Walking through Frank Auerbach’s retrospective at Tate Britain is rather like flicking through a family photo album. It’s full of personal subjects that change incrementally over decades, of self-portraits, friends, his wife Julia and Mornington Crescent, where his studio has been since 1954.
There’s also another reason to get up close and personal with Auerbach’s paintings – they’re extraordinarily tactile. Each one bears the mark of great physical toil, resulting from an arduous process that sees him apply layer after layer of paint onto the canvas over a period of months – or even years – before he sees something that “surprises” him, which he then scrapes back into a recognisable image.
The temptation to reach out and touch them makes standing in front of one an intense struggle between personal gratification and good museum etiquette. Maybe this is why they’re rarely on public display, the vast majority of works here being on loan from private collections.
Even encased behind glass, the texture of his cloying mounds of oil paint is tangible. His early self-portraits using charcoal and chalk are rough and ghostly, their heavily-shaded eyes peering out from folds of torn paper.
His landscapes, mostly of Camden and its environs, are equally abrasive but also playful and childlike, with wide, deliberate brush strokes and thick lines of paint squeezed straight from the tube.
In an age when an image is only a Google search away, Auerbach reminds us why there’s no substitute for the real thing.