Artist in View: Frank Auerbach

An exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s 1950s paintings of London building sites opens at the Courtauld Gallery this month. Martin Gayford visits the artist in his north London studio to talk about his long engagement with paint. Portraits by David Dawson.

Frank Auerbach definitely does not believe, as Walter Pater famously did, that all art aspires to the condition of music. ‘I very definitely take issue with that.’ We are talking in his studio, a brick-built workshop hidden in an alley in Camden Town, north London, where he has been working unremittingly, day after day, year after year, since 1954: one of the great marathon efforts of art history (Figs 1 and 5). ‘Visual art’, Auerbach insists as soon as I bring up the subject of Pater and music, ‘is made with resistant matter and comes up against awkward rebarbative obstacles. Art aspires towards the condition of something altogether more material than music. It has grit in it.’

Of few pictures is that more true than those Auerbach himself painted half a century and more ago of post-war London. These works – which are gathered together for the first time this month in an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London – are images of excavation and reconstruction, scaffolding, drilling equipment and piles of earth. Their titles refer to familiar places: the Shell Building (Fig. 3), the Empire Cinema (Fig. 4). But what they show is flux, half-way between ruin and resurrection. They seem to be painted, if not with grit, then with thick, glutinous London clay and heavy riverside shale. These are paintings that don’t seem to be so much of the city as to contain its physical substance. A photograph from 1964 of Auerbach in his studio (Fig. 2) shows him spattered in paint as a construction worker might be in cement, handsome and powerfully built, his head resting on his arm in the pose of a thoughtful athlete by Michelangelo.

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Beyond the Surface

Although they appear as abstract celebrations of colour, the paintings of British artist Howard Hodgkin have stories to tell – but don’t expect any easy explanations. On the eve of his exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, the artist is on fine form

‘When I had a big show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York years ago,’ Sir Howard Hodgkin reminisces, sitting in his big light-filled studio in Bloomsbury, ‘I tried to talk to the people who came to it as much as I could. One was a wonderful black lady who said, “Did you do these all paintings by yourself?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “My daughter thinks you must have had a lotta help.” I took that as a great compliment.’

Whatever she meant by that unexpected remark, it can’t have been that Hodgkin’s pictures look like hard work. This summer he has another exhibition, ‘Howard Hodgkin: Time and Place’, at Modern Art Oxford (23 June–5 September). The works on show, all from the past decade, will have an even less laborious appearance than the ones on show in New York in 1995. Though often his pictures take years to produce, these recent paintings look as though they were executed in a few fluent and rapid sweeps of the brush. It is true that those marks are all made by his own hand, not because he has an objection to studio assistance in principle, as he explains, but for more unfathomable reasons. ‘I’m not a great believer in autograph marks, but I’m stuck with them. It doesn’t work when I get people to do it for me. Years ago I asked somebody just to cover a surface with blobs for me. I had to wash them all off again. Something was just not quite right about them.’

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Duchamp’s Fountain: The practical joke that launched an artistic revolution

Three men met for lunch in New York early in April 1917. They were the American painter Joseph Stella, Walter Arensberg, a wealthy collector later obsessed by the notion that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, and Marcel Duchamp. After a convivial and talkative meal, they made their way to the JL Mott Ironworks, a plumbing suppliers situated at 118 Fifth Avenue.

Duchamp’s Fountain: The practical joke that launched an artistic revolution

Martin Gayford

Martin Gayford tells the fascinating story behind Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a key exhibit at a new Tate Modern show

Three men met for lunch in New York early in April 1917. They were the American painter Joseph Stella, Walter Arensberg, a wealthy collector later obsessed by the notion that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, and Marcel Duchamp. After a convivial and talkative meal, they made their way to the JL Mott Ironworks, a plumbing suppliers situated at 118 Fifth Avenue.

Once there, Duchamp selected a “Bedfordshire” model porcelain urinal. On returning to his studio he turned it through 90 degrees, so that it rested on its back, signed it, “R. MUTT 1917”, and entitled this new work Fountain.

Thus was begun the existence of one of the most influential art works of the 20th century. Fountain will be a crucial item in the forthcoming exhibition, Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia, at Tate Modern. Or at least a replica of it will, because one of the most piquant aspects of the history of this celebrated object is that the original was seen by only a handful of people, never publicly exhibited, and vanished shortly after that selection, signing and christening in 1917.

Pompeo Batoni: the Brits who marched on Rome

Pompeo Batoni: the Brits who marched on Rome

Martin Gayford

British aristocrats on the grand tour provided a stream of eager sitters for the Baroque artist Pompeo Batoni, whose portraits are about to go on show in London. Martin Gayford reports

On Thursday, April 18, 1765, the writer James Boswell visited the studio of the painter Pompeo Batoni in Rome.

There he saw an extraordinary portrait of a recent acquaintance, Colonel the Hon William Gordon, in progress. More than two centuries later, the picture – which goes on show at the National Gallery next month alongside other similarly over-the-top portraits by Batoni – remains quite a sight.

Colonel Gordon had elected to be painted in uniform with drawn sword, kilt and swathed in a length of Huntly tartan which the painter has made resemble as much as possible a Roman toga. He stands – indeed swaggers – with the Colosseum in the distance behind him, a statue of the goddess Roma at his side, and fragments of an ancient ruin at his feet. He looks as if he has just conquered the city, and in a way he had.

As the art historian John Ingamells once put it, “In the course of the 18th century there was a peaceful British invasion of Italy.” Or as Edward Gibbon – also in Rome in 1765 – observed with a touch of irony, “According to the law of custom, and perhaps of reason, foreign travel completes the education of an English gentleman.” Some restricted themselves to France and northern Europe, but for most the classical antiquities of Italy were the main objective. This was, of course, the Grand Tour.

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Euston: time to rebuild this colossus

Euston: time to rebuild this colossus

Martin Gayford

Why is a treasure of the steam age languishing in a canal? Martin Gayford reports

“Railway termini and hotels are to the 19th century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the 13th century. They are the only real representative buildings we possess.” So wrote Building News in 1875. Many, looking at the refurbished St Pancras, would agree: that is universally agreed to be among the architectural masterpieces of Victorian Britain. It is less well known that an equally imposing monument of the railway age now lies – or most of it does – at the bottom of a canal in east London.

The Euston Arch used to stand a few hundred yards to the west of St Pancras: huge, austere, and magnificent. It was 70 feet high by 44 feet deep. “Between the fluted columns, each eight and a half feet in diameter, which formed the main carriage entrance,” wrote John Betjeman, “might be glimpsed the green hills of Hampstead beyond.” For over a century this was the first sight of London for travellers from the North West. When it was new, crowds flocked by omnibus to see this wonder of the age.

Its destruction in 1961 was one of the first and sharpest battles in the late-20th-century conservation wars. In fact, the outcry that it provoked was an important factor in preventing the destruction – now inconceivable – of St Pancras and King’s Cross. But now there is a chance that the great arch may rise again. This is an opportunity, as Tim Knox, director of Sir John Soane’s Museum, says, “to right one of the great wrongs of architectural vandalism to London in the Sixties”.

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Hadrian and the wall of silence

Hadrian and the wall of silence

Martin Gayford

What was the Emperor Hadrian actually like? A new British Museum exhibition gives glimpses. By Martin Gayford

Feeling that his life was ebbing away, the Emperor Hadrian composed a letter to his successor around AD137. It began: “The Emperor Caesar Augustus to his most esteemed Antoninus, greeting. Above all, I want you to know that I am being released from my life neither before my time, nor unreasonably, nor piteously, nor unexpectedly, nor with faculties impaired.”

When he dictated those words, Hadrian – the subject of a major exhibition at the British Museum later this month – had ruled for more than two decades over one of the greatest states the world has ever seen. Its territory covered much of the current zone of the European Union, with the addition of North Africa, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. In general estimation, Hadrian – a bisexual Spaniard obsessed with architecture, poetry and hunting – was one of the few people to succeed in the task of ruling the western world.

During his rule, the Roman Empire was at its apogee – the point from which the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon began the story of its decline and fall. “Under Hadrian’s reign,” Gibbon declared, “the empire flourished in peace and prosperity. He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views, and the minute details of civil policy.” However, Gibbon added that Hadrian’s ruling passions were “curiosity and vanity”.

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Renaissance art: face values

Renaissance art: face values

Martin Gayford

A new exhibition of Renaissance portraits reveals how, for the first time, the human face came alive in art. By Martin Gayford

In the summer of 1521 Albrecht Dürer was travelling in the Low Countries. Just as he was leaving Antwerp on July 2, he received a message from King Christian II of Denmark, who was in town. The monarch asked Dürer to draw his portrait, which he did, in charcoal. Afterwards, Christian asked the artist to dine with him. Dürer noted in his diary, “he behaved graciously towards me”. Dürer’s drawing of the king still exists, and will be included in the exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian which opens on October 15 at the National Gallery in London.

That little story tells us two things. One is that the artist-superstar, companion of the rich and powerful, is not a modern phenomenon. It dates back at least five centuries. The other point is the importance that portraiture had at the height of the Renaissance. Even a king seized the opportunity to be drawn by a great artist.

Portraiture mattered then, and pictures of people from that era are still prominent now. The most celebrated painting in the world – perhaps the best known single image in existence – is a Renaissance portrait: the Mona Lisa. The exhibition is likely to draw crowds to the National Gallery. So the question arises: why are we so interested in depictions of men and women, dead for centuries, whose identities we often do not know?

In 15th-century European art there was a revolutionary improvement in verisimilitude. David Hockney has suggested that artists such as Van Eyck were influenced by optical images produced by lenses. Whether or not you agree with that hypothesis, it is undeniable that there was a sudden increase in precision of focus, texture and detail. It is immediately evident in a picture such as Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man of 1433.

On that little oak panel, almost 600 years later we can still see the stubble of the sitter’s beard, the fine wrinkles, the gleam of his eye. Of course, this improvement in surface realism applied to everything – still life, landscape, textiles. But the human face is, of all the objects in the world, the one in which we are programmed to take the most interest. Constantly we scan the features of those around us for clues and cues – hostile or friendly, happy or sad, what sort of life do they lead?

Fifteenth-century Europe was not the first epoch to produce realistic portraiture. Vivid representations of individuals survive from ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt. But there is a huge increase in the sheer volume of surviving portraits from the Renaissance, and in the range of sitters they represent.

There are pictures of the young and the old, the beautiful and also the remarkably ugly, such as the old man painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio, his nose covered in bulbous growths, so touchingly embracing his grandson. Naturally, there are plenty of paintings of the rich and powerful, but also of the relatively humble; people such as Perjerón, a Spanish court buffoon presented with dignity by Antonis Mor in 1559-61. Pietro Aretino, a scurrilous polemical writer, went so far as to complain in 1555 that “even tailors and vintners are given life by painters” – and indeed a tailor painted by Moroni, shears in hand, is included in the show.

The portrait explosion, as the exhibition emphasises, was a Europe-wide phenomenon. The mesmerising evocation of surfaces and textures – the lustre of velvet, the glistening of skin – was a northern speciality. It originated in Van Eyck’s Netherlands, but his style was by no means realistic in other ways. For example, he habitually made his sitters’ heads much too big in relation to their bodies.

There was also an Italian contribution: greater anatomical accuracy derived from classical sculpture. The two currents, northern surfaces and southern structure, came together in a painting such as Giovanni Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501-04). The Venetian ruler has the gravitas of a Roman emperor, but his silk mantle, its gold and silver threads catching the light, creates an illusion of reality that is still astonishing.

The new portrait idiom was the product of cultural cross-fertilisation. Bellini was a Venetian painter influenced by Flemish techniques; Dürer and Holbein were German artists affected by the art of Italy. It was such an attractive invention that it spread across the continent, stirring in a Danish king the desire to be painted by Dürer, and luring Holbein to distant, backward London. In the latter’s later paintings and drawings, for the first time in history, English faces suddenly appear – looking much as they still do now.

All of these Renaissance portraits were painted because the sitters in some way mattered. Some were celebrated people in their day. But most were of husbands and wives, friends, relations, and prospective brides and grooms. The last were important because in an era of arranged marriage an accurate portrait might be the only way to find out what your intended spouse looked like before it was too late to change your mind.

Five centuries later, the sitter’s identity is less crucial. The Van Eyck Portrait of a Man may well be a self-portrait, but even if it isn’t, it is still an enthralling picture. The cliché about the Renaissance used to be that it was the period that saw the rise of the individual. Whatever the truth of that, it was definitely the age that first depicted humanity in specific detail and on a massive scale. And of course, we are unquestionably in an age of individuality today, obsessed by faces and celebrities. Looking at the portraits of Renaissance men and women, we see ourselves.

Rhythm is the key

Rhythm is the key

Martin Gayford

What is the secret of all great art? Our innate sense of timing, says Martin Gayford

What separates mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom?

Various solutions to that conundrum have been proposed, tool-making and language-using among them. None – with the arguable, but certainly debatable exception, of “a soul” – has proved quite unique enough: quite a few creatures use tools, chimps seem to learn language, and so on.

Here’s a slightly more unusual notion: the fundamentally human aptitude is rhythm. Or more precisely, the capacity to take up a rhythm or beat from someone or something else and hold it. Only human beings, it seems, imitate and enjoy rhythm in this way. In his fascinating book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, neurologist Oliver Sacks quotes the researcher Aniruddh Patel, who concluded: “There is not a single report of an animal being trained to tap, peck, or move in synchrony with an auditory beat.”

There is some small dispute concerning the drumming elephants of Thailand – one can hold a beat, but the others do not seem to follow – and there is the question of birdsong, but by and large this seems to be true.

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