Bed bound

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 55, Summer 2018

Page 4

Frank Auerbach's work and life are rooted in London, but paradoxically his works have a universal appeal. John McDonald explains why

Cast a glance at the pages of Studio International during the 1960s and it is easy to spot the most-fashionable artists of the era. They are painters of Colourfield and Hard-Edged Abstractions, Pop Artists, Kinetic Artists, Minimalists and Conceptualists. Those dogged defenders of figurative painting who became known as the 'School of London' are eccentric to the main game. Figures such as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud and the much more famous Francis Bacon were fixtures on the London art scene, but not did fit into any of the movements that had sprung up in the twilight of Modernism.

In retrospect, it seems all Bacon and his friends needed was a catchy, if somewhat arbitrary, label. The 'School of London' term was first used by R.B. Kitaj in the catalogue of a exhibition called The Human Clay, held at the Hayward Gallery in 1976. The timing was propitious because the art magazines would soon be filled with Neo-expressionist figurative paintings that seemed more exciting (and collectable) than the cerebral works of the late 1970s.

The wheel of fashion had finally begun to turn towards Frank Auerbach, whose thickly painted portraits, figures and streetscapes had been evolving according to their own, internal logic since the early 1950s. No artist – with the possible exception of Auerbach's friend, Leon Kossoff – could have been more impervious to the lures of fame and fortune. No artist could have been more devoted to his work, or more indifferent to the mechanisms by which a painter found his way into the best collections.

Andy Warhol had advised aspiring artists to go to all the parties. It was a lesson that would be absorbed by Damien Hirst and the YBAs, but for Auerbach there has only ever been one path: to keep working relentlessly in the studio. For many years, Auerbach claimed to work 364 days of the year. Nowadays he has dispensed with the holiday.

Auerbach has shown the same single-mindedness in his choice of dealers. On graduating from the Royal College of Art, he showed with Helen Lessore's Beaux Arts Gallery until it closed in 1965, then transferred to Marlborough Fine Art, where he remains to this day. The exhibition of 1967 was his second with Marlborough, a gallery that also represented Francis Bacon and various Australian artists, such as Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley and Colin Lanceley.

One visitor to Auerbach's 1967 show was Michael J. Hobbs, a 33-year-old stockbroker who had migrated from England to Australia at the end of the 1950s. Hobbs had taken to life Down Under, and now had a prosperous business that saw him travelling frequently between Sydney, Hong Kong and London.

In Sydney, Hobbs was known as an adventurous collector who enjoyed supporting young artists. Not only did he buy the work – he was a generous host, who held dinners and parties to which the artists were all invited. He would go to several openings a week, and always made a point of visiting new galleries.

Hobbs was able to compartmentalise his stockbroking activities in such a way that they didn't interfere with his bohemian social life. His son, Neil, recalls how his father would lock himself away in the evenings, spending hours on the phone to London discussing the markets. To his artist friends, that side of his personality remained closed.

Hobbs' tastes were always eclectic. He bought figurative and abstract paintings, sculptures, tribal artefacts and objets d'art. Like many collectors, he often seemed more fascinated by the hunt than the prize. Yet when it came to making a really significant purchase, his business instincts would reassert themselves.

Whenever he was in London, Hobbs would do the rounds of the commercial galleries. At home, he studied the Marlborough catalogues that arrived by air mail. He was also friendly with James Kirkman, who worked for Marlborough at the time. When Kirkman visited Australia, Hobbs would take him on dauntingly long drives.

There was nothing spontaneous about Hobbs's purchase of Auerbach's Figure on a Bed II, which is offered at Bonhams' Post-War & Contemporary Art sale in June. He had been thinking about the artist's work for some time, and had done his homework thoroughly. It was one of the first Auerbachs to enter an Australian collection – the earliest was probably Oxford Street Building Site II (1960), acquired in 1961 by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Figure on a Bed II would hang in various of Hobbs' residences over the following 50 years: in Pymble, Lavender Bay, and finally Woolloomooloo. It was probably the first exposure to Auerbach's work for several generations of Sydney artists. His influence is easily detected in Nicholas Harding's paintings, but there are many contemporary Australian artists who were thrilled by those volcanic surfaces. Peter Godwin recalls how he once felt he had achieved a breakthrough in his work, only to discover that Auerbach had got there before him.

One suspects this story might echo in other parts of the world, where an Auerbach painting has made an impression on local painters searching for the same boldness and determination. It is a familiar paradox that the most thoroughly rooted artists often have a universal, lasting appeal, whereas their internationally minded peers tend to vanish with the trends. Auerbach, who has barely set foot outside London since he arrived at the age of seven, acts as an extreme counterbalance to the growing globalisation of art.

He might be seen as a model of integrity or of pathological stubbornness, but the reason his work is now so highly valued and sought-after has much to do with his willingness to stick with the same subjects, methods and models that have served him well for more than 60 years. It is almost as if the painstaking effort involved in finishing a painting is somehow captured and preserved in those thick whorls of oil. Each swipe of the brush or palette knife has been frozen for all time like dried lava.

Auerbach's use of colour has drifted in and out of muddiness, with his recent works recapturing some of the vivid tones of the 1960s. The predominance of earth-coloured works gives an extra impetus to Figure on a Bed II, which prefigures the artist's late style. Produced in the gloom of London, it is a painting that has held its own in the blazing light of many a Sydney summer.

John McDonald is Art Critic of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Sale: Post-War & Contemporary Art
Wednesday 27 June at 5pm
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