On Primrose Hill - an essay

Simon Carter April 2010 

There is, in the Tate collection, a painting from 1968 of Primrose Hill by Frank Auerbach. It is one of several images by the artist that I seem to connect with; to find intriguing and compelling. The painting shows an anonymous stretch of ochre-coloured park disappearing into trees under a wet mauve-grey sky, all anchored under a girded structure of red-oxide, steel blue and black. It is a landscape I might feel at home with; human scale and undramatic with English weather. Yet I have always felt uneasy with Auerbach, and dealt with this by regarding him as a fixed point to be navigated round…at distance.

Despite continuously making reference to other painters and paintings during the process of working, I have felt something that might be resentment when it comes to the influence of Auerbach. One wants to keep the company of other artists, to appropriate what one needs; to enter into a painting conversation but not necessarily feel an unbidden influence. But if there is to be a serious attempt to tackle what it is to re-present the things out there in the world; to place oneself in relation to what is seen, then Auerbach has at least to be considered. He seems to have a way of dealing with a mass of information, of coding it robustly into drawing and to finally, like Constable before him, leave a surface, mad, clogged and exultant, that bears witness both to the observed facts and their means of presentation. Auerbach’s methods of working seem to vary little but he never settles to become part of the scenery. He never placates us. It’s best to keep one’s guard up just in case. 

In the drawings for ‘Primrose Hill’ the scratchings and scribblings of pencil and crayon exactly describe the elements of the observed landscape without being anything other than drawn lines. We are taking in the whole scene, not only the trees, paths and lamp-posts but also the spaces between and above them and the whole vapourous envelope of the air. 

In the painting, however, the drawn notes seem to be re-worked as a kind of spatial and structural architecture. The marks are given more equal weight whilst searching for those that will not only describe experience but also lock it into the surface of the painting. A black zigzag making space in the air above the distant trees is as weighted as the vertical marks describing lamp-posts. The drawings seem vigourous but nuanced and a little fragile whereas there is nothing tentative about the painting. It is full-on, muscular, direct, all second thoughts erased. What remains is not so much a grappling with how things appear as a structure that describes where those things were; the surface a living, dynamic and fluid thing. I like all this but I like it even more in Roy Oxlade and in de Kooning; the abandoned flow of matter, the anything-can-happenness of it, the search for something other than finish. And it’s there in Soutine and in Bomberg, in Munch and the German expressionists, in Van Gogh and in Constable. Auerbach stands in a tradition. He has adopted a narrow and defiant view, doggedly turning it into matter on a surface. It is utterance rather than communication. And it is from this recalcitrant wall of paint governed by observation and the repeated process of scrapping back and starting again that the viewer is left to salvage something of the observed world.

In commenting on the relationship one has with other artists it becomes evident that it is good to learn lessons but not desirable to draw conclusions; the relationship is, after all, on-going and open-ended. Other artists are there to draw encouragement from in the difficulties of making paintings but not entirely knowing what one is doing is just a consequence of over-reaching oneself a little each time. The longer a painting goes on the more desperate it seems to become and in those times of desperation one grabs hold of whatever one can that is of use. It is in that space beyond desperation that there is often a moment of unexpected lucidity when the painting becomes itself.