Frank Auerbach: How the artist drew himself for Covid ‘plague years’ designs

Frank Auerbach: How the artist drew himself for Covid ‘plague years’ designs
Frank Auerbach: How the artist drew himself for Covid ‘plague years’ designs

What do you do when you’re a portrait painter but no one sits down for you? Frank Auerbach, once described by the Tate as “one of the greatest painters living today”, has found an answer he never expected to find. At 91, he painted himself – and all thanks to Covid.

For decades, the painter and draftsman sat his friends and family down for his portraits every week – until the lockdowns left him without a caretaker. Instead, he drew inspiration from his own features for a large series of self-portraits. He told the Observer that while he was previously uninterested in his own face, aging has made him much more convincing.

“I’ve drawn a self-portrait or two before, but I always found there was something a bit mundane about doing self-portraits,” he says. “I didn’t find the actual formal components of my head so interesting when I was younger, smoother, and less frazzled.

“Now that I have bags under my eyes, things are sagging and so on, there’s more material to work with. To my surprise, because I was alone and had drawn the first of this series, I was continuously interested.

William Feaver, former art critic of the Observer and one of Auerbach’s regular sitters, described them as “the most remarkable sequence of self-portrait drawings”.

“They are totally unplanned and unpremeditated,” he said. “A kind of diary of the plague years, which we all lived through. It’s a great sequence of drawings of someone in a locked-up, frustrated state. Feaver has selected 20 of the new works for his upcoming book, titled Frank Auerbachan updated and expanded edition of his acclaimed 2009 volume.

“Now that I have bags under my eyes and things are sagging, there is more material to work with”: Frank Auerbach, photographed in 2014. Photography: Antonio Olmos / The Observer

Auerbach is considered one of today’s most inventive and influential artists, revered for his psychologically probing portraits and powerful cityscapes that capture the soul of a person or place with bold lines. thick and thick brush strokes. In 1986 he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, and in 2015 was the subject of a major retrospective at the Tate, which noted that Auerbach is often compared to Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud “in terms of the revolutionary and powerful nature of his work. ”.

Feaver has sat for Auerbach every week since 2003, for two hours at a time. He said: “It takes months to produce a painting or a drawing. According to him, painting and drawing are exactly the same difficulty and take about the same amount of time as each other. We tend to talk for the first hour of the two-hour session and be more or less silent the other.

In the book, Feaver writes about the impact of the lockdown on Auerbach’s creativity: “There was to be no more sitting for more than 18 months. And so, mostly confined to his flats in Finsbury Park [London], Auerbach sought to draw himself (“give himself a little hope”), the images testifying to his situation. Two dozen or more of them were made over the months, chins raised, eyes squinted, each mirror reflection setting it apart. Portraits derived from oblique glances and sudden reactions, during which the hand, the eye and the recall had to correlate – in the blink of an eye – the changes between observation and execution.

The self-portraits are mostly acrylic on board and graphite on paper, and measure up to 2 feet 6 inches by almost 2 feet (77.5 x 57 cm). Feaver said: “He produced some of the great paintings of the 20th century, now the 21st century. Self-portraits have the implication of self-esteem and there is absolutely none of that in these. They show all sorts of frustrations and irritations and breathlessness – all the things we feel if we look in the mirror. There’s a look. We squint if we try to outdo ourselves in the mirror. If you then have to move on to the next sheet of paper, it’s a mental leap all the time.

Auerbach said he continued to create more self-portraits: “I’ve been going there all day for two years, seven days a week. Each is a totally different problem in terms of materials [and] what i’m thinking about.

When asked if he learned anything new about his face, he said he never thought in verbal, emotional or psychological terms about his subjects because it “undermines what one do”. I’m just trying to use the subject to make an image of my print.

. Frank Auerbach how the artist drew himself for the drawings of the years plague Covid Frank Auerbach

. Frank Auerbach artist drew Covid plague years designs

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