It would be lovely to write about Frank Auerbach, just once, without mentioning his childhood, and I suspect the artist would prefer it. But as war once again destroys cities and people in Europe, his story has terrible relevance. Frank Helmut Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931. When he was seven his Jewish parents sent him to Britain. He never saw them again: they died at Auschwitz.
This orphan of the Holocaust is one of the great witnesses of the modern world. It’s frankly inexplicable that his portrait of Estella Olive West, called Head of EOW 1, and which belongs to Tate, is not on permanent view near the Rothko room at Tate Modern. But that’s all the better for the enterprising Newlands House Gallery, which has ransacked the Tate stores for a stunning group of Auerbachs, including this painting, that spend too much time locked away. They were commissioned and bought by one man, David Wilkie – not your stereotypical international collector with a superyacht, but an art-obsessed insurance clerk from Brentford.
Head of EOW1 was not so much painted, in 1960, as built up in thick glutinous layers, like a sculpture made of oil paint. Auerbach makes a head that bulges forward from the little wooden panel in 3D, so you can walk around it and see it as an object in space. But it is also a painting, a tangled mass of congealed colours. The face is a shadowy mask superimposed on these furrows and ridges of red, orange and yellow. Like an optical illusion created by Hans Holbein, it changes depending where you stand, sometimes fading, then suddenly resolving so sharply you feel as if the real person has materialised in the room.
She’s in good company. Some of Auerbach’s old friends are here, too, as fierce etched portraits: the ghosts of Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff are so sharply delineated that the framed little sheets of paper seem to contain some precious piece of them. And that is what makes Auerbach a great artist. Again and again in this terrific selection in a spacious, meditative 18th-century house, you are gripped by fragments of human experience grasped so vividly and forcefully that they restore your sense of what it is to be human.
Wilkie didn’t just collect Auerbach but formed a fruitful creative friendship with him. One of Wilkie’s notions was for Auerbach to paint a “portrait” of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Rome. Auerbach said he would rather paint the father of punk poetry Arthur Rimbaud in a baroque setting. A giant caricature of Rimbaud lit by candles like an icon towers over visitors to a grandiose theatre-like space in his disorienting 1975-76 work Rimbaud. Auerbach uses the same eerie architecture of struts and girders he’d discovered while painting postwar London building sites to carve a deep, uneasy pictorial space, with Rimbaud suspended on scaffolding over a void.
Is this a homage or a satire? Maybe it is an image of modern art itself, hovering over the abyss. In fact, this compelling picture has much in common with the paintings of modern history Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz were creating in Germany in the 1970s. It goes to show you can’t pin down Auerbach to the dated and confused idea of a “School of London” supposedly dedicated to figurative art. His paintings gobble up reality but explode with abstraction and fantasy. Wilkie seems to have encouraged that. Auerbach’s painting of a fire-blasted Hampstead Heath called The Origin of the Great Bear came about when Wilkie challenged him to paint a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses that had been missed by Titian. And in the final stunning works here, also from Wilkie’s estate and owned by Tate, he takes on Titian in a dazzling battle of paint.
Bacchus and Ariadne transforms Titian’s famous painting of a princess encountering the god of wine and his crazed followers into slashes and streaks of fleshy red against ethereal blue. In his two Studies after Titian done in 1965, he turns a cruel classical tale into modern horror. These thickly encrusted, squirming, formidable panels riff on Titian’s late, violent painting Tarquin and Lucretia. It is a rape. Auerbach cuts the frenzied attack into the paint itself, a massed scab of loaded colours. In Study after Titian II the face of Lucretia forms as a mask of terror, her eyes black pools, her arms helplessly raised against human evil.