Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)
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Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)

Tower Block Hampstead Road

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)
Tower Block Hampstead Road
signed, inscribed twice and dated 'TOWER BLOCKS HAMPSTEAD ROAD Auerbach 2007 TOWER BLOCK HAMPSTEAD ROAD (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
52 1/8 x 46 1/8 in. (132.4 x 117.2 cm.)
with Marlborough Fine Art, London, where purchased by the present owner, 2008.
W. Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York, 2009, p. 348, no. 960, illustrated.
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Lot Essay

‘This part of London is my world. 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, London, Royal Academy, London, 2001, p. 15).

‘I do like a clear expression if I can get it – something that seems to lock like a theorem. And unless paintings have that kind of wit – unless underlying them is a clear geometrical structure – I don’t actually feel they work’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London, 2000, p. 171).

Frank Auerbach’s Tower Blocks Hampstead Road (2007) is a shimmering, sunlit example of the artist’s rare late landscape paintings. In glowing tones of yellow-green, pale blue and shadows of darker blue, purple and red, a vista of trees and looming tower blocks gives way onto open sky. A red car can be seen on the road; a street sign dominates the foreground, declaring that Hampstead Road is a ‘red route’, one of London’s main roads for traffic. With these succinct and vivid elements captured in his uniquely expressive idiom, Auerbach fixes in paint an indefinable quality of place. His love of London – particularly of the area around the Mornington Crescent studio he has occupied since 1954 – is as uncompromising and obsessive as his approach to portraiture. He wrestles for months or even years with repeated compositions of the same subject, making sketches en plein air before striving to recreate his reality on canvas. Brighter, smoother and more summery than his earliest landscape works, which were wrought from the ruins and building sites of the early 1950s, Auerbach’s more recent landscapes are suffused with warm familiarity and fondness for his North London home. Tower Blocks Hampstead Road is a vision of devotion, as intense and engaged as any of his portraits. ‘This part of London is my world’, he says, ‘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 exhibition catalogue Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, London, Royal Academy, 2001, p. 15).

It was in the postwar landscape of London rebuilding itself that Auerbach first began his life as a painter. Exploring the bombed, regenerating city as a young man – 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. Unlike the cliché-freighted scenery of other cities, this new London made for a thrillingly unprecedented subject, and Auerbach forged an unprecedented language with which to convey its formal drama. Surfaces of astonishingly thick paint and commanding rectilinear structure made for radical analogues of excavated earth, exposed scaffolding and busy, muscular human activity. This forceful figurative approach was also heavily informed by his 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). Auerbach brought to bear on architecture as much as portraiture Bomberg’s exhortation to ‘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). Painted half a century after the building sites, Tower Blocks Hampstead Road displays brighter hues and thinner paint, but the work’s heaving, energetic figuration is no less hard-won. As Robert Hughes explains, ‘His work by now took just as long to finish, not because of slow addition of layers, but because of ceaseless scraping off and beginning again. Picasso’s dictum that “a painting is the sum of its destructions” was, and still is, literally true of Auerbach, and nowhere more so than in his landscapes. A painting might take months but it would have to stay liquid right through to the end, which meant repainting it entirely every session’ (R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London, 2000, pp. 170-171). Unlike his smaller depictions of a single body or head, each of these sessions takes six or seven hours of fierce concentration: the large-scale landscapes are relatively rare because each requires what Auerbach himself calls a ‘tremendous physical effort’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, ‘A Conversation’, exhibition catalogue, Frank Auerbach, British Council, XLII Venice Biennale, 1986, p. 13).

The reward for Auerbach’s intense labour is a work of exquisite, evocative clarity. Each element of Tower Block Hampstead Road locks into a perfectly composed scheme, both conveying the solidity of the urban environment and flooding its structures with liquid life and movement. The central tower block and street sign lean slightly towards one another at a surprising slant, forming a triangle of velocity with the passing car; the sign’s sharp right angles are offset by the explosive dynamism of the trees behind it, which echo its dark blue hue. 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. As his friend Lucian Freud wrote memorably, ‘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 exhibition catalogue, Frank Auerbach and the National Gallery: Working after the Masters, London, National Gallery, 1995, p. 5). Indeed, Auerbach’s pictorial intelligence arguably sees its purest expression in landscapes like Tower Block Hampstead Road. Though aglow with his affection for North London, Auerbach paints these works without the accompaniment of a human subject, and can lose himself totally in the experience of painting. ‘I think my sitters would tell you that I’m usually fairly abandoned when they’re there,’ he says, ‘but there’s a further degree of abandon when I’m doing the landscapes because I’m absolutely on my own’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London, 2000, p. 170). Auerbach has shaped an entirely new way of looking at his city in these works, capturing its solemn splendour, shifting light and unruly vigour with total, unflinching resolve. Expressing a joyful eloquence distilled over six decades of work, Tower Block Hampstead Road is an exultation of a painting, celebrating Auerbach’s London in an exhilarating architecture of colour, form and feeling.

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