Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931) E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V 1963

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Lot 12* AR
Frank Auerbach
(British, born 1931)
E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V
1963

Sold for £ 2,042,500 (US$ 2,558,052) inc. premium
Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931)
E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V
1963

oil on board

57.5 by 83 cm.
22 5/8 by 32 11/16 in.

This work was executed in 1963.

Footnotes

  • Provenance
    Beaux Arts Gallery, London
    Marlborough Gallery, London
    Acquired directly from the above by the previous owner circa 1968
    Thence by descent to the present owner

    Exhibited
    London, Beaux Arts Gallery, Frank Auerbach, 1963, no. 7

    Literature
    William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, p. 252, no. 149, illustrated in black and white


    This is a miraculous painting. The technical mastery required to paint sculpturally in oil reaches its apotheosis in E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown Vof 1963, a tumbling cascade of oil in an intense spectrum of colour that never becomes muddied or loses focus. To paint in this manner requires patience and dedication, particularly bearing in mind this is a large scale piece within the context of Frank Auerbach's oeuvre. The intricacy of the delicate waves of oil paint married to the vibrancy of the colour is matched only by the importance of the present work to the artist's career coming as it does from his most celebrated period in the early 1960s. When one considers that the condition is perfect and that it has not been seen in public for fifty years one must conclude that this is a work of art which truly deserves to be nominated a masterpiece.

    The painting reveals much about the artist's technique, a practice developed over years of unwavering dedication, and also tells something of his own personal story. It comprises an intimate portrait of one of his most enduring sitters, a woman who was crucial in the evolution of Auerbach as both a man and as an artist. A museum-quality work appearing at auction for the first time, E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown Vis evidence, if further evidence were needed, as to why Frank Auerbach is now widely regarded as Britain's greatest living painter.

    The simplicity of Auerbach's life, an asceticism which springs from his absolute devotion to painting, is often noted in descriptions of his life and work. He travels little, and generally avoids the limelight. He has also restricted the subject matter of his work, focusing in particular on a small group of sitters and a limited area of North London streets situated close to his studio. E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown Vis a portrait of one of the select few, a model who sat for the artist over a number of years, and was also his lover for much of that time. Auerbach met Estella Olive West, better known simply as Stella, in 1948, when he was seventeen years old and she was thirty two. An aspiring actress, their paths crossed at the amateur Communist Unity Theatre, where they performed together in a production of Peter Ustinov's House of Regrets. Auerbach moved into West's home in Earls Court as a lodger, and an intense relationship both artistic and personal quickly developed. In the end, West was to sit for Auerbach for over two decades. The portraits that he painted of her, vivid reminders of an enduring, complex and at times tempestuous association, are some of his greatest works of art.

    The production of one of Frank Auerbach's paintings is a long, slow process. In fact, he tends to complete only a few paintings each year, the majority of them are portraits. The deep impasto that we see in works such as E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown Vof 1963 is the result of hours, days, weeks, months, sometimes years of careful layering, building and sculpting. One false move and the hues bleed into one another causing the primary colours to muddy irreparably. These layers must be scraped away entirely and reattempted from scratch. To have such a complete composition of fully built up paint is incredibly rare in Auerbach's oeuvre requiring as it does the commitment and patience to sustain the tension of interlocking waves of paint throughout the pictorial plane. Only when Auerbach is completely happy with a work does it see the light of day. The artist is his own ruthless editor, with only the best paintings and drawings emerging from his paint-daubed studio. For his sitters, the experience must at times prove challenging, and Stella West herself stated that posing, although it began as "a sort of game", later became much harder, "more demanding" (quoted in Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p.133). The physical demands of sitting hour after hour, week after week in the same position are almost unimaginable for those who have never been involved in such a protracted creative process. The fact that this is one of his largest scale figurative oils and that the sheer weight of paint is so substantial leads one to conclude that the present work could comfortably have taken longer than a year to produce. That the hard work involved, both for the artist and for his model, was worth the effort is ably demonstrated in the magnificent vision of this stunning painting.

    It is clear that Auerbach needs to know a person before he can properly paint them. He recognises the value of a personal affiliation with a sitter, his innate understanding not just of the generic human form, but of the specific body and face that he finds before him crucial to the success of a painting. Auerbach's close connection with Stella West, and its impact on his visual portrayals of this woman that he knew so well, is poetically captured by Catherine Lampert, an art-historian and curator who has herself sat for the artist on numerous occasions: "His paintings of her reveal curiosity and tenderness. Strokes cross her form, other marks draw out emotions, like an exorcism, their directional force close to carving, making flurried edges, deep hollows and corrugated skin where wet earth colours have been placed on the semi-dry result of the previous attempt" ('Auerbach and his sitters', in Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, London 2001, p. 24).

    Auerbach's style is, of course, unmistakeable, and ultimately unique, but his art nevertheless displays a profound knowledge of the art-historical canon. The influence of Rembrandt on his work, particularly on his portraits, has been recently explored in a display of Auerbach's paintings next to those of the Dutch Old Master at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. In its portrayal of a slumbering human figure stretched sinuously across a colourful ground, E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown Vis reminiscent of the posture of the two figures in The Siesta by Vincent Van Gogh, now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Like both Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Auerbach also experiments with the limits of the material itself, pushing and pulling the paint into thick, sculptural strokes. As can be seen in the present work, paint is squeezed directly from the tube, leaving long glossy cylinders of oleaginous pigment. At the time that he painted E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V, Auerbach was expanding his awareness of recent developments across the Atlantic. First introduced to the work of the Abstract Expressionists at an exhibition dedicated to the New York School in 1958, Auerbach's own practice seems to have been informed by the use of gesture that they advocated.

    Already experimenting with a new, bolder palette of colours, his works of this period also display an astounding sense of vigour, the "furious energy" described so well by Isabel Carlisle. A comparison of the present painting with two similar images of Stella West now in the collection of the Tate Gallery, London give an important insight into the developments of the artist's palette around this time. E.O.W. Nude of 1953-4 shows her as a pale, almost ghost-like figure reclining against a background of dark, muddy browns. Meanwhile E.O.W. Nude on Bed of 1959 reveals a growing interest in colour, with rich russets and verdant greens appearing across the composition. Finally in this E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V, painted only three years later, we see sky blue, blood red and sunshine yellow bursting out before our eyes, layer upon layer, mixing and melding in a riot of bright colour.

    A painting which exhibits an extraordinary physical presence, E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V, can be relished from various standpoints. As a portrait, it allows us some insight into Auerbach's private world, a glimpse into his circle of lovers, friends and associates. As an art-historical object, it also tells us much about the development of Auerbach's distinctive artistic practice, one which places him within a long artistic tradition and has also made him a globally revered figure. But most importantly, as a painting, it is absorbing, utterly enchanting and astoundingly beautiful. After all, it is the creation of such fine paintings which has obsessed Frank Auerbach for the past six decades. The remarkable vision that we find in E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V, and its deep understanding of both the human figure and the paint itself, is testament to a lifetime of painting, and to the incredible talent of the man who views his art quite literally as a way of life.
Contacts
Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931) E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V 1963
Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931) E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V 1963
Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931) E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown V 1963
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