Essay by James Hyman
James Hyman compares attitudes to past masters in the work of Frank Auerbach and Glenn Brown.
For figurative painters today, apparently alienated from so much of the contemporary culture that Surrounds them, the weight of history hangs heavy. The masters and mistresses of the past are not only a source of inspiration, but a touchstone, a provocation and a challenge. The chance to see works by living artists alongside those of their forebears is especially illuminating. A few months ago the hanging of Lucian Freud's paintings at Dulwich Picture Gallery contrasted his and Rubens' handling of flesh. Presently, Leon Kossoff's light-filled paintings at the Venice Biennale have benefited from the proximity of glowering paintings by Tintoretto and Titian in the nearby churches and now at the National Gallery in London, there is august company for Frank Auerbach.
Auerbach's paintings, drawings and interviews consistently draw attention to the formulation of his work as a conscious dialogue with the past. A partial testament to this is a recently hung room at the Tate Gallery that presents a British figurative tradition. It includes Auerbach, his teacher Bomberg, and Bomberg's teacher, Sickert, tracing a lineage Auerbach has constructed for himself that extends back beyond Sickert to Ingres.
It is thus appropriate that an exhibition should be staged of Auerbach's pictures based on paintings by others. At the heart of Auerbach's National Gallery exhibition (19th July to 17th September) are paintings after Rembrandt, Titian and Rubens. In these, the use of private marks and notational signs personalise familiar images, and an at times almost hermetic language emphasises the artist's close identification with his subjects. The stress is on the intimacy to be found even in seminal religious and mythological incidents, and on the way such paintings have stimulated and refreshed the artist's own paintings.
In drawing from an admired painting, Auerbach's search is for an essence, his quest, an animating inner core or kernel. A contrast is provided by the young British artist Glenn Brown, whose coincidental exhibition is held at Karsten Schubert (4th July to 5th August). This presents paintings based on reproductions of the work of others including Auerbach. Brown, however, is concerned above all with surface, with the containing husk or shell.
In drawing from the past, Auerbach adopts one strategy, Brown another. Each adds something new. Auerbach is indebted to existentialism and phenomenology in the function he gives to drawing as a means of stressing personal experience. Brown is stimulated by a long line of theoretical commentary from Walter Benjamin's essay on mechanical reproduction, through John Berger's `Ways of Seeing', which have drawn attention to the way perception is mediated by reproduction.
Thus while Auerbach seeks to enter the paintings he admires, Brown crawls across their surfaces. Auerbach emphasises his own closeness to the subject: he is there with the model, there in front of a building or below an admired painting. Brown, however, lives in a world of catalogues, postcards and gift shops. A world in which to buy the postcard may be a substitute for experiencing the work itself. A world in which the personal and subjective is undermined by mass reproduction and collective experience. Appropriately, Brown's most successful images challenge assumptions about expressionist authenticity. While Auerbach's canvases are thickly painted patterns of reworking, Brown's paintings are thin and glossy. Auerbach's painting is swift and `all-over' - the surface vigorously and expansively covered in broad sweeps of paint. Brown's painting is painstaking, even precious, with subtle changes in locus and oscillations between hard and soft edges testifying to the artist's presence. The former inspired by the subject, the latter by its reproduction. Furthermore, while Auerbach's images may be impassioned. those of Brown are passive. And while Auerbach paints homages, Brown's attitude to his sources is more ambiguous. If Auerbach seeks to re-animate the past, Brown paints its ghosts. While Auerbach paints presences, Brown shows spectral traces. A body-snatcher, Brown's beings appear to have temporarily assumed the outward appearance of their host.
The differences between Auerbach and Brown are vast. Certainly, outside the pages of magazines there is little chance of confusing their work. But they do both share a fascination with the continuing possibilities of painting, a shared belief in the importance of the past and in the need for skill, Ultimately, it is to the gallery, not the gift shop, that these shows encourage us to return.
© 2021 James Hyman Gallery, PO Box 72888,
LONDON N2 2FH