‘Sometimes when I finish a picture, I just wander around with a sketchbook and ideas and some of them I don’t like. Then I find something that seems attractive… It was very different at the beginning. I was looking for compositions, I know I was. The drawings I did for early paintings seem to me to have a composition, and now, I am thinking of ones of the Pillar Box [sic] and… The Bridge; I very much look for things that are not compositions at all, that don’t seem like art. I see whether I can try and paint them, something that for some reason or other is not a fitting material for any particular sort of picture but a piece of undigested reality. I try to find a way of making something of it.’ FRANK AUERBACH
The Pillarbox is a formidable recent example of Frank Auerbach’s vibrant, celebratory townscapes. Over the course of almost 40 years, Auerbach has been flâneuristically strolling around the same grubby arch of North London, from Mornington Crescent to Primrose Hill via Camden Town, accompanied by a notebook to record his observations. Returning to the studio, Auerbach transcribes his drawings into idiosyncratically heady washes of colour on board, dispelling any mundane characteristics of the city around him. In The Pillarbox, Auerbach amplifies the cross-section of Mornington Terrace and Mornington Street in a warm, polychromatic frenzy. The bold brown-red hues of the eponymous post-box foregrounds its physicality over a bright, golden road. On the bridge that runs over the tangle of railway tracks erupting from Euston Station, a car approaches, its headlamps emblazoned in bulbous light globules. The centre of the work is punctuated by a lively interpretation of the bridge’s bookended column, described diagonally in light-ivory yellow. The dazzling palette and energetic application of brushstrokes propels a gritty urban lair into an ecstatic, animated idealisation, with the viewer engrossed by its alluring colour and disorientingly shallow sense of spatial depth. Progressively, Auerbach has negated the need for structural composition in his painting by emerging with an unfound and subjective interpretation of his surroundings. Citing The Pillarbox as an example of this distinctive accomplishment, Auerbach noted that ‘I very much look for things that are not compositions at all, that don’t seem like art. I see whether I can try and paint them, something that for some reason or other is not a fitting material for any particular sort of picture but a piece of undigested reality. I try to find a way of making something of it’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London, 2015, p. 182).
The Pillarbox, like much of Auerbach’s work, is optically puzzling at first glance, but immensely rewarding once thoroughly comprehended. Auerbach intends to recall his street scenes with a faithful objectivity, channelled through a highly subjective way of seeing and expressive, performative translations of this vision in paint. As Norman Rosenthal has noted, ‘in spite of his surface wildness and the thickness of his paint…, there is a sense of rightness that gives each mark, each stroke, an emotionally laden meaning that strives towards a truthful representation of the subject, an aim which Walter Sickert – another of Auerbach’s English heroes – called ‘the interpretation of ready-made life’’ (N. Rosenthal, ‘Auerbach and His History’, in Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1954–2001, exh cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, p. 13). In The Pillarbox, this fidelity is actualised in the impastoed dollops representing figures on the bridge, or else the stumpy vertical lines that designate the chimneys of houses in the background. Every brushstroke is loaded with purpose, contributing towards a unifying totality that is highly calculated and intentional. This emotional response to subject matter takes its cue from the expressive gestural work of the abstract expressionists, granting Auerbach the opportunity and the freedom to create vivid alternate realities in paint. In particular, this method and style is perfectly suited to celebrating what Auerbach termed the ‘higgledy-piggledy mess’ of London, converting its urbane, greyish demeanour into something extraordinarily jubilant.