'There's no substitute for likeness. If something looks like a 'portrait' it doesn't look like a person. When the forms evoked by the marks seem coherent and alive and surprising, and when there are no dead areas, I think the painting might be finished'
Julia and Frank Auerbach first met whilst studying at the Royal College of Art. They were married in 1958, with their son Jake born that year. They parted soon after. Whilst Julia was the subject of early charcoal drawings by Auerbach, she did not become a regular model for his paintings until their reunion in 1976. Since then, Julia has remained a loyal and intimate subject of the artist's work, sitting for perhaps more portraits than any other person in Auerbach's life, over the course of more than thirty years.
For Julia, the practice of sitting for Auerbach continues to take place midweek and at weekends in the comfort of her own Finsbury Park apartment. It is a practice that has become routine, which she describes with no qualms: 'Just do it. Like you wash up' (Julia Auerbach, 'Frank Auerbach: To the Studio (film)' quoted in W. Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, p. 21). Working from Julia's flat, Auerbach has always painted in acrylics on board and it was here that after 1993 he began to paint Julia lying down on a fold-up bed.
Dating from 1993-94, Reclining Head of Julia is an intimate and engaging portrait. It is rendered in a palette of nude pink and flesh tones, within a deep of cobalt blue background. Her features are intimated through a luxurious play of swift, impassioned brush strokes, suggesting a gently closed eye, and the contours of her nose and defined jawline. Her facial features are further accentuated by Auerbach’s typical use of a framework of thick black lines which help to stabilise the whole composition. With the bands of paint accumulating to form a head in the centre of the board, there is an intense gesturality to the application of the paint that shows Auerbach's physical exertions in dragging his brush across the surface, straining the paint to take the form of his sitter.
It is a painting that exudes the familiarity and affection of a husband for his wife: her appearing blissfully at ease and unguarded in the company of her partner, and him devoting renewed energy and vigour to a subject so well versed in his oeuvre. As Auerbach once explained, 'as soon as I become consciously aware of what the paint is doing my involvement with the painting is weakened. Paint is at its most eloquent when it is a by-product of some corporeal, spatial, developing imaginative concept, a creative identification with the subject' (Frank Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert et al. (eds.), Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London, 2001, p. 27). Nowhere is this 'creative identification' more evident than in this striking portrait of his wife.
Auerbach is a painter of the familiar. The landscapes and portraits form the basis of an extensive mental and emotional topography of his private world. He creates pictures of the elements of his universe with which he is intensely involved. Both in the application and the removal of paint, he is absorbed in a process of emotional exploration, or even channelling. His painting is a by-product, it is something instinctive and not conceptual. The swirling brushstrokes and heady sense of matter that form Reclining Head of Julia perfectly demonstrate the abandon of his painting.
For Auerbach, the ability to capture what his mentor David Bomberg had described as the 'spirit of the mass', was remarkable and it greatly influenced his practice. Auerbach began energising his thick painterly surfaces with the lively brushstrokes and confident, directional vectors that were to become his hallmark and that are especially evident in Reclining Head of Julia. As Catherine Lampert has so expertly described, in Auerbach's Reclining Head of Julia and his other 'masterpieces of the [1990s], colour and facture are in modes nominally at polar opposites, but actually like the variation between opposite sexes of one species. The handling might appear lyrical from the vantage point of the sitter, as if made by a conductor's wand; on the canvas marvellous shapes arise, some raised and prismatic like cut glass. There are families; one painting has the scarlet feathers of a preening cardinal or a Rembrandt self-portrait; another, its earthy, instinctively sympathetic female partner, like Hendrickje Stoffels, is built with flacks of feathery coloured scales' (see C. Lampert in exhibition catalogue, Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, Royal Academy, London, 2001, p. 31).