Friday, May 2, 2008

Seeking Refuge

In your eyes
The light, the heat
In your eyes
I am complete
In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches

--From “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel

When his parents sent him from Germany to England in 1939, little did Frank Auerbach know that he would ever see them again. Born April 29, 1931, Auerbach became one of the many orphans of the Holocaust, surviving only because his parents sought refuge in the kindness of people they had never met. Auerbach’s paintings seek a similar refuge in the human figure—not through photographic realism but in a expressive abstraction that looks into the soul of the individual, piercing at the same time it builds up layer after layer. His Portrait of J.Y.M. Seated (above, from 1976) depicts Juliet Yardley Mills, a professional model he painted almost as frequently as his wife and his mistress. It almost seems unnecessary for a professional model to have sat for this considering how obscurely she is present. In many ways, the figure for Auerbach is simply an excuse for creating a three-dimensional representation of the spirit. In this painting, Auerbach actually attached pieces of board onto one another, sculpting as much as painting in his search for a deeper reality.

Auerbach’s work often draws comparisons with that of his two British contemporaries—Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. Although all three fixate on the figure, they each approach it in vastly different ways. Freud’s people seem grotesquely bloated, as if they’re skin were ready to erupt. Even his self-portraits seem menacing in their physicality. Bacon’s people look as if they’d escaped from a Bosch painting and found themselves trapped in the twentieth century. Bacon’s figurative works are one long nightmare of bared teeth and blurred faces, even those of his lover. Auerbach also blurs and distorts, but not nightmarishly but, bizarrely, almost in a loving manner. There’s anger, perhaps, in the effort expended in the drawing titled Head of Julia (above, from 1960), in which he erased parts of the image of his wife so vigorously that the top sheet of paper tore away, revealing layers beneath. Auerbach’s Head of Julia is like an onion (perhaps he used onion-skin paper?), where the layers are all part of the same reality he’s trying to discern.

Even odder than the other portraits of Juliet Yardley Mills is Auerbach’s Portrait of J.Y.M. II (above, from 1984-1985) in which the professional model actually strikes a pose, dramatically raising her hands in a pleading gesture. Again, the model’s face itself disappears in the sea of Auerbach’s brushstrokes, and her hands become mere blurs, although their positioning suggests enough to be understood. Auerbach still paints today, working methodically in his studio and shunning most media contact and publicity, turning down even a knighthood in 2003. The studio itself has become his last refuge, the place where he believes the answers can be found and true sanctuary can be achieved. The raised hands of Portrait of J.Y.M. II may even be raised in the prayer for understanding Auerbach “says” with each painting.

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