‘I feel London is this raw thing … This extraordinary, marvelously unpainted city where wherever somebody tries to get something going they stop halfway through, and next to it something incongruous occurs … this hiddeldy-piggeldy mess of a city’ (J. Bumpus, ‘Frank Auerbach’ (interview), Art & Artists, June 1986).
At Mornington Crescent, Frank Auerbach remains in the studio in which he has lived and worked since 1954. To the north lies the bustling high street of Camden Town and the south Euston and King’s Cross stations; the west borders the upper side of Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill. This area of North London is as diverse in its vistas as it is in its inhabitants; a mixture of affluent and homeless streets, which reflect the nature of the capital in general: ‘this higgeldy-piggeldy mess of a city’. It is not Auerbach’s intention to be a ‘series’ painter, yet he has revisited the same scenes of North London, forming a greatly extensive study, with many views being reconsidered time and time again, during different weathers, seasons and times of day, year after year.
Mornington Crescent Looking South II is a vibrant cityscape under an early morning London sky, with an abundance of colour liberally applied; every brushstroke making a discernable trace that matches the energy of the colour. A bending road, high-rise buildings and streetlights can be deciphered in the expressionistic scene. Something in his expressive quality creates this indefinable quality; an emotional attachment of place that raises the status of London from the city in which he lives, to the place that he calls home.
The act of repetitiously creating the same view on canvas is matched by Auerbach’s artistic process. A single painting is likely to have progressed through stages of thirty or fifty, perhaps even hundreds of different images in the course of its lifetime, persistently scraped off and reapplied again the next day. This method distinguishes a great stylistic difference in the duration of Auerbach’s oeuvre, which began with the thick impasto images of his art school days. By this point, he had developed the working method of constantly recreating the image, but had not yet decided on the importance of attempting to remove previous incarnations, so the paint grew into an ever-expanding fury, reflecting the bomb-ravaged landscape of London in the wake of the Second World War. There is a greater sense of restrain in Mornington Crescent Looking South II as there is generally in Auerbach’s later works, although the memory of previous versions persists, the final image will appear to be more considered with this process of elimination, instead of constant addition. The canvas would stay wet until its ultimate creation, when it would be placed on top of the cupboard to dry, Auerbach’s process never changing. There is a temporality in these works, not due to the addition of paint, but its through constant removal, which creates a charged quality.
Auerbach has created a symbiotic relationship of creation between his portraits and scenes of London. He works simultaneously on both within the day, rather than alternating between periods of either genre and so the two are connected by the same day, the same mood and the same studio environment. All of the work for Auerbach’s landscape art is produced in his studio rather than en plein air, for reasons of practicality; the canvases are large, immovable and never dry. Only preparatory sketches are made outside, made in the early hours of the morning before Mornington Crescent’s inhabitants have woken, although these have become less frequent in the later works due to Auerbach’s age. It is arguably the painted landscapes that are the most charged. Auerbach states ‘there is a further degree of abandon when I’m doing landscapes because I’m absolutely on my own’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London, 1992).
Auerbach’s life and career has been informed by his childhood. He was sent by his parents from Berlin to Britain in 1939 by Kinderstransport to ensure his safety during the rise of Nazism. On arrival, he went to the boarding school Bunce Court in Kent, which was taught and attended chiefly by refugees. The school had the type of atmosphere that would encourage his artistic tendencies and no oppressing parental influence that would encourage a stable career over an artistic lifestyle. At seventeen, Auerbach began studying art at the Borough Polytechnic which soon earned him a place at St. Martin’s School of Art (1948-52) and then the Royal College of Art (1952-55) where he studied simultaneously. Although somewhat of a recluse in his artistic practice, Auerbach can be considered part of the great traditions of art, both in Britain and in the history of Western art. At the Borough Polytechnic, Auerbach was taught by David Bomberg, contemporary to the Vorticists, who was in turn taught by Walter Sickert, who learned from Degas, who idolised Ingres and so the tradition goes on. It was Bomberg who instilled the forceful figurative nature of Auerbach’s works. It is specifically in his city scenes that Auerbach’s establishes himself in the British tradition: the British landscape. Chiefly this is under the influence of Constable, whose use of paint he so greatly admires. Indeed, he confessed that, ‘I’ve never been moved by a real landscape as I have by paintings of landscape. It’s because every moment is transmitted by human will that we identify ourselves with it. In a painting you re-experience what the painter experienced, one brushstroke over another’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in J. Wullschlager, Lunch with the FT: Frank Auerbach’, The Financial Times).
Auerbach persists with the routine from which he rarely strays, working seven days and five evenings a week. In his portraiture, he believes that knowing, exploring and understanding the subject persistently creates the personal feeling which is reflected in their portrayal. This same philosophy is expressed in his treatment of the landscape. Mornington Crescent Looking South II is an expression of Auerbach’s admiration and never ending fascination with London, his adoptive city for nearly eighty years.