Post-War & Contemporary Art / FRANK AUERBACH (B. 1931) Head of Catherine Lampert 1983-84
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Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London (no. 35121.6)
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1984
William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, no. 510, p. 123, illustrated in colour
Frank Auerbach is one of Britain's most distinctive and celebrated painters: an artist for whom the creation of a raw, living image made in response to the presence of a seated model has for over fifty years been a fundamental, ongoing preoccupation throughout his remarkable and lengthy oeuvre. Renowned especially for his heavy application of paint that masterfully fills his compositions, Auerbach is credited with making some of the most impressive, vibrant, and intuitive portraits of the post-war years. His first exhibition was held at London's Beaux Arts Gallery in 1956 and since then his paintings have become some of the most internationally collected of living artists.
Born in Berlin in 1931, Auerbach came to England in 1939, a refugee from Nazi oppression which claimed both his parents. While still a student at St Martin's School of Art in the early 1950s, Auerbach attended night classes given by David Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic. This schooling would significantly shape the young artist's development. Bomberg emphasised the need to evoke the sensed experience of another human being – their weight, mass, position, and presence; above and beyond the necessity to describe a subject's literal appearance. Auerbach later went on to study at the Royal College of Art, ultimately developing his signature palette of bold colours and distinctive, thickly applied painting style. Throughout his career, Auerbach has focused on a small number of subjects, choosing to depict a select group of close friends and family members. He would paint the same model at regular intervals over long periods of time, thereby achieving an intimate knowledge of his sitters, and his depictions are not necessarily a recognisable likeness, but vital physical presences with their own sense of life. Conducted over many sittings, Auerbach continually works and reworks his canvases, resulting in his established technique of a dense accrual of brushstrokes interwoven with layers of rich and vibrant colour that bounce off his canvases.
Painted in 1983-84 and stemming from a triumphant period in Auerbach's career, Head of Catherine Lampert is a vigorous, rich, and painterly portrait of one of the artist's most frequent and celebrated sitters. Lampert has consistently sat for Auerbach since 1978 when she worked on his Hayward Gallery retrospective. She habitually joined the artist in his studio on successive Monday evenings, then by appointment for a number of years, before settling on Friday evenings. Lampert worked at the Hayward Gallery before becoming Director of the Whitechapel Gallery in 1988 and would later go on to curate the artist's major retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2001.
In this present work, Auerbach renders Catherine's head in a swirling sweep of brushstrokes and impastoed accumulation of pigment, projecting dynamically from the thinner areas of paint that articulate the background. He creates an almost sculptural construction of Lampert's head that reveals in its expressive rawness the tangible familiarity between artist and sitter, the boldly articulated brushstrokes enlivened by a sincere sense of emotional communion between the two. The numerous appointments acted as a chronicle to the events of their lives, passage of time and friendship they ultimately shared. As Lampert herself has explained, the moments spent with Auerbach felt as though time was suspended, 'that odd limbo, not an unpleasant state, of drifting from practical self-reminders into daydreams and unquantifiable desires'. (Catherine Lampert quoted in William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, p. 21).
The intensity of Auerbach's response to his sitter and subject is magnificently brought to life through his dazzling handling of oil and his masterful treatment of paint application and structural composition. In the present work, the paint has been meticulously layered to create a textured landscape of pigment especially evident in the vibrant red impasto at the centre of his portrait that seemingly drips from the surface, enlivening the bold silhouette that emerges from the composition. Amid swathes of dramatic brushwork that layer and contribute to the sculptural surface, the teasingly tangible intensity of Auerbach's subject materialises. The familiarity and intimacy of their close friendship is evident in the thick layering of paint, and despite the artist's tendency towards abstraction, the head of Catherine Lampert is nonetheless made apparent through heavy brushstrokes amidst a plane of green, yellow, earthy, and grey tones. Through this obvious suggestion of the artist's hand, the present composition offers a vigorous sense of velocity and motion, and while Auerbach confidently conveys an accurate image of his sitter's psyche, the result is that his portraits are overwhelmingly physical whilst still exuding light and the warmth of Catherine's character. Their evident friendship radiates from the composition. As William Feaver once stated, 'Auerbach's heads are conceived not as busts or cameos but as presences' (William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, p. 20).
Frank Auerbach is widely recognised as one of the most inventive, recognisable, and influential painters of the post-War period. In 1978, the artist was honoured with a retrospective at London's Hayward Gallery and in 2015, London's Tate Britain, in partnership with Kunstmuseum Bonn, mounted another major retrospective of his work. Today, his paintings reside in the prestigious permanent collections of the Tate Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London; Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York; and the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, among many others. Head of Catherine Lampert is a stunning and seminal example of Auerbach's thoroughly inimitable, intimate, and psychologically compelling portraiture of one of his most important and celebrated sitters.