Friday, January 22, 2010


I was lucky enough to go to Frank Auerbach's exhibition of London Building Sites 1952-1962 at Somerset House in London during its last few days.

Because the exhibition is over, I'm not going to tempt you with all the paintings you can't now see, but the similarities between the painting process as outlined by Auerbach and the writing process were fascinating. And when the process is that of a master, there always something to learn.

For example, the catalogue notes state:

He would work and rework a painting in a restless search for a unique image, trying to achieve what he describes as a 'formal grandeur.


The critic David Sylvester claimed that Auerbach had 'extended the power of paint to re-make reality.'

And in this drawing and painting of the same site at Bruton Street, Winter 1953, I could see exactly how this reworking achieved both the grandeur and the re-making of reality.

From this precise drawing of the scene...

... this painting was created. It's hard to see at first how the two match up until you see the triangle in the forefront, the line on the left.

As the notes explained, it was 'an attempt to find a secret internal geometry that lay behind it, the core.'

And it's precisely this core I realised I search for so fiercely sometimes in my own writing. I like the idea of it being 'a secret internal geometry'.

And this painting below of a building site in Earls Court Road, 1953, the actual reality is hidden, but Auerbach writes: 'Though nobody else may be aware of it, I'm aware of the amount of painting experience that's buried under those heavy lumps of black and white and ochre.'

And of course, it is exactly this power that comes out.. But what got me was the discipline and sheer hard work involved in searching and searching for the authentic core of the scene.

This isn't someone who just hung around waited for the muse to strike.

And from sketches like these four below, Auerbach manages to achieve an 'emotional truth' in his painting that leaps off the canvas by

amalgamating elements for different sketches from different sketches in the paintings, rather than replacing one particular view, in order to achieve a composition with power and integrity.

In a series of other sketches and paintings, the exhibition notes state that Auerbach often broke off from his work on principal paintings to produce small drawings and paintings. This:

allowed him to develop the composition freely and spontaneously

and also

even the smallest as an exercise to loosen up his brushwork, others were attempts to resolve the composition, structure and detail.

A useful reminder to keep trying to see the story from a different angle. To play on the page. To work through a technical problem by producing more work.

And most of all, to trust the process.


Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks for this Sarah. I live with a sculptor and it's been a revelation to watch his approach to form and line. Writing and visual art have such affinities. have just finished a biography of Katherine Mansfield and your post reminded me of her comments on standing in front of Van Gogh at the Post-Impressionist exhib. in London and seeing exactly how she could dispense with formal narrative structure.

Ted said...

I had seen that this was on at the Courtauld when we were in London in Dec and I am a fan of his painting, but the festivities gave me no time to see it!

jem said...

Very useful post. I have always found art helpful in understanding writing - but I'd forgotten. Thanks for reminding me.

I've been a bit confused about something I'm writing recently. I feel like I'm piling more and more layers onto it, but there still don't seem enough, but I'm worried the core is getting lost. But I think perhaps I need to keep piling them on till I'm done, and then start stripping them away again.

I like Auerbachs drawings far more than the finished paintings. I wonder what that says about my writing.