Promotional video for the Frank Auerbach exhibition
An exhibition is currently running at the Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert gallery in London: Frank Auerbach: Twenty Self-Portraits. It brings together recent self-portraits – nine paintings and eleven drawings – by the ninety-two-year-old German-British painter. Although renowned for his searching portraits of others, he has seldom drawn or painted himself. Disarmingly, Auerbach says that he has turned to the self-portrait in his nineties because “Now that I’ve got bags under my eyes, things are sagging and so on, there’s more material to work with”.
It is a singularly haunting exhibition, all the more so for being held in the relatively small exhibition space of the Bury Street Grade II listed building’s ground floor. The works are hung in four rooms which give you the sense of having wandered into someone’s charming, recently-emptied home. There is an intimacy to the display that matches the subject matter, and which certainly would have been lost in a larger, modern space. The strongly-sketched and thickly-painted works look out at anybody except you the viewer. You are drawn in and ignored at the same time.
It is usual with exhibitions of self-portraits to see them documenting the life of the artist. London has recently seen such autobiographical journeys in shows of paintings by Helene Schjerfbeck and Vincent Van Gogh, while many words have been spilled trying to express the depths of Rembrandt’s portraits of ardent young artist to an old man wearied by time and experience.
Seeing self-portraits that, in effect, document a moment rather than a lifetime, is another matter (strictly speaking the works date from 2020 to 2023, but the impression is of now, not of a progression through time). It is the sense of self, in our sameness and our difference. We think we know who and what we are, but every look we give reveals a difference. We are still and ever-changing.
I do not think that Auerbach is correct when he suggests that only now, when he has aged so, do his features provide more material with which to work. Back in 2001 I saw a documentary, To the Studio: Frank Auerbach, which offered a rare insight into the working life of the artist.
At one point when the artist was being questioned he seemed trapped in thought, in a singularly haunting moment as though he had become one of his own works of art. I was watching the programme on my PC, I guess, as I used screengrab software to capture that moment. It is reproduced above.
For whatever reason, I decided wanted to do more with this image. I started producing versions of it, using Corel imaging software. I have no knowledge or skill when it comes to imaging software, so I simply played with the different options available until I ended up with an image that appealed to me. Then I made another. And another. Eventually there were ninety-nine of them, plus the screengrab original.
They sat on my PC for a couple of decades, doing nothing except pleasing me when I occasionally looked at them. Then I published them as an album of images on my Flickr site. They haven’t been viewed by a huge number of people, but some have looked at them, and liked them, I think.
The ‘original’ image has ended up on the Wikipedia page for Auerbach, because I put all of the images under an open licence. Of course, I don’t ‘own’ the original, but in the context of the other ninety-nine maybe it qualifies as an artistic expression of a kind. Who knows?
The one hundred images look quite effective in their Flickr album form, or at least I hope so. There is, at any rate, something of that capturing of the moment through multiple forms of the same person that makes the exhibition its particular appeal. They are not self-portraits, of course, so they hardly compare with what is on show in the gallery. But, amateur as they are, I thought there was an affinity – hence this blog post, which reproduces thirteen of them.
And maybe they are self-portraits of a kind. As said, what struck me about that still moment in the documentary was how the artist had fleetingly become his own work of art. It was his image, after all. And whatever you might do with such an image thereafter, it remains his. Art is a state of mind, realised as something we are privileged to see.