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Marlborough Fine Art, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York, 2009, no. 185, p. 257 (illustrated)
Frank Auerbach’s Seated Figure I plunges the viewer into the intimate world of his studio. Dating from 1965, this work on paper shows a model perched on a seat, viewed from an angle. The left of the sheet is filled with textured, vigorous hatching and a few simple lines giving a sense of the perspectival space of the artist’s studio; contrasting with this is the figure itself, which stretches from the top to the bottom of the surface, captured largely through a tremulous flow of dabbing marks. Auerbach has conjured this figure through the virtuoso use of a modern, expressionistic chiaroscuro, the white of the crayon and the darker colours of the brushwork forming an intense contrast both within the body itself, and against the backdrop.
In the catalogue raisonné of Auerbach’s works created by William Feaver and published in 2009, Seated Figure I is shown alongside two other similar works, both in oil on paper, from the same year (William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York, 2009, p. 257, nos. 186-87). Indeed, their composition also relates to some of his paintings and drawings from the previous year, not least those showing his regular professional model, Julia Yardley Mills. Pictures such as J.Y.M. in the Studio VII, now in the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, have a similar composition as their template, while also sharing their emphasis on grisaille that is explored in Seated Figure I. In 1966, Auerbach would create another Seated Figure I in charcoal and chalk in which the armature of the female figure was largely delineated through white marks zig-zagging down the picture surface. That work, now in the British Museum and used as a source for a screenprint the same year, nonetheless bears a clear relationship to Seated Figure I—it is as though the chalk in the present work has been pushed to another level of amplitude.
Seated Figure I blurs the line between Auerbach’s paintings and drawings. This is a work on paper, yet some of the strokes have been applied by brush. There is a sense of movement to the armature of marks that comprise the female figure that dominates the composition. This is clearly the result of a process that has been, in part at least, rapid. Auerbach’s earlier paintings involved a steady build-up of marks; a similar process has often informed his works on paper, which can be the result of endless erasures before finally achieving the form that satisfies the artist and allows him to release it. The grey background of Seated Figure hints at numerous incarnations before this one, each of them gradually building the visual texture of the sheet, as well as the feeling of creative and emotional archaeology, with the traces of the artist’s decisions evocatively apparent. This is heightened by the contrast between the charcoal and crayon—the dry media employed—and the wetter brushwork used in the figure.
In a sense, Seated Figure I can be seen to prefigure the change that would soon appear in Auerbach’s paintings, where rather than allow a steady, heavy build-up of impasto as each painting went through its various incarnations, he instead scraped off the previous effort, beginning again on the same support. That technique, developed in the later 1960s, still informs his paintings to this day. This build-up of marks in Seated Figure I reveals the extent to which Auerbach’s process is painstaking—his control of his output is legendary, and in part explains why this picture, despite dating from a decade and a half into his official career, remains only Number 185 in his catalogue raisonné.
Seated Figure I dates from a significant point in Auerbach’s career, when his increasing recognition had led to greater success. He had been adopted by Helen Lessore at the Beaux Arts Gallery three years earlier, given an annual stipend for his paintings, and in 1965 moved to Marlborough Fine Art. He was therefore in a position of greater comfort—and greater resources. This was also the heady heyday of the so-called ‘School of London’, of which Auerbach was a key player alongside artists such as his friends Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. While the label ‘School of London’ was rejected by most of the artists grouped under the loose umbrella term, it nonetheless captured the spirit of resistance apparent in these artists, who were emphatically attached to the figurative in their pictures, against a backdrop increasing abstraction.
It was through Bacon that Auerbach was to meet another figurative artist of the day, Alberto Giacometti. In 1965, when Giacometti had an exhibition in London, he visited the city and went for supper with Auerbach and Bacon. Looking at Seated Figure I, one can detect a link with the work of Giacometti, whose vivid images of people in his studio are similarly direct and often focus on a seeming scaffolding of marks. Similarly, both artists would focus on sitters they knew, rather than strangers, adding a personal dimension to their pictures. In works such as Seated Figure I, this adds an electric tension that is at once sensual and psychological, contributing to the vivid sense of presence they capture.
London Auction 8 March 2017 5pm GMT