Friday 6 November 2009

The glutinous mud of the city

Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites, 1952-62 Courtauld Gallery, London

At first glance the building sites of London seem to be a non-starter of a topic, something on a par with trainspotting and so fit only for geeks. Why should a painter be interested in such a thing, and why should we?

To answer this we must briefly consider Frank Auerbach’s early life and career. Born in Berlin in 1931, his parents sent him to Britain six years later to escape the Nazis (his parents would later die in the Holocaust). At the age of 15, after leaving a boarding school established in Kent for refugee children, he studied art at St. Martin’s College of Art in London and also at the Royal College of Art, but he would also be strongly influenced by lessons with David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic. He encouraged his friend, Leon Kossoff, to attend these latter classes.

Wanting to prove himself as a painter, Auerbach took a subject that was literally on his doorstep – the rebuilding of post-war London. This process offered the budding artist plenty of scope. In the 1950s, London was a smoky, sooty city – homes were still heated with coal delivered by grimy coalmen wearing special protective shiny black caps and neckcovers – whilst areas such as the East End and Paddington were bywords for slums and overcrowding. It was also war-scarred. Streets were pock-marked with cleared bomb-sites and signs still pointed to air-raid shelters. Rebuilding seemed to offer a chance for it to start afresh.

This exhibition is the first comprehensive account of Auerbach’s building site work. What grabs our attention here? His sketch ‘Study for Building Site, Bruton Street’ (winter 1952-53) is a quiet scene showing a pile of sand, ladders, girders and a sense of emptiness, of things waiting to happen. But his painting ‘Building Site, Bruton Street’ (winter 1953) shows the site coming to life, with a great pile of yellow sand in the foreground and a dark green/brown mass of construction-tilled earth. ‘Building Site, St. Pancras’ (summer 1954) shows the construction of the Regent’s Park Estate with the building site a brown, almost light khaki mass with the bent forms of two digging workmen emphasising the scale of the building work.

The construction of the Shell Building on the South Bank of the Thames, near Waterloo, caught Auerbach’s imagination. ‘Shell Building Site from the Thames’ (1959) shows a cable being lowered by a crane into the deep excavation that was carried out for this building. As the cable drops against a background of bright, light clay it’s difficult to stave off an attack of vertigo. ‘Shell Building Site: Workmen under Hungerford Bridge’ (1958-61) shows bent figures as they crouch working under the arches of the railway bridge which serves the nearby Charing Cross Station. The picture is executed in black, making us share the feeling of working in a dark, confined space. It also heightens the sense of danger: one false move and a workman could plummet into the Thames’ treacherous currents.

‘Shell Building Site from the Thames’ (1959)

Back on the other side of the Thames, Auerbach gives us work which shows civil engineering as an exercise in becoming and being. With ‘Victoria Street Building Site’ (1959), the activity of the building site in the foreground contrasts with the geometric windows and grey walls of the already-completed office blocks in the background, whilst with ‘Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square’ (1962) there is a seemingly-chaotic mass of earth, scaffolding and girders from which the new building is emerging.

Auerbach used a painting technique which involved working and reworking the paintings, resulting in them sometimes becoming more than an inch thick with paint as he tried to express what he felt was ‘the core’ of his subject. This thickness wasn’t something that the artist deliberately intended, but it had the happy effect of making his works resemble the deep, glutinous mud of a building site and so making his subjects come alive before us. But it would be wrong to think of Auerbach as a slap-dash, slap-on merchant. His work involved preparation. His sketches ‘Four Studies for Oxford Street Building Site’ (1957-59) show a mixture of work being carried-out and still lives with just scaffolding and cranes. The sketches ‘Three Figure Studies for Oxford Street Building Site’ (1958-59) show three workmen, two leaning, one bending. They are stark and simple, yet have a sense of action, conveying something of the physical toughness of construction work.

What we see here is, arguably, not simply Auerbach’s artistic appreciation of earthiness, and of the power of construction but a love letter to the country which befriended him in his hour of need and, more particularly, to its capital city when it seemed on the brink of architectural regeneration. Love letters can be mawkish. These paintings are anything but. They have a power, reminding us of a time – long before the advent of the fatuous phrase ‘knowledge economy’ (has any form of societal organisation existed without knowledge of one sort or another?) when engineering and technology were regarded as skills that would lead to a better future rather than as forms of dehumanisation and pollution.

Building wasn’t simply about making money: it was also seen as a way of incarnating ideas about the Good Life (a concept seen by John Maynard Keynesas being at the heart of his work when founding the Arts Council after the Second World War). It wasn’t Auerbach’s fault that this rebuilding would land the capital with a significant amount of architecture that was shoddy, ultimately forgettable and, in some cases, socially disastrous. Nor was it his fault that some works of architectural merit, such as the Euston Arch, would be wantonly destroyed simply because they were old. The herbivores - as architects who saw themselves as harbingers of progress were dubbed – would end-up forming a nasty alliance with the carnivores of local government paymasters and allegedly backhander-brandishing builders who were responsible for bankrolling and building their well-intentioned but ultimately less-than vibrant visions of utopia.

Let’s fast-forward a decade or so to 1976. In that year the American painter R. B. Kitaj organised an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery called The Human Clay featuring artists who continued to work in figurative painting in contrast to avant-garde styles. They included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, Leon Kossoff, and Auerbach. Kitaj described them loosely as the School of London. As the general critical response to Damien Hirst’s recent exhibition of his paintings at the Wallace Collection – an event regarded by most critics as a car crash – has shown there is, arguably, still a hunger for representational painting in some form or other. Just as the young Auerbach and Kossoff learnt from Bomberg, so today artists who feel that the language of representational art must be revived might do well to study the work of the School of London.This exhibition, manifesting Auerbach’s intense depiction of transformative building power, would be a good place to start.

Ends 17 January 2010

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