of the landscape in his own time, capturing 'what it was like to actually draw there that morning... what I see is what I was looking at when I did the drawing and it reminds me of it. That's what it was for. I see the sunlight and the trees and the hill so I paint from these by looking at the drawing... I'm looking at black and white drawings and the lines signal colours to me' (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, 'Frank Auerbach', Frank Auerbach, exh. cat., The British Council, XLII Venice Biennale, 1986, p. 9). Furthering this idea of representing memory and experience, Primrose Hill Study - Autumn Evening is evidence of the change Auerbach's landscapes underwent after a rare foray outside of London to Tretire, Herefordshire in 1975 when the artist was captivated by a tree outside his bedroom window, which subsequently informed his more pronounced representation of trees in his landscapes. Using the painterly tradition to visually construct his momentary sensation, Auerbach worked and reworked the image's surface, moving toward the gestural sweep that would ultimately signal the immortalisation of his experience. Scraping away the paint that did not achieve the representation of his vision, the surface would become marked with the residual manifestations of the artist's process. As Auerbach's good friend and peer Leon Kossoff notes of his work, 'in spite of the excessive piling on of paint, the effect of these works on the mind is of images recovered and reconceived in the barest and most particular light, the same light that seems to glow through the late, great, thin Turners. This light, which gleams through the thickness and finally remains with us is an unpremeditated manifestation arising from the constant application of true draughtsmanship' (L. Kossoff, quoted in 'The Paintings of Frank Auerbach', Frank Auerbach, exh. cat., Arts Council, Hayward Gallery, London, 1978, p. 9).
It is no surprise that Kossoff would refer to the master landscape painters such as J.M.W. Turner when discussing Auerbach's work. Auerbach, like his peers, has a fervent attachment to the National Gallery in London - a place he would visit at least once a week from as early as the 1950s in order to make drawings of paintings there. Instilling within himself a sense of quality and the greatness of the painterly medium, Auerbach relied on the paintings of the Old Masters to teach him how to almost alchemically transform an inert material into a convincing depiction of the real world. In an interview in 1986 Auerbach listed artists whose work had influenced him, which included Turner, John Constable, André Derain and Claude Monet. And while his studies of Primrose Hill over the last fifty-odd years certainly parallel Impressionist investigations on the effects of light and shade on certain landscapes like Monet's haystacks or views of London, Primrose Hill Study - Autumn Evening, in all its atmospheric glory, pays homage to Constable. As an heir to this legacy of great English landscape artists, Auerbach has sought to absorb the lessons of his predecessors and move beyond them, imbuing his works with a presence that evokes a sense of his own personal experience. As he has said of this legacy: 'the sense of corporeal reality, that's what matters. English twentieth-century painting tends to be thin, linear and illustrative. I wanted to do something different; I wanted to make a painting that, when you saw it, would be like touching something in the dark' (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 86).