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Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill
titled, inscribed and dated twice 'PRIMROSE HILL STUDY 1978' (on the reverse)
oil on panel
45 1/8 x 59 7/8in. (114.6 x 152.2cm.)
Painted in 1978
Marlborough Gallery, New York.
Mr and Mrs David Kangesser, Ohio (acquired from the above in 1982).
Private Collection, USA (by descent from the above).
Anon. sale, Sotheby’s London, 10 February 2016, lot 18.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 230, no. 61 (illustrated in colour, p. 100).
W. Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, no. 401 (illustrated in colour, pp. 104 and 283).
Los Angeles, L.A. Louver Gallery, This Knot of Life: Paintings and Drawings by British Artists, Part II, 1979.
New York, Marlborough Gallery, Frank Auerbach: Recent Paintings and Drawings, 1982, no. 18 (illustrated in colour, p. 28).
Venice, XLII Biennale Internazionale dell'Arte - British Pavillion, Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1977-1985, 1986, no. 14.
Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art, The Art of Collecting Modern Art: An Exhibition of Works from the Collections of Clevelanders, 1986.
Hamburg, Kunstverein in Hamburg, Frank Auerbach, 1986-1987, p. 80, no. 14 (illustrated in colour, pp. 46-47). This exhibition later travelled to Essen, Museum Folkwang Essen.
Madrid, Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Frank Auerbach: Retrospectiva, 1954-1985, 1987, p. 76, no. 14 (illustrated in colour, pp. 42-43).
New York, Luhring Augustine, Frank Auerbach: Selected Works 1978-2016, 2020-2021, pp. 6, 62 (illustrated in colour, p. 7).
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent. This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice. Christie’s has a direct financial interest in this lot. Christie’s has guaranteed to the seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee.

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Lot Essay

Rendered with rich, tactile impasto and bathed in warm sunlight, Frank Auerbach’s Primrose Hill (1978) is a glowing love letter to the landscape surrounding his North London home. With dynamic, zigzagging brushstrokes of golden, amber, red and deep green oil paint, he conveys lush trees, a mellow sky and a path peopled by small figures, the picture’s plunging perspective succinctly capturing the hill’s vertiginous outlook. Distinguished by its impressive scale—at more than 1.5 metres across, it stands among the very largest paintings in Auerbach’s oeuvre—the work stems from his decades-long scrutiny of the streets and parks around Camden Town, where he has held the same studio since 1954. With examples held in museum collections worldwide, including 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. Derived from drawings made en plein air, the present work bears witness to Auerbach’s intensive process: its layered painterly surface, repeatedly scraped back, adjusted and reapplied, becomes a topography in its own right. In 1986, Primrose Hill was included in Auerbach’s exhibition for the British Pavilion at the XLII Venice Biennale, for which he was awarded the Golden Lion prize; from 1986-87 it was included in a travelling survey of his work that travelled from the Kunstverein in Hamburg to the Museum Folkwang, Essen, and, in 1987, in another major retrospective at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

‘This part of London is my world,’ Auerbach once said. ‘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). Exploring the city’s bombed, regenerating postwar landscape as a young man in the 1950s—he had fled Germany aged eight in 1932, and would scarcely ever leave London for his entire adult life—he found a crucible of architectural order emerging from formless chaos. This new London made for a thrillingly unprecedented subject, and Auerbach forged a new language with which to convey its formal drama. ‘I have a strong sense that London hasn’t been properly painted’, he later 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. Surfaces of thick paint and rectilinear structure made for analogues of broken earth, exposed scaffolding and busy human activity. This forceful figurative approach was informed by his teacher David Bomberg, under whom he studied in night classes at Borough Polytechnic during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Auerbach brought to bear on landscape as much as portraiture Bomberg’s exhortation to capture ‘the spirit in the mass.’

If Primrose Hill displays livelier hues and more fluid paint than Auerbach’s earliest landscapes, the work’s emphatic, energetic figuration is no less hard-won. Using a combination of brushes and palette knives, the artist employed a cyclical technique of painting and erasing, often scraping off the still-wet pigment and starting afresh. Layered with the built-up sediments of this process, the work’s surface becomes a terrain of peaks and troughs that reflects the fluctuations of his hand, eye and mind. The large-scale landscapes are rare because each requires what Auerbach himself calls a ‘tremendous physical effort ... the way I work means putting up a whole image, and dismantling it and putting up another whole image, which is ... physically extremely strenuous’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, ‘A Conversation’, Frank Auerbach, exh. cat. The British Council, XLII Venice Biennale 1986, p. 13).

Auerbach’s intense labour results in a work of exquisite, evocative clarity. Each element of Primrose Hill locks into a tightly composed scheme, both conveying the environment’s solidity and flooding its structures with liquid light and movement. The dark sweep of green foliage to the left rhymes with the blaze of honeyed sunlight that cracks through the canopy; a large red tree anchors the picture’s centre like a ruby, seeming to radiate warmth into the sky; a small human figure is answered playfully by a tall, anthropomorphic street lamp. The whole surface is charged with energy. It is in this fusion of keen geometry and alive, animated existence that Auerbach’s work finds its unique power: indeed, the artist’s pictorial intelligence arguably sees its purest expression in landscapes like the present. As his friend Lucian Freud wrote, ‘The mastery of these compositions is such that in spite of their often precarious balance, like a waiter pretending to slip while carrying a huge pile of plates, the structure never falters. It is the viewer who has to hold tight’ (L. Freud, ‘Frank Auerbach’s Paintings’, in Frank Auerbach and the National Gallery: Working after the Masters, exh. cat. National Gallery, London 1995, p. 5).

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