‘I feel London is this raw thing ... This extraordinary, marvellously unpainted city’
Rendered with rich, tactile impasto and bathed in warm sunlight, Frank Auerbach’s Tree in Mornington Crescent (1991-92) is a glowing love letter to the landscape surrounding his North London home. With thick, intuitive brushstrokes, the artist composes a symphony of colour, form, texture, light and shade, creating a dynamic interplay between nature and architecture. Distinguished by its impressive scale, the work takes its place within the celebrated sequence of paintings depicting the streets and parks of Camden Town and Primrose Hill, where Auerbach has lived since moving to London in 1954. With examples held in museum collections worldwide, including the the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Tate London and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, these works are among the artist’s most ambitious, virtuosic and personal creations. ‘I have a strong sense that London hasn’t been properly painted’, Auerbach once said. ‘... 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). Channelling the influence of these forebears – particularly Monet, who similarly returned to his subjects through the seasons – Auerbach chronicled the changing light, weather and skyline of his locale over periods of weeks, months and years. Created from drawings made en plein air, the present work bears witness to this process: its layered painterly surface, repeatedly scraped off, reapplied and embellished over a two-year period, becomes a topography in its own right. Formerly held in the prestigious collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians, it was included in the artist’s major retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2001.
‘This part of London is my world,’ Auerbach has mused, ‘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’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2001, p. 15). It was on the desolate streets of post-War London that Auerbach found his first true inspirations: from the halls of the National Gallery, where he admired Rembrandt, Turner and Constable, to the inspirational teachings of his mentor David Bomberg, to the quotidian views from his window. Setting out early in the morning, Auerbach would complete rough sketches that he would later work up into paintings in his studio. This disjunction enabled the artist to conflate memory and experience, charting his impressions of the landscape as they sunk progressively deeper into his psyche. ‘I feel London is this raw thing’, he professed. ‘... This extraordinary, marvellously unpainted city where whenever somebody tries to get something going they stop halfway through, and next to it something incongruous occurs ... this higgledy-piggledy mess of a city’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2001, p. 100). In the translation from drawing to painting, colours took on a new, hyper-real intensity, as if refracted through a prism. Trees assumed on a new prominence within Auerbach’s London landscapes after a visit to Herefordshire in 1975, where he had been captivated by the proliferation of branches outside his window. In the present work, the tree is charged with an almost human presence, bisecting the composition like a moving figure.
Auerbach claimed that his landscapes required ‘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’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 171). The scale of the present work, measuring over a metre in height and width, is particularly remarkable in this regard. Using a combination of brushes and palette knives, the artist adopted a cyclical process of painting and erasing, often scraping off the pigment whilst still wet and starting afresh. The surface thus became a residual trace of his process: a literal terrain of peaks, trough and crests that documented the fluctuations of his hand, eye and mind. Through this near-archaeological method, Auerbach brought himself progressively closer to his subject, embedding his own physicality in the grain of the pigment. Bomberg, in his early classes, had instructed his students to seek out what he termed ‘the spirit in the mass’: a notion that resonates with the quivering surface present work. ‘The sense of corporeal reality, that’s what matters’, wrote Auerbach. ‘… 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).