A leading figure of the School of London, Frank Auerbach is celebrated for his portraits and landscape paintings. Forged from thick, sculptural impasto, scraped off and repainted over long periods, his works seek to capture the living physical presence of his subjects. Auerbach has returned repeatedly to the same people and places over the past 70 years, producing etchings and charcoal drawings as well as paintings. His distinctive style changed the face of figurative art during the 20th century.
Born to Jewish parents in Berlin in 1931, Auerbach arrived in Britain via the Kindertransport shortly before the outbreak of World War II. He loved art from a young age and went on to study at Saint Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London.
Auerbach was particularly inspired by a series of night classes at Borough Polytechnic taught by David Bomberg, who encouraged his students to seek out the ‘spirit in the mass’. During this period he became close friends with Leon Kossoff, and the two became each other’s early muses. Auerbach’s Head of Leon Kossoff (1954) sold for £2,658,500 at Christie’s in 2016.
In 1954, Auerbach moved into the North London studio where he would remain for the rest of his career. Its tiny, bare interior changed very little over the decades. Seated upon a chair or bed, in close proximity to Auerbach’s easel, his subjects watched for weeks, months and years as he wrestled their forms into paint. Estella Olive West (E.O.W.) and Juliet Yardley Mills (J.Y.M.) became two of his most important muses. Others included his cousin Gerda Boehm, his wife Julia and his son Jake, as well as scholars such as Catherine Lampert and William Feaver.
Looking beyond the studio, Auerbach captured the daily flux of London life with the same intensive scrutiny. His paintings of Primrose Hill, Mornington Crescent and the streets of Camden are sought-after at auction, each a love letter to the city where he made his home.
Auerbach was also influenced by his encounters with art history. As a student he was deeply inspired by visits to London’s National Gallery, and later made several paintings in homage to its collection. Among these was After Rubens' Samson and Delilah (1993), which sold for £3,721,250 at Christie’s in 2017.
More broadly, Auerbach drew inspiration from the works of Rembrandt, Picasso, Giacometti, Soutine and de Kooning. He also formed important relationships with other School of London artists, including Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Portraits of him by both painters, including Bacon’s Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach (1964), bear witness to this friendship.