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To paint the same head over and over leads to unfamiliarity; eventually you get near the raw truth about it, just as people only blurt out the raw truth in the middle of a family quarrel.[1]Julia Yardley Mills is unusual amongst Frank Auerbach’s models in that she is a professional. She began sitting for him at Sidcup Art College in the 1950s, and, over weekly sittings up until 1997, maintained a consistently stately bearing – head raised to look upwards out of the canvas – that tended to lead Auerbach to respond, as here, by rendering the hollow of her left eyesocket with two decisive strokes that produced a left-facing chevron.

Another product of this working relationship was the pair becoming “real friends”[2] and devising the nicknames “Frankie” and “Jimmie”. The latter serves as a corrective to the rather mechanical, impersonal note struck by the initials, “J.Y.M.”, from which they derive. Other sitters have ranged from the painter’s wife and son, to the writers and curators William Feaver and Catherine Lampert. These last two – who tend to bow their heads to be painted – have written about the pacing, muttering, gestures, literary talk, grimaces, and periods of silence that fill their regular weekly 2-hour appointments in his London studios.

“We are there to enable him to perform”, Feaver thinks.[3] To the rest of us, the experience remains, as someone else’s intimacy, alien in way that is proportionate to how vividly Auerbach conjures it. Looking at this painting is both an intrusion and a privileged insight, like watching a couple joke or argue on a claustrophobically-set stage, to follow Feaver’s theatrical lead. It was theatre, in fact, which brought Auerbach one of his first models, the older ‘E. O. W.’, with whom he began an affair at a cast party for Peter Ustinov’s House of Regrets.Similar face-to-face interactions from which the public would otherwise be excluded used to go on in the National Gallery, late at night. Using the institution for the purpose for which it was founded – the enrichment of British painting – Auerbach would regularly sketch “portraits of the paintings that inspired him”, according to Colin Wiggins,[4] often to work his way out of graphic problems he’d come across in his studio at the other side of London. “After a certain point”, he told Feaver, “I got fed up of drawing at the National Gallery and after ’85 or ’90 I haven’t at all.”[5].

To subsequent generations of painters such as Glenn Brown, however, Auerbach has taken his own place as an Old Master to be learnt from and responded to:

No matter how wildly abstract the works is, you feel the presence of the human form, in the snakes and ladders of the brushwork.[6].

This is what Auerbach was aiming for: “what you feel when you touch somebody next to you in the dark.”[7] Brown has reworked the strokes of a 1973 Head of J.Y.M from a reproduction and flattened them, and, conversely, constructed sculptures that look like Auerbachian brushstrokes aborted from their paintings. More emphatically than is possible in text, this work stresses how much 3-D physical presence is a part of Auerbach’s effect, and how much this seems a product of the tension between painted, and photographic images, such as the one you see here.

© Tom Overton, 2010.

1. William Feaver, Frank Auerbach (New York: Rizzoli, 2009), p.17.

2. Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001 [exh. cat.] (London: Royal Academy, 2001), p.7.

3. William Feaver, ‘In the Studio’, London Review of Books, Vol. 31, No. 20, 22th October 2009, p.32 .

4. Frank Auerbach and the National Gallery: Working after the Masters [exh. cat.] (London: National Gallery, 1995), p.8.

5. Feaver, Auerbach, p.19.

6. Interview with Laurence Sillars, Glenn Brown [exh.cat.](Liverpool: Tate, 2009), p.144.

7. Interview with Judith Bumpus, Art and Artists, June 1986, p.24.

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