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Frank Auerbach documentary

Post #724 • February 6, 2006, 12:02 PM • 16 Comments

Last night I watched the Frank Auerbach documentary produced by son Jake Auerbach, and I found it hauntingly candid and hugely inspiring. The director interviewed the artist, at once prickly and affable, and sitters who have posed weekly, nearly without fail, for decades. Auerbach paints every day of the year (but one) for ten to twelve hours at a stretch, cleaving to sky-high standards that demand that he lay paint down and scrape it off in what sound like half-hour cycles of creation and destruction, seeking the right image. Sometimes the paintings go on for years, awaiting resolution. Historians have probably gilded the image of Van Gogh's dedication to his work; in Auerbach's case, they probably will find themselves unable to overstate it.

Auerbach has selected a handful of people to sit for him, based almost entirely on their willingness and reliablility. The only notable art-world person among them is curator Catherine Lampert. The rest are his family, and some former neighbors and casual contacts. With not even a mote of affectation, they talk about what it has been like to sit for him, sharing in the successes and disappointments. One described the despair he felt when his portrait, two years in the making, was recalled by the artist from the gallery because he changed his mind about its state of completion. Another sitter, the very picture of a zaftig, elderly, well-bred Englishwoman, spoke about the way he stamps his feet and mutters curses when things go badly. (Oh, does that ever sound familiar.)

Famously well-read, he nevertheless describes painting as a mystery beyond explanation. The camera follows him to the National Gallery, where he gets up into a Turner, discussing the surface. He admits that when he was young, he thought of himself as being in the ring with the old masters (consciously paraphrasing Hemingway), but now he mostly needs their help.

I recently confessed a desire to have met Balthus, which will never happen in this world. I would like very much to meet Auerbach and Lucian Freud as well, which theoretically could, although both artists are reknowned for their reclusiveness and I hardly deserve the honor. (Jake also produced a documentary on Freud, likewise on loan to me from my friend. I get the sense that no one but Jake would have been allowed into the studios.) It would give the great artists no pleasure but it would mean quite a lot to me. On the off chance that someone out there could arrange it, by all means, do.

At any rate, I'm not working enough on my art, not by a longshot.

Comment

1.

alesh

February 6, 2006, 12:44 PM

the process-oriented nature of painting is unlike any other artform . . . the process of making, actually, of finishing, a painting you're happy with is unlike any other; certainly, something that photographers, and even sculptors, don't get to have. The somewhat unfortounate aspect to all of this, for me, is that the full enjoyment of it (of which a critical component if the pain of it when it goes awry) requires a desire to create paintings, a desire of which i'm lacking.

I'm much more interested in the process of painting then the finished product, which is why films about painting are so great. I came across an artist's web site months ago that included a time-lapsed movie of his work on one of his pieces; in that particular case, for sure, the process was much more interesting then the result. It would be somewhat less so for the Pollock movie. But "To The Studio" sounds like something i'll have to check out.

2.

alesh

February 6, 2006, 12:49 PM

ps ... wtf?: not available on Netflix of GreenCine. Is this a "yet" situation?

3.

Marc Country

February 6, 2006, 1:42 PM

. . . the process of making, actually, of finishing, a painting you're happy with is unlike any other; certainly, something that photographers, and even sculptors, don't get to have.

How's that? Granted, of course, the processes of a painter, a photographer, and a sculptor have obvious differences, but they all can basically be boiled down to an analogous visually creative aesthetic endeavour... so, as you say, WTF?

... and, it's just a hunch, but I bet that someone who prefers movies about paintings to actual paintings, would probably find it even more preferable if the movie wasn't about painting.

4.

oldpro

February 6, 2006, 2:08 PM

Excellent, Marc, especially the last sentence.

5.

Jack

February 6, 2006, 2:46 PM

Even Turner, formidable as he was, was capable of humility. He had been a friend and colleague of Thomas Girtin, who revolutionized watercolor painting but died young from tuberculosis. Turner said, "If Tom Girtin had lived, I should have starved."

6.

George

February 6, 2006, 3:50 PM

Auerbach paints every day of the year (but one) for ten to twelve hours at a stretch, cleaving to sky-high standards that demand that he lay paint down and scrape it off in what sound like half-hour cycles of creation and destruction, seeking the right image.

Sounds like an obsessive-compulsive fetish springing from a deep sense of insecurity, not something I would wish for. Or, maybe it is something else. Regardless I doubt it produces more good paintings than a regime which produces one every couple of days.

7.

Franklin

February 6, 2006, 4:36 PM

Apparently, it's just what he feels like doing.

8.

Hans

February 6, 2006, 5:00 PM

I think you should visit him and Freud too, maybe they are in the end quite interested in openminded young artists and critics. Often most honored artists remain pretty much on earth, Try until its too late.

9.

ahab

February 6, 2006, 6:35 PM

That Marc Country, he knows whereof he types.

10.

alesh

February 6, 2006, 7:13 PM

I don't know, exactly, Marc. Well, actually, in the case of photography, in one instance the "creative act" is instantenous, followed only by the editing and printing processes. While there is satisfaction to be had in all three steps, it is of course completely unlike painting. Sculpture is closer, but still less satisfying. YMMV, but don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about.

And maybe I shouldn't be glib (there are lots of paintings I love), but take, for example, the paintings on the blog George linked to earlier: lots of nice stuff, especially when seen as a group, but it's a brittle sort of 'nice.'

11.

Jack

February 6, 2006, 8:09 PM

Well, taking inordinately long to finish a portrait is not exactly good for business. Even Rembrandt lost customers because of that. It doesn't hurt Freud because he's as much a celebrity as an artist by now, at least in England, and enough rich and/or famous people are willing to humor him to be presumably immortalized (not to mention the fashion/status angle).

12.

Marc Country

February 6, 2006, 8:24 PM

YMMV had me puzzled... I had to look that one up... WTF is more my style, and comes to mind once again when I read "in the case of photography, in one instance the "creative act" is instantenous, followed only by the editing and printing processes."
If the goal is to make art, then the good photographer doesn't turn off his/her creativity when it comes time to edit and print (or re-print, re-edit, re-touch, re-photograph). Anybody who seriously explores the medium finds opportunities for creativity at every step... it hardly seems necessary to point out that a serious photographer need not adhere to the simplistic "three-step" process laid out in Alesh's example, any more than all painters must "paint every day... in what sound like half-hour cycles of creation and destruction". Or whatever it is sculptors might do, for that matter. Again, that's not to say they aren't different experiences, nor does it imply that a painter would be just as happy, satisfied, whatever, were he/she making sculpture or photographs... of course, everyone's milage varies to a certain degree. But, come on... romanticising the act of painting as somehow unlike and indeed above others is a little silly, non?

And George, really, if your art practice doesn't in some way resemble the symptoms of an obsessive compulsive disorder, then you're just not trying hard enough.

13.

Marc Country

February 6, 2006, 8:55 PM

Interesting... a parallel discussion of this notion of the differences in precess between mediums, on the next few hours:

The rest of the College of Fine Arts was fair game for our art-school disdain however, and we outlined a hierarchy in which Litho was (naturally) at the top, and performance artists were at the bottom, just under Theater majors (I’m afraid painters didn’t fare too well in our ranking–we tended to privilege process-heavy areas of study, and to us, painting rated as a pretty wussy endeavor).

... and I'm sure Ahab could make a pretty convincing case for steel sculpture that would make the litho-nerds wet themselves, but, again, if art is the goal, then at bottom it's all the same.

14.

ahab

February 6, 2006, 11:20 PM

How about giving us examples of especially poignant Auerback or Freud paintings, Franklin. It is their work that is the primary point of resonance for you, is it not? Their studios and personae are secondary sources of admiration, yes?

I was going to jump on your painting vs. the world comments this morning, alesh, but left it alone to see how quickly Marc Country would respond. He didn't disappoint. Regarding your statement that, "sculpture is...less satisfying:" well, maybe a cliche will satisfy you more - "happy is as happy does."

I'll leave the litho-nerds to their own devices, Marc Country.

15.

Kathleen

February 7, 2006, 9:10 AM

Join us, Ahab! Only printmakers are capable of really understanding you.

16.

Marc Country

February 7, 2006, 5:52 PM

I'll leave the litho-nerds to their own devices, Marc Country.

... and what devices they are! Stones, leather rollers... it all sounds so exquisitely butch!

If it weren't for these damn limp wrists of mine...

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