Frank Auerbach

It’s just one room, but what a room. Fifty years of work are condensed into what could stand as a mini retrospective of Frank Auerbach’s work.

The landscapes are mostly the familiar subjects of Primrose Hill and Camden Town: Mornington crescent, the passage to Auerbach’s studio. Early on in his career he spent much time drawing and painting building sites in appropriately earthy tones, and there is a good example here in Rebuilding the Empire Cinema Leicester Square, the framework gouged out of the thick paint. That thickness is one of the best known features of Auerbach’s painting and various heads of E.O.W., one his long-term sitters, sometimes appear to take this paint layering to extremes. In a typical pose, she looks down and to one side as if avoiding the artist’s scrutiny. Her brow is built up to a projecting ridge of paint that takes the image almost into the realm of relief sculpture. Another painting nearby exchanges the ochre tones for brighter colours and a great deal of white, the paint looking almost as if it was squeezed out of the tube directly onto the panel and gradually piled up to at least an inch above the surface. It takes a while for the eye to retrieve the image from the tangled skeins of paint, and once seen it appears as a surprisingly peaceful pose amidst the apparent turmoil of the surface.

The progression from earths to lighter colours, made possible by Auerbach’s improved finances, is mirrored in the landscapes. Later works from the 2000s are characterised by relatively thin paint and warm bright hues. A head of Auerbach’s wife Julia from the same period painted in similarly bright acrylics, an unusual medium for the artist, seems less successful, but most of the works here are compelling. The whole collection belonged to Lucian Freud and the friendship between the pair is attested to by a charming display of letters and cards from Auerbach. Small portraits and cartoons adorn the various messages and anyone with an interest in either artist might find a trip to this display worthwhile for these alone.

The Tate are showing all the works together before they are dispersed to various galleries around the country. It has been suggested that the Tate should keep the lot together in its own collection, but that would deprive other parts of the country of the possibility of seeing some wonderful painting. This display can only whet the appetite for the full retrospective coming to the Tate in 2015.