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Face Value

Painting from memory and experience, Frank Auerbach produces portraits of great depth with a style akin to sculpture, as Donald Short reports

The painting of a face or a portrait can have its pressures and its disappointments. US painter John Singer Sargent once remarked that "every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend". Famously, Lady Churchill was so unhappy with the likeness of her husband by Graham Sutherland that she destroyed the portrait. What do we make of this painting in oils by Frank Auerbach? From the permanent collection at Southampton Art Gallery, it is of Juliet Yardley Mills (JYM), a professional model whom Auerbach first met in 1956 and whom he has painted countless times since. Frank Auerbach, a Jewish refugee from Germany who lost his entire family to the Holocaust, is part of the so-called "London School", a group of painters that emerged after the war and remained loyal to figurative painting despite the overwhelming influence of American abstraction and, later, Pop Art.

Auerbach's resistance to fashion has meant that he has doggedly painted the same thing over and over again for the past 40 years. For Auerbach, the process of making a painting will often go on for months with the model visiting each week for many hours. Like all Auerbach's sitters, JYM looks away from the painter into space. One eye seems closed, the other open as if she is about to doze off. Her skin is rendered in buttery, grey white paint streaked with yellow ochre which imbues it with glowing warmth.

Broad, gestural brush strokes describe the form (the jaw, an ear, the shadow beneath the nose) but also register as independent marks dashed and dragged quickly across the surface of the painting. The image occupies a dual position, both in an illusionary space within the confines of the painting and as a collection of palpable gestures on a flat surface.

Much of the appeal of this painting lies in this contradiction and the tension it creates. Surrounding her left eye, the boldest of these gestures explicitly suggests a moment of clarity: it makes an important connection between face and skull, depicting eyebrow, face, socket and cheekbone in one rapid circular stroke. For those unfamiliar with Auerbach's work the question of "likeness" inevitably arises. But the painting is not intended to be seen or read as a facsimile like a photograph - or for that matter to be passive viewing. As a painting it requires the viewer to retrace its creation for themselves by joining together all the various points of reference that make up the whole picture. Even then, you have to work hard to hold it together and make sense of it. Shifting all the while, the image is finely balanced between chaos and clarity.

Integral to Auerbach's process is repetition; he will start again and again on the same canvas. In his earlier work of the 1950s and 1960s the results were more akin to sculpture; paintings built up to a point where the image literally rests upon the surface of the canvas or board in relief. Over the year this process has been gradually refined and "Head of JYM" 1981 is therefore not so much the result of accumulation, but reduction and distillation. What we finally see may be no more than an hour's work covering the remnants of 100 or more previous attempts, a captured moment that in reality has lasted many months. So, essentially it is a painting about memory and experience that deftly sidesteps the dilemma of verisimilitude in search of something more deeply rooted than mere appearance.

* Frank Auerbach by Robert Hughes, Thames and Hudson, 1990 (out of print, but in libraries)

Frank Auerbach exhibits at the Marlborough Gallery, London

Donald Short teaches at Moyles Court School, Hants

Frank Auerbach 1931-

Born in Berlin, Frank Auerbach arrived in England at the age of eight. He trained at the Borough Polytechnic under David Bomberg, who provided a lasting influence, and at the Royal College of Art. He has worked in the same studio in North West London since 1954.

Lesson ideas

Art and design

KS1 Divide the class into pairs and with charcoalpencil and paper, ask the pairs to take turns to draw each other's faces. To understand the basic structure of a face you need more than just your eyes. Using touch, get pupils to explore their entire head, using their fingers to explore the contours and push into the recesses of their face. This will help them when they try to interpret in charcoalpencil what they see. The act of feeling their way around their face can be translated into concrete marks similar to ones in Auerbach's painting. Teaching pupils to measure the distances between parts of the face with their pencil will also help. Square up a photographic image of a pupil's face and using a similar grid in a sketchbook, transfer the image exactly. Use this as source material to help pupils when making primary source drawings. Use other materials such as paint and collage to develop the drawings into a highly personal response.

KS2 Challenge the notion of "likeness" and photo-realism as an "absolute" by looking at the Cubists and discussing their theories. Take digital images of each pupil's face from four different angles. Colour-code the back of each and then, with the images face down, cut each picture into large and small random shards. Colour-coding the back will help you accurately to select an equal number from each angle. Pupils can then begin to piece together a Cubist style image of their faces. Similarly, cut-up images of the classroom can be combined with this to create a whole picture. The resulting collage can then be used a source for further work.

KS 34 Compare the work of artists who have made the figureface their main motif.

Make studies of their work, attempting a thorough analysis of processes and intentions. For example, Auerbach and Rembrandt or Warhol and Sargent.

KS 45 Using a model, begin a series of drawings of the head. Set out to "understand" what you are drawing rather than thinking "my job today is to make a drawing that looks exactly like so and so". They will begin to develop a memory of its individual characteristics. Avoid "modelling" in a "How to Draw" book sense. As they understand the architecture of the form through making essential marks the drawings will develop solidity. At the end of every session, they make a completely fresh drawing entirely from memory.

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