Review: Frank Auerbach @Tate Britain

As visitors wonder around this extraordinary exhibition devoted to the work of painter Frank Auerbach, there are certain words that spring to mind when looking at his work: experimental, bold and unique.

Featuring around 70 paintings and drawings dating from the 1950’s to the present day, the display for the first six rooms was selected by the artist himself, with the final room being selected by curator Catherine Lampert. This is a great way of presenting Auerbach’s work, and allows his opinion to shine through the exhibition.

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Head of William Feaver, Collection of Gina and Stuart Peterson © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art.

But the trouble is that he didn’t want a particular theme to run through the exhibition (except grouping the pictures into decades) and this makes it feel slightly chaotic, messy and not quite so easy to enjoy.

However, it is the technique that he uses consistently through his work that makes this display especially fascinating to look at. When he first started to paint, Auerbach would just paint on top of the previous day’s work, creating a very thick surface, but during the 1960’s he began to scrape down the whole surface before the next attempt. So although looking at the paintings now it would seem that it was created on the first attempt but in fact it has taken a lot more for it to get to the final stage, showing the time and effort that it takes for Auerbach to be satisfied with his piece.

His work can only be fully appreciated the longer and the further away that you look at it – particular examples are his Primrose hill paintings and Morinington Crescent works that are dotted around the display.

Although he never changed his technique in principle, he does seem to be willing to push and experiment with it that shows confidence in the way in which he chooses to work. Although in essence Auerbach has selected the works and the way in which they are displayed it doesn’t feel as though it has got any personality to it. Some visitors might find it cold and the lack of information regarding to his skills might reveal modesty from the artist and the curator Catherine Lampert (who sat for the artist for 37 years) but adds no understanding for the visitor -which in turn can make the exhibition feel slightly self-indulgent.

The selection of works on display should be seen as individual pieces rather than a group of similarities, but it can be a struggle for visitors to think like that -even if the artist (who knows and understands the work better than anyone else) believes that is how it should be seen.

Being familiar with Auerbach’s work will certainly help anyone wanting to pay a visit to this exhibition but it certainly celebrates creativity and how unique painting techniques can be.

Frank Auerbach is on display at Tate Britain until the 13th March 2016. 

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