Oil on board
81.3 x 122 cms (31.95 x 47.95 ins)
Signed, titled and dated on two labels on the reverse, one of which gives the original price in 1956 of 80 guineas.
(Helen Lessore) Beaux Arts Gallery, London
Private Collection, London
Private Collection, USA
Building Sites, Paintings by Frank Auerbach, Tony Bevan, Lewis Chamberlain and Glenys Johnson, 2 August - 15 September 2006.
Courtauld Institute, Frank Auerbach:London building sites 1952-62, 16 October 2009 - 17 January 2010
Courtauld Institute, Frank Auerbach:London building sites 1952-62, 2009
St Pauls Building Site, Winter was included in Auerbach's first solo show, which took place at Helen Lessore's Beaux Arts Gallery in early 1956. Although this was the artist's first one-person show it attracted extensive attention from London's leading critics, including David Sylvester who responded to paintings such as St Pauls Building Site, Winter by asserting Auerbach's place in twentieth century British art, heralding 'the most impressive first one-man show by an English painter since Francis Bacon's in 1949.' (David Sylvester, 'Young English Painting', The Listener, 12 January 1956, vol.55, no.1402, p.64).
The thick paint preoccupied critics. As John Berger argued:
Superficially his works are reminiscent of Dubuffet's mud tricks. But Auerbach is a serious artist, an example of one of those I mentioned the other week, who throw themselves vainly and desperately against the frontiers of art. (John Berger, 'Several Exhibitions', New Statesman, 14 January 1956, vol.51, no.1297, p.43).
Sylvester, too, downplayed affinities with Dubuffet, and drew instead from his understanding of Giacometti to address the relationship between painting and sculpture:
These painterly images, not sculptural ones, have to be read as paintings, not as polychrome reliefs. Their physical structure is virtually that of sculpture but their psychological impact that of paintingthe result is arrived at through the act of painting and painting and painting again, and its magic derives from the fact that in this clotted heap of muck there has somehow been preserved the precious fluidity, the pliancy of paint. Here at last is a young painter who has extended the power of paint to re-make reality. (David Sylvester, 'Young English Painting', The Listener, 12 January 1956, vol.55, no.1402, p.64).
In his book on Auerbach, Robert Hughes writes of the artist's depiction of building sites and about the present painting:
In the 1950s he mainly painted holes. Sites in the center of London, bombed flat, were then being dug out and rebuilt. The excavations, chasms of mud and shored-up earth, overhung by cranes and crossed by scaffolding and catwalks, fascinated him - a triangulated structure, a diagram that reminded him of the vectoring of forms he had learned about from Bomberg and which were becoming the stylistic signature of his work, laid on the primal clay of the cityit was intensely picturesque (new ruins, still reeking of catastrophe) and its sense of incoherence slowly labouring to give birth to structural shape matched the processes in which, Auerbach by now realized, his own work was grounded. (Frank Auerbach in Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p.84)
also cites Auerbach's comment that: "I would go and draw them by inching along the planks, out over the excavation, just clinging on and dodging the wheelbarrows. I have no head for heights. Everything you can be frightened of, I am." (p. 85).
Catherine Lampert in her catalogue essay for the Royal Academy's Auerbach retrospective in 2001 writes of his depiction of building sites:
Together with Kossoff he approached the subject of London and its postwar rebuilding by accruing facts by making daily drawings on site and then returning to the studio. In his paintings of building sites he counteracted the abundance of mud and deep holes by deploying cranes and girders, as if they were pictorial lightning rods and 'lances'. (p.21)
Certainly, the subject is to be found in Kossoff's paintings of this time, including one of his most celebrated early landscapes, St Pauls Building Site, 1953-54. However the nature of their depiction of the subject is wholly different. Whereas in Kossoff's work the cathedral dome is a domineering presence, in Auerbach's painting what dominates, is the structural concern identified by Robert Hughes. Whilst Kossoff depicts the view from the site, in Auerbach's painting it is the site itself that is the chief concern.
Auerbach, himself, writing about St Pauls Building Site, Winter recalled making drawings 'in the wasteland of bombsites and building sites which surrounded Wren's masterpiece in the early fifties' However, this is the only painting that depicts the St Pauls building site. Frank Auerbach, letter to James Hyman, 15 July 2004.
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