‘This is one of the warmest and sexiest pictures that I know and I have loved it ever since it came here, so I thought I’d try and use it to make a painting from. It’s so poignant, it’s a perfect painting of the psychological undertones of love and death and violence and mutilation and every possible thing to make it such a powerfully charged painting. I just felt attracted to this rather than any other’
‘Auerbach’s painting is not simply an inventory or copy of the Rubens. It is a painter’s intuitive response that translates a seventeenth-century portrayal of drama and fear into an entirely different kind of painterly language’
The last to date of a celebrated series of ‘portraits’ that Frank Auerbach made of works hanging in the National Gallery, London, After Rubens’ Samson and Delilah (1993) is an electrifying crescendo. While the form of Rubens’ original can be recognised in this scintillating large-scale painting, Auerbach built on its chromatic, compositional and emotional drama in an abstracted interpretation that is distinctly his own. Every figure and detail is preserved and transformed in an explosive array of jagged line and rich, honeyed tone. Light, shadow and baroque passion are recast in a calligraphic dance of ochre, amber, burgundy, mauve and green, staked out in bold, resolute strokes of oil. Auerbach’s paintings always aim, with total rigour and seriousness of purpose, to grasp a moment of reality. Making a new drawing in front of Samson and Delilah every day – one of which was later owned by Lucian Freud – before returning to his studio to paint, Auerbach not only captured a physical vision of Rubens’ work, but also the raw emotional experience that the painting gave him. In After Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, his deep necessity for a profound, honest involvement with his subject encounters the vital dialogue with the Western figurative tradition that charges through his entire oeuvre. Alive with the grandeur, integrity and authority of Auerbach’s unique painterly idiom, it is an apt tribute from one master to another, born of a deep, enduring understanding of the craft of painting.
In 1995 the National Gallery’s exhibition Frank Auerbach and the National Gallery: Working after the Masters displayed the extent to which Auerbach’s studies of paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt and Titian have informed his own portraits and landscapes. Built around three decades of drawings made from paintings in the National Gallery collection, it also contained several substantial independent works, including After Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, a version of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1971) owned by the Tate, and the important early painting After Rembrandt’s The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1961), now in the National Gallery’s permanent collection. Auerbach continues his practice of drawing from works in the gallery to this day. ‘My most complimentary and most typical reaction to a good painting’, he has said, ‘is to want to rush home and do some more work … Towards the end of a painting I actually go and draw from pictures more, to remind myself of what quality is and what’s actually demanded from paintings. Without these touchstones we’d be floundering. Painting is a cultured activity – it’s not like spitting, one can’t kid oneself’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, ‘A Conversation with Frank Auerbach’, Frank Auerbach, exh. cat. Arts Council, Hayward Gallery, London 1978, p. 22). This sense of painting’s importance, of the need to refer back to the masters as benchmarks of what should be achieved, is combined with a strongly felt urge ‘actually to apprehend the weight, the twist, the stance, of a human being anchored by gravity: to produce a souvenir of that’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 2000, p. 31). This forceful figurative approach was heavily informed by Auerbach’s teacher David Bomberg, under whom he studied in night classes at Borough Polytechnic from 1947 to 1953 while also attending St. Martin’s (1948-52), and then the Royal College of Art (1952-55). Embedded in After Rubens’ Samson and Delilah are years of intense learning from the art of others, months of concentrated study of his subject, and hundreds of rejected attempts before arriving at the final work. Auerbach couples an essentially conservative esteem for the grand figuration of the past with a radical drive to record his own reality, and it is this fusion that gives his work its singular, hard-won strength and resolve.
Auerbach was not the only artist in the ‘School of London’ – a loosely defined grouping of postwar figurative painters that also included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, and Auerbach’s fellow Bomberg student Leon Kossoff – to work after the masters. Freud’s monumental Large Interior W11 (after Watteau) (1981-83) is based on Jean Antoine Watteau’s 1712 painting Pierrot Content. Freud knew the original, which is held in Madrid’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, only in reproduction, and showed his sitters a photograph of the composition to direct their poses. Francis Bacon’s 1956-57 Studies for a Portrait of Van Gogh were likewise derived from reproductions: he in fact worked from The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888), a van Gogh self-portrait that was destroyed during the Second World War and which exists therefore only in the photographic record. These examples are typical of the two artists’ approaches to source material. Freud employed the Watteau simply as a guide for arranging real bodies in the real space of his Holland Park studio; Bacon saw the clarity and cold distance of a photograph as a way of heightening his response to the subject, van Gogh’s printed image providing an ideal figural framework for his own mental and painterly turmoil. Both could hardly be more distinct from Auerbach’s technique, which is utterly divorced from photography and relies on his absolute absorption by the living painting itself: a thing with its own ‘individuality, independence, fullness and perpetual motion’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, ‘A Conversation with Frank Auerbach’, Frank Auerbach, exh. cat. Arts Council, Hayward Gallery, London 1978, p. 22). Over the long process of making countless drawings and paintings after Rubens’ Samson and Delilah – failed attempts were scraped away, fossilised beneath the completed work – its armature of line and form and its symphonic system of colour were so entrenched in his mind’s eye that his own final version is painted almost by muscle memory. Each thick, unwavering brushstroke is infused with a deep, near-bodily knowledge of every contour of Rubens’ masterpiece: an intimacy, physicality and intensity of understanding that can come only from total dedication to the real thing.
Rubens was commissioned to paint Samson and Delilah for the town house of Nicolaas Rockox, alderman of Antwerp, in 1609-10. It was acquired by the National Gallery from Christie’s in 1980 for £2.5 million – then the second highest price ever paid for a painting at auction. The work is a magnum opus of the Flemish baroque, depicting the biblical story of Samson and Delilah with an exquisite eye for poised emotion and tragic detail. In a softly lit room, Samson sleeps in Delilah’s lap. A group of Philistine soldiers wait at the door as one of them begins to cut the sleeping Samson’s hair. An elderly woman holds a candle to the scene, illuminating a moving contrast between Delilah’s pale hand and Samson’s herculean back; Delilah’s expression is agonisingly subtle, her head reclined in misery and pity. A niche in the background contains a statue of Cupid and Venus, the goddess of love, alluding to the cause of Samson’s fate. ‘This is one of the warmest and sexiest pictures that I know’, Auerbach has said, ‘and I have loved it ever since it came here, so I thought I’d try and use it to make a painting from. It’s so poignant, it’s a perfect painting of the psychological undertones of love and death and violence and mutilation and every possible thing to make it such a powerfully charged painting. I just felt attracted to this rather than any other. If one looks at the hands, there’s something terribly poignant about the peasant hands of Samson and Delilah, and the sophisticated, tricky, sly, Iago hands of the old woman and the barber who is cutting the hair and I think everybody must have noticed the sort of musical poignancy of the yellow, the red, and the purple drapery, that great purple knot at the top, like a tear, which underscores the fleshy drama with a sort of orchestral accompaniment of poignancy and waste. I mean, it’s quite obvious that she’s betrayed him, that he’s ruined and that she loves him’ (F. Auerbach, quoted at https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/documents/frank-auerbach?viewPage=5). Only through this acute emotional and technical grasp of Rubens’ work could Auerbach translate its passion, pathos and ‘fleshy drama’ so compellingly into his own version. Anchored around a centrifugal, candlelit glow at the point of action, Auerbach’s painting uses line and colour to conjure an astonishing atmosphere of tension and impending violence. The protagonists are limned vividly in green and yellow; the Philistines at the door loom as gory strokes of red and purple; Samson’s great arm cuts a resistant bright diagonal across the picture. Those sly hands with the scissors become cruel, dark zigzags. Auerbach makes visible the geometry of Rubens’ painting, and the terrible truth of its narrative.
Beyond merely exposing the scaffolding of Rubens’ work, Auerbach shows us its beauty, quality and importance – not just to himself, but to the world. There is a redemptive, rejuvenating impulse in Auerbach’s quest to keep the painting of old at the forefront of attention, even as he himself brings the medium to new frontiers. As Robert Hughes observes, ‘every one of his paintings … is imprinted with the desire to engage on levels deeper than mere quotation with the great tradition of Western figurative art, a tradition mangled and weakened almost beyond recognition in the last half of the twentieth century’ (R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 2000, p. 19). Auerbach looks at past art much as he looks at a living person or North London landscape: as an essential and continuing source of fresh reality, education and stimulation. ‘Your correspondents’, he wrote sternly to The Times in 1971, ‘tend to write of paintings as objects of financial value or passive beauty. For painters they are source material: they teach and they set standards’ (F. Auerbach, letter to The Times, 3 March 1971). After Rubens’ Samson and Delilah is the accumulation of months of work, of seeing Rubens’ painting fiercely, clearly and compassionately over and over again. It makes Auerbach’s raw act of looking into something spectacular, and revives painting today with the possibilities of past painting speaking to and through it. It posits an artistic relationship with the past that is concentrated, organic and endlessly changing, an antidote to the shallow involvement with images that typifies our world of fleeting photographs and flip postmodern irony. As Hughes continues, ‘Any third-year medical student knows more about the fabric of the human body than Vesalius, but no one alive today can draw as well as Rubens. In art there are no “advances”, only alterations of meaning, fluctuations of intensity and quality’ (R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 2000, p. 11). The supreme testament to Auerbach’s genius is that After Rubens’ Samson and Delilah is a great painting itself: it joins the living body of art whose value lies not in its historical moment, but in its place at an apex of ‘intensity and quality’ that elides time entirely. Just as Rubens transposed the heartrending tale of Samson and Delilah into a magnificent painting, Auerbach tells his own love story in a virtuoso work of empathy, energy, and courage, and joins the ranks of the masters.