The closer you get to the portrait, the more it disintegrates – a turquoise line under a mauve- coloured daub, beneath one teal and one aubergine crescent and blob. Stand back, and you see the two eyes, nose, and quizzical smile: Julia, looking back at you, playfully holding your stare. ‘Look on,’ she seems to say. ‘All of me is not so easily known. Take another look, and another. I am Julia. No name nor portrait plumbs my depths.’ [Head of Julia II 1985].
What is a person or a place? What are they in themselves? That I will never know. But what they are to me, from my perspective, through the lens of my experience, that I can tell you. This is what Auerbach communicates to us through his paintings, and it is this which is the subject of the current exhibition at Tate Britain. What he feels about Julia and Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill – all that we can know.
We see Auerbach’s perspective of Mornington Crescent through the decades: in the 1965 painting there are outlines of buildings against pale shades of space and sky. By 1967 Morning Crescent has become the arena of bright, confident colours. Defined geometric shapes are cleanly painted and brimming with an energy conveyed in primary colours. Through the 1970’s and into the 1990’s Mornington Crescent is painted looking in different directions, and at different times of the day. By the 1997 painting, the road has filled out, grown up, confident of itself, wearing its colours well – bathed in the transient kaleidoscope-shades of early morning. ‘This is a comfortable, familiar place, one that is dear to me’, his paintings seem to say.
What distinguishes Auerbach’s art is the bold application of paint, layer on layer on layer. Where the art of the Academy in the 18th century had exalted in hidden brush strokes in artistic depiction, Auerbach in the 20th century boldly and unashamedly makes ostensible marks – overt mark-making and thickly applied oils are the very medium of his art. To ask of his works ‘But do they look like that person or place?’ is to ask the wrong question. To ask, ‘What did Auerbach feel like about that person or place?’ gets us nearer to an appreciation of his art. In the first room of the exhibition there are some portraits – but portraits as have never been beheld and to see them reproduced in a two-dimensional leaflet or book is to miss the shock and brilliance of them. They are near three-dimensional depictions where cheekbones and the forehead- bone bridging the eyes have been sculptured by inches of oil paint, and yet the tones of the painting have been carefully preserved. Thus we see the serious and brooding Head of Leon Kossoff and the downward-glancing and tight-lipped Head of E O W.
To Primrose Hill. In the 1970’s room in the exhibition there are four paintings of it. But we are relieved from the burden of a photographic representation of Primrose Hill – after all, what would be engaging about that? Through the lens that Auerbach’s paintings afford us, we view Primrose Hill through the energy and expressiveness of the artist. ‘In summer I felt the brightness flooding my sight, immersing everything in transfiguring light; everything is joyful. Primrose Hill in Summer is that place, where I was’, the painting seems to proclaim. To wonder what the zigzag shapes at the top of the picture represent seems to miss the point.
And what about Julia? She has been his muse, asleep, reclining or staring back over the years. By 2007 her sassy, provocative look has changed. The Reclining Head of Julia II is almost formless. It is painted in a muted palette of sage green and yellow. Are the black daubs, the eyes? She is not looking – not at me, at any rate. She is gazing somewhere else, her mind wondering in its own universe. Julia, twenty years of so later, is not so interested in holding my gaze.