3 Dec 2009

Auerbach's building sites, the mountains of London

The current Frank Auerbach show at The Courtauld Gallery, London Building Sites 1952-1962, portrays a London literally rebuilding itself post-war. The series of paintings depict building sites around central London including John Lewis in Oxford Street, the Shell building at the South Bank and the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square.
Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square by Frank Auerbach, 1962
I was fascinated by the exhibition's title, an exception to my received impression of the usual ones there e.g. Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests. Portraying the primal scene of the birth of buildings, that point where the ground is literally broken, in thick, viscous oil paint in such a traditional gallery was a contrast I liked.

Granted the location of these buildings was influential and reminded me, in my own lifetime, of the appearance and disappearance of buildings, streets even: "a heaving, bubbling, cauldron" as Auerbach said.
He characterises London in this post war period in a wonderfully evocative phrase "...(it) was a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountains and crags, full of drama" and this series is on first look more representative of Mars than Earth, let alone London. Red, ochre and umber saturate the paintings' surfaces. It's a primal, alien experience yet a human element, although not immediately evident, is a definite presence. It takes me to my other interest in this portrayal of London at this particular point in its history which is more personal.

My father, as an immigrant from Ireland in the 1950s, represents the hidden hands behind so much of what shapes the architecture of modern London. Although not directly involved in the building sites represented here, his compatriots were. Looking at these paintings, at the occasional glimpse of a silhouette, gave me a sense of connection to him and to the London he would have experienced. Another quote from Auerbach: "...(there was a) sense of survivors scurrying among a ruined city… and a sort of curious freedom… I remember a feeling of camaraderie among the people in the street”.

It also made me reflect on the current renewal of the centre of London courtesy of the Crossrail project. I'd like to think there's an artist working now in the same vein, recording the birth of another landmark in the depths of the mountains and crags of Charing Cross Road.
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