The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Frank Auerbach
I'm very lucky. I have a Frank Auerbach on the walls of my office - not that I own it you understand, but I have it on loan and I've got more and more involved in the thick paint, the gashes of colour, the bold gestures of the painting. It's very recognisable, as indeed Auerbach's pictures are - they're only in oil or charcoal, occasionally acrylic now, only portraits of a very limited number of sitters, or of landscapes around Camden Town in north London. For 50 years since leaving Art College , Auerbach has ploughed the deepest of furrows - some say too narrowly perhaps - with an obsessive intensity. He seeks to capture reality, to create something new, create something living as he puts it, to add something to the world. Frank Auerbach belongs to no school though he has been linked to his friend Leon Kossoff, to Lucien Freud, to Francis Bacon. He has followed no -isms, belonged to no active coterie. He works intensively, slowly and doggedly to achieve that rawness that he seeks. It's a very long way from the eight year old German-Jewish boy who arrived in England in 1939, sent from Berlin by his parents to escape Nazism. He never saw his parents again.
Frank Auerbach, let's begin, pretty well at the beginning. What do you remember of family life in Berlin from 1931?
Very, very, very, very little indeed. I mean, I remember vaguely the flats that we lived in, although I don't think that if I was shown it now, I would recognise it. I remember very little about the streets through which I went to school and I have very... the haziest possible recollection of my parents. Partly, because I was under eight years old when I came to England and partly because it was a total and utter change. I didn't see for many years, anybody I'd seen before so it was like being picked up and transported into a different world and if there are no attachments, if there are no associations, then one doesn't remember.
Do you remember them as loving parents?
I remember my father as an indulgent father. I had one of the few sort of tags of memories of him taking pleasure in buying a particular sort of bun for me and sitting opposite and seeming to take pleasure in the fact that I was greedily eating it. I think my mother may have been a little cooler. I remember, very understandably because we were Jewish and the Nazis were in power. I remember such memories I have of my mother have to do with anxiety. I remember once that somebody gave me a sweet in the street and I was put to bed for two days because they thought it might have been poisoned.
Do you understand why they didn't leave Germany when they sent you away?
Well, firstly they were rather elderly parents I think; I'm not certain of their exact age, but I think I was a late arrival and then I think that they possibly thought it might all blow over and you know, that this was rhetoric and nothing would come of it and you know, things would settle down, that they would go on as they had before. And I think they were persuaded that it would be a good idea to send me to England and they made at least, that decision.
Did you feel abandoned by them?
Absolutely, not at all. Absolutely not at all. Partly because I went to this rather remarkable school, which was much more than a school but a sort of community, a small republic...
Called Bunce Court in Kent .
That's right, that's right and perhaps partly, this is a... maybe a some sort of fantasy or gloss, there is a sort of slight feeling of alienation which might lead to a life in one of the arts and I never really quite felt at home with what I remember as a rather, sort of bourgeois life where one was put into smart clothes and taken to walks in the park by a nanny, and I somehow felt that this wasn't what life should be like. It seemed to me to be over-protective.
So you were much more at home at the school that you ended up in, this progressive rather arty school.
Well, not really arty. The emphasis was on community spirit. There were no frills and the woman who ran it had been a German-American Quaker who'd come back to Europe after the First World War, looked after a lot of starving children in Europe and then decided that she would rather look after 100 children properly than you know, 500 000 in the abstract and founded the school. No, the emphasis was on community spirit and culture. The culture was regarded as something that wasn't in any sense dangerous. She had a Michelangelo print on her wall, and we had Breughels over the dining tables, but it wasn't really arty. I mean, you know, there are arty schools where children are encouraged to express themselves - we weren't encouraged to express ourselves, we were encouraged to be part of a community and to have community spirit.
Was it at that time, or was it earlier that you saw in a Children's Encyclopaedia a black and white reproduction of the Turner, the Fighting Temeraire.
It was... yes, it was in my first year I think that I was ill and I saw the Fighting Temeraire. We had these huge volumes and I was looking through them and I do remember being stirred by the picture and perhaps also by the poem opposite and I've never quite forgotten it.
But it's too facile to say that of course that it was because of that, that some idea that you yourself might become a painter, stirred. But do you know, when the idea that you might turn to painting began?
Well, [laughs] I... I remember being given a paint-box in Germany . I mean, I remember vividly what seems to me to be putting a brush for the first time on to water, a cake of water colour and I think one of my tricks, like you get a dog to roll over, was that I did little drawings and in my case they were of Red Indians on scooters which I was asked to draw. I can't have been more than three or four. And so it was always a possibility. I'm not certain that I specifically wanted to paint but I do think that I wanted to do something that was, what's called creative. I mean, I was to some extent attracted to acting and I wrote, as many, many children do poems, and made translation of the beginning of Faust so it wasn't focussed in that way but I think I knew very definitely that I wouldn't want to go into an office, you know have that sort of life and I think perhaps I'd hoped that I might be able to do something inventive rather than routine.
Just going back to the question of stability of the environment, is one of the reasons why you've spent, what 50 years or nearly 50 years, in Camden Town, is that a reaction to the - not the abandonment - but to leaving Germany, that you have needed to put down roots in one place in a compensatory way?
No, I think the habit was formed by extreme economic instability. I mean, I hadn't quite realised when I came to London and went to Art School that most of my fellow students had I don't know, a little money in the Building Society or somebody would help them buy a flat. I actually, I had found a studio which I rented, which had an outside loo and was damp and a very, very indulgent landlord and in continual fear of being thrown out of this or something going wrong, and I may say that before it was re-built I think the Council if they'd seen it would have disapproved of it and I needed this space so I clung to it like a drowning man to a raft.
Sheer economic need.
Sheer economic need. I needed the studio. I couldn't... if I had been thrown out I wouldn't have been able to afford or find anything else, and for 30 years that was the situation. I've become far better off but my habits have been formed.
Now, back to the early years as an art student and the absolutely formative influence of David Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic . What did he teach you? What did you really get from Bomberg?
I'm not certain that Bomberg on his own, would have been sufficient but Bomberg was firstly innately rebellious. There was an official biography some years ago and it hadn't said what I learned later from another book, that although he was a brilliant student at the Slade, he was so stroppy that they threw him out at the end and he was also a deeply intelligent man with a instinctive plastic sense and education that I think went deeper than that of most other painters in the country, and yet he couldn't have been ingested by the system. He was difficult, what he taught wouldn't have equipped any of us to pass any exam, and there used to be art exams.
So what did he teach you then?
What else... going round in this long-winded way is that I also had another art education - all sorts of intelligent people taught what was generally taught. What he taught was that whereas the drawings say, that one did in other classes were a sort of addition of various parts, sometimes quite sensitive, that as a piece here, a bit there, try and fit them together so that it becomes coherent and it's true. He had this sort of idiom that allowed one to go for the essence at the very beginning to adumbrate a figure in ten minutes and then to re-do it and then to find different terms in which to re-state it until one got something, however unlike a poster of a figure or a photograph, that seemed to contain the mind's grasp of its understanding of its subject, and that could be very ... Well firstly, the gestures could be very large, secondly it could be totally incomprehensible as anything but an abstract and it never was an abstract - its essence lay in the fact that the balance and rhythm and so on were exact, and it was an experimental journey and this was not what was taught in art schools. We were taught by very intelligent people and often very, very interesting things, to produce something that could be justified and that would display one's control and one's intelligence and one's understanding ... this wasn't a question of display, this was a question of a private quest which had certain results; and of course the very great masters are in pursuit of a private quest which has results which become more and more visible.
"Seeking the spirit in the mass", I think is a Bomberg phrase.
It certainly is, yes.
And also painting without... without inhibition. Painting, painting very, very freely. I mean, he never tried to convert you to Vorticism or anything like that?
No, but he had all these things in him. He had after all copied Holbeins when he was a student. He had been a prize draughtsman at the Slade. He had been a Vorticist and I think for me, by far the most talented of people who worked in that neo-Cubist idiom, and he had been an extremely adept landscape painter of very, very topographical landscapes - marvellously done in Palestine in the 20s. So, this wasn't a man who had some sort of single mission. He had a mission and he had an idiom and I think it probably would have developed, but he knew a great deal about painting, had a deep knowledge of painting from all sorts of angles. And of course, you can't stand in a class where people are drawing and keep mouthing principles. He came up behind you and said, look at the model, it's doing this, it's doing that - I suggest this and so on. So it was a practical course of instruction which actually took up most of the time - but what people remember are the slogans.
Leon Kossoff, of course was a friend of yours and I think you got him to go along to Bomberg's classes...
Yes I did, yes.
... and you're always associated with - in this sort of journalistic short-hand with - Lucien Freud , Bacon , Michael Andrews and so on. Yet, did that mean anything at the time apart from being together and... and sharing some sort of values and interests? I mean, was it all close?
The relationship with Leon was close. I mean, when we were both students at the Royal College of Art and nobody would sit for us, and I think in both of us there was a certain hunger for continuous work from a model which wasn't provided by the art school, we sat for each other for a year, one day a week so that Leon would sit for an hour and I would paint, and then I would sit for an hour and he would paint. And what's more, you know nobody's looking over our shoulder and we can't but have affected each other by the way that we worked, and I saw a great deal of him for a long time after that and saw the work... his work as it was being done, and was very often inspired by it, as he saw my work as it was being done. So that was a... very much a relationship which is not rare among young painters. They often have one other person whom they work with.
You must just tell me - why would nobody sit for you?
Well because, who's going to sit for an art student you know, who does incomprehensible paintings and who can't pay you and who scrapes the thing off so often that it goes forever. It doesn't seem a very worthwhile project.
So you were already scraping things off at the time?
Yes, willy-nilly because it wasn't to do with the desire to scrape up. I mean, it sounds a sort of drama. But if you're trying to make a whole image that works, that is as it were one thing, and it doesn't work, then there is very little alternative but to paint over it and to scrape it off. And as the paint becomes ludicrously thick, there's no alternative at all - you have to scrape it off. The time I'm talking about it is after about six years of being a student. I mean, first there was something called the Hampstead Garden Suburb, then I was at the Borough Polytechnic for two years, then I spent four years at St Martin's School of Art and then three years at the Royal College of Art, so I spent eight years altogether being a student, and at St Martin's at one point, they said that if we continued to attend Bomberg's class they would throw us out but we went to Bomberg and told him this and he said, well don't kick against the pricks just keep coming to the class and don't tell them that you're coming which I thought was very good advice.
Now, on the... your style of painting, it's been said, as drips are to Jackson Pollock and spots to Seurat, so gashes of thick paint are to Auerbach. I mean, just as a straight forward description, does that... does that mean anything to you?
I'm not so much aware of it. I don't think Seurat would have been aware of the dots - he would have been aware of what he was trying to do, the dots were an instrument. I don't think Pollock would have been aware of the drips, because sometimes there weren't drips after all - some impressive paintings were done with the brush, and Seurat's first painting of the Bathers that we've got in the National Gallery is as grand as a Massacio in its discovery of three-dimensional sculptural form. And I... I don't think I'm going to do a thick painting, on the other hand it's... it's a by-product and I can't... I don't disavow it and I'm not ashamed of it and nor am I interested in other people's thick paintings - it's not the essence of the matter.
Yes, it's a technique to achieve the essence of what you're doing. The technique, the expression of gashes, vectors and so on is incidental to the search for meaning.
Absolutely, and in some sense I'm hardly aware of it until it's pointed out... and so for many years now, 25 or 30 years, because my paintings are so much thinner than they were, I think of them as being thin rather than thick paintings.
They're... they're three-dimensional, they're almost sculptural...
Well, the early ones...
they're like Giacometti, particularly the earlier ones, aren't they?
The early ones are, yes. I mean, it wasn't that when I saw this happening I stopped it. I was... I was delighted... well I wasn't delighted, but I was quite prepared to accept something that looked outré and strange but that wasn't the first thing I wanted to do. The first thing I wanted to do was to state the truth, and the point about the truth is, the truth is not a painting. The truth is something that hasn't been captured by painting yet. As soon as you do something that looks like a painting there are all sorts of ways of making it work that precisely because it's already been done, are presented to you. But you've got to venture into unknown territory where you're trying to state the thing, without having these hand-holds and grips and assistance of previous practise and so when the paintings became these strange lumps of thick paint, I was very interested and I pursued that line.
That implies that there was an important quality of discovery between yourself and the painting, you didn't set out to say, I'm now going to paint something a few inches thick. It happened that way.
Absolutely, absolutely - that's precisely what happened.
Is this element of surprise still there? Actually, I think you've said that sometimes you set out, even now, to put a particular mark on the canvas in a particular place and when you get to the canvas, the mark goes somewhere else.
Yes, no I think that is true. You know, none of these things are unique to me. I think that to paint a picture with a foreseen conclusion is... I don't... I don't know. I don't think very many painters do this. I think there's always an element and sometimes a totality of discovery involved in the process - otherwise it would be so boring, wouldn't it? It would be handicraft.
The word that I think you've often described about your work is, raw - a quality of rawness. What does that mean to you?
Well it's not my work particularly, but when I look at Hogarth's Shrimp Girl, there she is, with a great grin on her face. When you look at it closely it's actually a rather remarkable object because it's an under-painting by Hogarth, which he then started making a more final version, painted the head and by a miracle, it all hung together and he left it. But I'm aware of the girl. There was in the recent Vermeer exhibition, there was a little painting of a girl with a red hat. Well, it's a marvellous painting and in a sense, in retrospect it's not unlike a Matisse but I was aware of the girl looking out at me, and you know, unless the painting reconstitutes itself, not necessarily as a physical object in the world but something that is adumbrated by the painting and that then settles in one's mind, it becomes a sort of smooth surface behind which something is happening but which doesn't affect one.
You have this store in your mind's-eye of some of the world's great images, or the ones which mean most to you - the Rembrandt in Kenwood, or a Matisse cut-out I think. What are the other really key images that you have in your mind?
It's an endless list but it changes all the time. I'm one of these people that has art books open on the floor, not always, but very often when I work and I love for instance, Mexican sculpture and Frans Hals... they are all... it's an endless list of great, great images. I mean, painting isn't dependant on being able to understand the language, or assemble an orchestra and all artists who've been curious about their metier and I think that is almost every artist, has got a vast store of images in their mind and that is a help in the sense that it sets a standard and it's also sometimes an embarrassment in the sense that sometimes you get something that looks too much like something that's already been done - and there's no point in in doing it....
You say setting a standard. I mean, you've said that you feel like a worm when somebody else - actually this refers to contemporaries - pulls off something really daring, and you both admire it but also think either why haven't I done that or I must do as well as that.
Well I do, I mean I challenge anybody to feel faced with Picasso, any sort of vanity or megalomania at all. What that man's done against you know, it's absolutely incredible. Even if you know, 5 000 paintings are only very accomplished and very charming. There's thousands of great images and inventions and the marvellous, marvellous sculpture - great sculptures, engravings and drawings and so on. I don't see that there's anybody you know, who's lived through the past century who hasn't felt in a sense like a little dog following a brass-band.
And Rembrandt of course?
Oh absolutely, yes. I think people at Michelangelo's time must have felt the same. It wasn't the fact that he was so prolific - although he covered a far amount of space - but I mean, the mastery is so great. Yes, or a Rembrandt. Absolutely, I've been haunted by Rembrandt all my life. I mean, even apart from the marvellous painting, it's actually very touching that somebody who such an assiduous painter, so... goes on so long and so pain-staking, is such a witty and lively and prolific and brilliant draftsman. I mean, the dichotomy there is just... it's just stimulating and marvellous.
You admire his doggedness I think you said it's an interesting quality.
I admire the doggedness, yes I do. Well this was an exemplar when I had no other choice. I wasn't brilliant, I had to be dogged, but the drawings are not dogged. The drawings are just absolute-bloody-lutely brilliant. I mean, they're are just brilliant. It's tender and exact and a drawing of nothing, of a woman bending over and adjusting a child's dress on a small drawing, is both grand and the forms as varied as they are in life and the air circulates around them, and it's... and it's like nothing else - brilliant.
You have this extraordinary sense... historical sense, a sense of continuity. I think you've said from Giotto it's one school of art and you're part of that.
Yes. I think it is.
In what way do you feel connected to what Giotto was doing?
Well firstly, I was actually... I mean, I haven't seen all that much art in the original, but I was in the chapel in Padua and I was struck by the radicalism. Firstly, it's very interesting because the light has faded the frescos at one's own level, at ground level and because light hasn't attacked the frescos as they go into the darker ceiling, they're pretty fresh up there. And firstly, I was struck by... there was a guide going round and saying, here somebody's weeping about something, some biblical scene or... and you looked, and that's what they were doing. He represented the emotion and the drama directly, I think they're done in response to feelings, so that the gesture would not be done with any sort of view of correctness thrust into you, but you just... if somebody touches somebody gently or the cherubs are blubbing because of death. It's done out of feeling. It seems to me that these are fresh and radical paintings done in response to feeling, and then...
And wonderfully innocent?
Yes. But then in a sense there's a sort of element of innocence in great art. There's an element of innocence in what was perhaps the most sophisticated painter who ever lived, that's Velasquez and yet if you see a portrait of Philip IV I think it is... there he is. You don't think this is Velasquez being clever; it's just he's ingested it and made this marvellous image.
So we've been talking about your historical influences, your strong sense of historical connection, also your very strong rootedness in your contemporaries. But do you have any sense of connection with the sort of things that are being done by the young Auerbach's of today - the installation art, the video art? Does that strike any sort of chords in you?
Yes, it does. Yes it does. I must say I feel considerable loyalty to everybody working in art and I think I rather despise some of my colleagues who do not. And I have a very great sympathy with somebody who's trying to do something new because that's what I am trying to do in a different idiom and it really has very little to do with uniform you know. I mean, there are all sorts of people called Cubists - Picasso and Braque were never called Cubists and they rather despised them. There are all sorts of people called abstract-expressionists. Finally it's a question of the individual spirit within the idiom and it's not that one idiom is better than another, as long as it is capacious enough to do something of a large-scale in. And when the dust has all blown over, it finally comes down to spirit and quality and perhaps human quality and nothing to do with the idiom in which people work. And I can see that people got impatient with the picture on the wall for all sorts of reasons, perhaps there are too many of them, too many of them were in museums, it didn't any longer seem a vivid way of presenting experience. I've got total sympathy with people trying to do different things. I think myself, that if there's any sort of conflict or battle, it's largely in the head of journalists because after all finally there's nothing much you can say about painting which is pretty dumb in the sense of silent activity and it's there to be looked at. And what are you going to say... so if you can find the conflict or a fight or talk about prices - well that's something to talk about.
So you would approach the video art, installation art - all the new forms of art - by the same sort of standards that you apply to yourself. I mean, your aim you say to create something which is like a new species of living thing...
... that would be the approach you would have... of the form... the instruments of expression don't matter.
No they don't, as long as they're capacious enough. I mean, some things are so limited that I mean, if somebody types texts and puts them on a wall, good luck to them. But I can't see that this is actually going to stir the ... you know the sense that responds to plastic art, although I don't know, perhaps it might. And of course, the reason why I persist in what I'm doing - this is a slightly naughty caveat - if you're working in video or something, in a sense you're in a provincial situation, this is still a very small world. You know, like being the greatest Cubist in Bulgaria . It's you know, not very much has been done and I can see that this is very exciting and this has its own stimulus but to work in a field where an enormous amount of stuff has been done is also exciting, so there it is - there are different ways. And my admirations go to quality rather than to idiom.
Let's talk about your, your working habits which are now, the stuff of legend - the seven o'clock in the morning to nine at night, 364 days in the year and so on. Yet where does this, this come from? Was this just an economic drive or can you... who taught you to work like that?
I don't know really. I'm not unique you know. I mean, you say that perhaps I've made more fuss about it, that in you say it should be attributed me, but I know other painters who work like that. It's partly of course, slightly I suppose that there was very little paraphernalia in my life and I was able to do this, but it's simply... there's nothing else I really want to devote myself to and since, for a long time, the business of finding the time to paint - I used to teach - and the space to paint, and the colour to paint with, was such a difficult thing to achieve, I now feel it would perhaps that it would be ungrateful to start mucking about in my last years doing something else. And to be quite honest, sometimes I think, you know why don't I do something else and then there's nothing else I really... or even if I'm tired and jaded and so on, the idea of picking up a brush and trying to paint just seems more fun to me.
Don't you ever long for the easy canvas; the one that really does present itself to you comparatively early?
Absolutely. I think I start...every painting I've ever started with the hope that I'd be able to take the brushes and the colour, put all the colours in the right place, get something that is coherent and alive and fresh and new and true, and I'll be able to leave it. And it just hasn't happened yet - it hasn't happened. What I usually find is that I see something that is... reminds me far too much of paintings I've already done or that is just simply wrong in some way.
We must of course, talk about your portraits and this very special quality to them, that you never do portraits for commission or is that right? You have never done one for commission?
No, no. I've done two or three portraits on commission. In fact, David Landauer who's sitting for me now - the first portrait - was a commission. And I painted a lady called Renee Fedden, somebody asked me to paint that. But it has been very rare and I've made very heavy weather before they started of saying that it would go on for ages, that the place would be a mess and they would have to be reliable - but there are no more than three or four, in my life.
So the vast body of the corpus is this small group of people who sit for you, absolutely regularly, once a week at the same time, and they are - well, sometimes friends, sometimes relatives - occasionally, I think in the case of David Landauer, an Oxford academic, a stranger.
He was a stranger, of course he's become a friend now. A most remarkable man he is. But no he actually came to see whether I would do a drawing of... because he was attached to Worcester College , of the Professor who was Master of the College - I think it was Asa Briggs. And I wrote him a letter and said if he's prepared to go to a messy studio and he's prepared to have somebody work in a rather intemperate way, and if he is prepared to go on sitting for perhaps two years or longer, I'd be prepared to do a portrait of him; and if you want to assure yourself that I am not exaggerating the squalor of the surroundings, you can come and call on me. So he called, in a beautiful suit, what I think were hand-made shoes, looking immensely neat and Italian which is his background, and we discussed this and he said, no I don't think the Professor would stand this, and then as he left he turned round and said, would you consider doing a drawing of me? And I looked at him, and I thought I don't think you'll be able to stand this [laughs] - you look far too sheltered. And I said, yes if you're going to be reliable, I will. Well he's been sitting for me for I don't know, 17 or 18 years - he's a marvellously reliable sitter.
Every single week.
Doesn't the man ever go on holiday?
He goes on holiday and then he has a substitute sitting for the one he misses and he actually has... he's works in various fields and he has to travel on business and all sorts of things, but he always makes up for it -you know, we do a morning sitting or something for the sitting that he's missed, and it's marvellous, you know.
Now, why do you like having this group of people - because many, I think almost all of them, have sat for you for 10, 15, 20 years...
... why do you need this to produce your portraits?
Well some of it is patent in what I've already said. I don't think many people would put up with it, but there's also I think a factor on both sides of self-forgetfulness. If they've sat long enough, they're not self-conscious, you know, not self-conscious as a sitter and as I become, and they become used to my behaviour, and as they become used to me, I can behave freely as though, you know without any constraints of you know, wondering whether I'm shocking them or anything of that sort. And then it never seems to end to me. As I've done... say I've done a head of them, well that's alright and I think of the person, I think well you know, there's more to them. It's... if they turn slightly it would be different, it I did a half-length it would be different, and at any rate the head only represents an aspect and something, although it perhaps hangs together and though it seems to me to look like them, there are other things that because they've moved around, because I've seen them over a long period of time, there are other things that wait to be portrayed and so one goes on. And I'm extremely grateful. It's also immensely useful to have somebody to come at the end of the day and sit. It gives one a charge of energy, you know you've got to work, there they are, and I think somehow one gets a charge from the presence of another person.
Do they become different as they become tired because they'll sit what, for two to three hours?
Yes, they do. I think, people do become tired and it's not a doddle - sitting. You get a back-ache and sometimes you feel rebellious. I mean, I have sat and sometimes it's perfectly alright, sometimes you day-dream, sometimes you become desperately impatient, but they keep on doing it throughout these changes of mood...
Do you see them challenging you sometimes? Moreorless saying, alright I challenge you to paint me as I am now, which may be... may be angry or something like that?
I sometimes get a sense of something - there is a certain amount of telepathy involved. I sometimes get a sense of something like that, of impatience from them and so on, and that you know, arouses an impatience in me. I do get some of those feelings but on the whole I mean, it's a present, it's a gift and I'm very grateful for it.
I think you should try to describe because your models have described, what you're like when you are painting a portrait. How do you behave?
Well I'm not putting on because I don't really know how I behave. They are in a much better position to describe what I do than I am, if things are going really well and I feel that it's almost as though something arose on the canvas of its own accord, you know the various attempts one's been making come together and an image seems to call to you from out of the paint; when I'm actually in pursuit of this I really haven't the faintest idea what I'm doing and I may behave somewhat excessively and mutter.
Because you talk to the canvas?
Yes, yes, I may do but I'm really not aware of it. It's to do with the fact that I no longer quite know what I'm doing because all my conscious energies are engaged in this pursuit of the possibility that's arisen on the canvas.
And then despite all that, at the end of is it each sitting, you will look at it and then you scrape it off?
No, not immediately. No, at the end of the sitting I'll put it on the floor and look at it and turn it to the wall. And this... these habits change over the course... I used to leave it like that until the next sitting and then I would scrape it off and go on, but partly because the paintings have got thinner and I no longer can actually - sounds ridiculous - but I can't actually cope with the paint as thick as it used to be, usually after three or four days I blot it off with newspaper so that I have the image, all the, as it were charm and the fact that it looks like a painting has gone but I still have a sort of flattened version of the image which gives me a basis to go on the next time But without the paint on it. And then I hack away sometimes when I am bored or something, I hack away at the painting of the dried conglomerations of paint on the picture.
Would the word, and I think you've used the word about our being destructive. I mean, is this one aspect of the creative process that you have to destroy?
I think it absolutely is. I think it absolutely is. I think if one hasn't got that, if one you know, I mean, Yeats said "destroy your darlings" - if one begins to cherish, and like what one's done, one's actually on a very slippery slope indeed, selling oneself one's own paintings, and there's nothing to do. No, I think that I... one's got to heed one's conscience and if one feels a slight unease, even if the thing seems plausible and presentable and nobody else might notice that it's no good, one's got to destroy it.
So that's why even sometimes when it's been framed and comes back from the gallery and you look at it, that you say, no that won't work and you re-do it.
I've occasionally done that, yes.
Would the word aggressive have any resonance? Is part of this an aggression?
Well, I think, I feel I'm aggressive it's partly of course age, I'd always felt myself to be aggressive and perhaps I am, but on the evidence of other people, I think they thought of me as rather quiet. [laughs]
Why do you think that you're aggressive?
Most people are aggressive, you know. I mean, life's a battle. We're... by our genes we're taught to be aggressive because it's still in us. We're hunter-gatherers and competitive.
But do you feel that this resolves itself when you paint?
Absolutely. I mean, in fact that's precisely what it does.
How prolific a painter... I mean, it sounds as if this... the length of time that it takes to do a portrait or a landscape... you can't be a prolific painter.
No I'm not a prolific painter. Although you asked me why I have this routine. It's partly because I am so slow, and firstly for practical and then for reasons of vanity, I'd like to have something to show for it, so I go on a long time with pictures and unless I did that every day and every evening there would be very little indeed to show I mean this year I think I've done 5 paintings, finished 5 paintings, they're relatively small so I'm not very prolific but I have been going on a long time and now there's an exhibition at the moment and it's not all my work - it's about a quarter of it or something.
Now, that's your work inside your studio. Then, there's your beloved Camden Town - I suppose it is beloved rather than habitual, is it?
Well it's beloved in the sense you know, I've said this before but it still seems to me to be true so I'll say it again, people become fond of their pets. They get a kitten at a pet shop and you don't know what sort of kitten it's going to be - it might be a placid cat, or it might be an irritating cat, or a scratchy cat but you become fond of it - it's your cat. And I live in Camden Town and I pass those streets everyday and it's my part of London , so I've become extremely fond of it.
And now, how much work from the life and in the exterior do you do? I mean, you don't like Monet take your canvases out and then [overtalking] ...
No, I don't. I do drawings and I tend to do them every day before I start, so that they're drawings, they're scribbles really but they're drawings of a different sort. At the beginning, I simply record and find how many windows there are in the building, and where exactly the chimneys are situated and all sorts of things of that sort because I don't know them, and it seems to me to be more interesting. You know, people used to talk about the aleatory and luck and so on and chance in painting, well it's all chance if you go out and draw, you don't know anything's going to be. You know, and then buses come across and people move and then you do more drawings and all sorts of sensations about pace and speed and the plastic coherence of the material that you're dealing with, and people walking across begin to appear in space, and you just make these drawings and take them back to the studio and it gives you an impetus you know, to do something with the painting you're working on. And I say, this has become a little remote for me because for the past - over a year - I've been trying to do a painting of the inside of the studio, and I've done far fewer drawings because there it is all round me and I don't know whether I'm ever going to be able to finish it, but that is what I used to do for 48 years.
And there was never the drive to say "I've really got to have a new visual stimulus. I've got to look at somewhere different, I've got to paint the Grand Canyon", or like your friend Michael Andrews, who went out to Australia and painted Ayres Rock; that search for the exotic, to capture the exotic on the canvas, that's never...
Well the exotic is only in the title. I mean, you know there is a chimney in Mornington Crescent which I've passed you know, for the past 50 years , I've looked at this thing and it is very exotic, I mean it's very remarkable like the Cleopatra's needle or something stuck in the middle of the Crescent and I've thought you know, it's really, really important that I should paint this thing because I'm the only person who knows about it properly. And then a few years ago I started painting it - well that wasn't like anything else, and the configurations to the building seem like canyons sometimes to me. And you know, there's a set of three tower-blocks with different coloured head-bands on them and I put those into a painting...
Extremely routine tower-blocks I have to say.
Yes, but then when they put red, blue and yellow, somehow it seemed in some way to be a challenge, that I should [laughs] attempt to record this. It looked so daft that it seemed to make some sort of formal point. I mean, finally one's response to things in painting is wordless, and these three primary colours on top of these buildings seemed to be a sort of challenge, so I... I painted those.
You say it's a formal response.
It's not a social response, you're not making a point about...
... how people live in Camden Town . It's not a narrative response either, is it - to life in Camden Town ?
No, not really, not really. I mean, you know buses and people and so on appear and I suppose in some sense, the fact that it is inhabited and perhaps that it dwarfs the people does sometimes surface, but it's not a conscious drive to comment in that way at all. Although sometimes you know, when the painting is finished and done, there seems to be some sort of comment in it and that's fine.
And that's something which emerges, rather than something that you have... consciously put in.
Absolutely, I've never thought I'd show urban life or something - never.
Now, you say you're painting your studio, and you're finding this very, very difficult. Why do you think this is, because you... you have got so much of yourself in it?
No, none of these sort of emotional introspective things work very much on me. It's partly because I've never done anything quite like it before and I've put myself into the picture painting and the whole composition is unfamiliar but perhaps most of all, is the fact that it's a, by my standards, a large canvas, and my pictures are not terribly large. And it may be that I find it hard to access the energy to get the whole thing freshly organised and it is a complex, it's a complex picture - there's a lot of stuff in it - to get the whole thing organised in a fresh and daring way so that it hangs together. Anyway I shall... I mean, I don't give up, I shall keep on trying but I may never finish it.
Yes, yes. What would you say to a young artist starting off from art school today?
I'd never... it seems to me to be a bit of an impertinence for me to say anything to a young artist, but I'll try and. I think subject is terribly, terribly important and it's implicit, it isn't only the labelled item as it were, the head or the tree or the factory or whatever, or the abstract. I think that one has certain deep feelings which express themselves in a plastic way. I mean, if you were I don't know, perhaps this has to do with what you would do with another person - stroking or grabbing or something, that has something to do with it, but there must be some experience that is your own and to try and record it in an idiom that is your own, and not to give a damn about what anybody else says to you. I think that is important and I think that the key word there's subject - find out what matters most to you and pursue it.
And is there one of your own paintings or charcoals that in your heart of hearts you have a feeling most closely matches up to these criteria?
Well there's two, at the moment - they're both early and it may have to do with the fact that they were the first. One is a large head of EOW that's actually in the show at the Academy, which I went on for ages and which now seems a very strange object and still looks like the person and it seems to me to stand up by itself perhaps and not have a great deal of reference to other art. And the other's a painting that isn't there. It's called Earl's Court Road Building Site which is just a few very thick lumps of black and white and red ochre and everything, all the experience of making the painting which was actually very elaborate at many stages is buried there, and it seems to me to be a sort of remarkable object, and though nobody else may be aware of it, I am aware of the amount of painting experience that's buried under those heavy lumps of black and white and ochre.
Frank Auerbach, thank you very much.
on radio 3
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