Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931) Figure on a Bed II 1967

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Lot 11* AR
Frank Auerbach
(British, born 1931)
Figure on a Bed II

Sold for £ 1,448,750 (US$ 1,624,623) inc. premium
Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931)
Figure on a Bed II

oil on board

60 by 80 cm.
23 5/8 by 31 1/2 in.

This work was executed in 1967.


  • Provenance
    Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London (no. LOL FA124)
    Michael Hobbs OAM Collection, Sydney (acquired directly from the above in 1967)
    Thence by descent to the present owner

    Sydney, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1968, work on loan to the museum
    Paddington, Villiers with Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd, Frank Auerbach, 1972, no. 31 (incorrectly dated)
    London, Hayward Gallery; Edinburgh, Fruit Market Gallery, Frank Auerbach, 1978, p. 89, no. 76, illustrated in black and white
    Casula, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Refugees, 2016, p. 9, no. 2, illustrated in colour

    Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 167, no. 124, illustrated in black and white
    William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, p. 262, no. 229, illustrated in colour

    What is immediately striking about Frank Auerbach's huge Figure on a Bed II from 1967 is the incredible vibrancy of its colour palette which sets the painting ablaze in a cacophony of polychromatic hues. There are swathes of turquoise impasto, enriched with accents of undulating white, as well as lustrous daubs of chromium yellow and heavily textured verdant green, all dramatically juxtaposed with crimson paint squeezed directly onto the work's surface, untroubled neither by brush nor palette knife. The present work, coming to auction for the first time after over fifty years in the same private collection, displays these brilliant colours as fresh and tangibly as if they were applied to the board yesterday. A quintessential example of the significant change in style that began in this period and broadly influenced the rest of Auerbach's seven-decade long career, this work sees him turn away from his early monochromatic paintings of the inhabitants and landscapes of his adopted city of London.

    Here, we have an artist who has clearly become confident in his use of and mastery of colour, as fearless in his approach to tonality as he is skilled in his command of the medium. Auerbach's rigorous working practices are well known, his leveraging and coaxing of thick impasto into seemingly impossible sculptural peaks, requires a level of concentration and skill that would surpass most artists. This method was not only labour intensive, a long and slow process formed through the layering, sculpting and manipulation of paint, it was also fraught with its own particular set of problems: namely the ability of the paint to retain its surface tension whilst drying, and its colour without vanishing into a muddy morass. As a result, not every work was an unqualified success and Auerbach, being his own toughest critic, allowed only the very best paintings, such as the present work, to pass from his studio to the gallery.

    Auerbach's earliest reclining nudes date back to 1953 and survive as intimate and compelling portrayals of Estella Olive West (E.O.W.), initially his landlady and subsequently his lover. Their passionate relationship resulted in some of his most enduring and impactful works and formed the genesis of the present series which was begun in the following decade in 1965. Although the identity of the sitter in Figure on a Bed II is not specified, one can infer that E.O.W. is represented here in no less a sensual and compelling rendition than any of his earlier works.

    The broadly applied interlocking outlines of the bed and table, sweeping across the composition, form a stage-like platform on which the sitter is raised. The turquoise bedding seems almost impossibly large, forming a distorted sense of perspective throughout the work which not dissimilar to the complex spatial devices and colour fields employed by Auerbach's contemporary and friend, Francis Bacon. Whilst Bacon's geometric devices convey a sense of intensity and alienation around the figures they frame, Auerbach's are more intimate, and his geometric formatting and thick impastos, initially confound our expectations, before the image slowly begins to reveal itself from the abstracted density of paint. Bacon and Auerbach's friendship is as well documented as is their creative connectivity, both men being members of the so-called School of London, an important group of artists, including Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Leon Kossoff and Howard Hodgkin, who were credited with the revitalisation of figurative painting during the second half of the Twentieth Century.

    Auerbach's paintings depict only a chosen few sitters, namely E.O.W. during this period, and still only a limited selection of subjects to this day. Through this, there is an intimacy and poignancy to his works, allowing the viewer precious insight into his typically isolated world. Yet, there remains a sense of detachment instilled by the composition and his virtuosic rendering of the subject in only a few carefully chosen strokes. These personal scenes, such as in the present work, draw parallels with the paintings of the American artist Edward Hopper, whose dedication to realism decades before would undoubtedly resonate with members of the School of London. Meanwhile, the sculptural application of paint and the breakdown of the scene into limited yet highly recognisable elements show connections with his contemporary, the sculptor Henry Moore.

    Amongst the largest paintings from this period to come to auction Figure on a Bed II has been housed in the same private family collection since its execution in 1967. Notwithstanding its inclusion in two prestigious international museum exhibitions of the artist's work, this is only one of only a few occasions that it has been on public view in over fifty years. It featured in Auerbach's first major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, London in 1978, and letters of correspondence between the organiser and the original vendor demonstrate its importance to the artist by detailing how he personally hand-selected each work to be included. It has also been loaned to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, as well as two other exhibitions in the region.

    Figure on a Bed II from 1967 is a triumphant painting from one of Frank Auerbach's key series and bears all the trademarks one would expect from one of the leading artists of his generation. Executed as a pure clarion call of colour, the paint manipulated into a seemingly impossible landscape of peaks and troughs, the artist has transformed an otherwise humble domestic scene into a timeless vision that drenches the senses.
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