Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites 1952-1962

This afternoon M took me as part of my Christmas present to the Courtauld Gallery to see the exhibition  ‘Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites 1952-1962. Quite how I have managed to live in London and work in the built-environment sector all these years without ever having taken a look at the Courtauld I just don’t know.

This collection of Auerbach’s work explores the striking and immense construction sites to be found in post-war London. But unlike the clean-cut lines of the modern architecture that rose from the sites, Auerbach’s work is all about the excavations. This is an artist that is painting the world of the civil engineer: the deep excavations for the Shell Building on the Southbank, the basement for the John Lewis headquarters on Oxford Street, the girders of One New Change adjacent to St Paul’s.

Auerbach layers the paint on in spades – up to an inch thick in some works. This is the result of repeatedly reapplying the paint and reworking each piece. The result is a rich texture that evokes the physicality of the building site. The walls ooze and seem almost to weep water; you can almost smell the unearthed depths. The images have been rendered and rerendered so many times on the same canvas that the original image is almost completely obscured and is only identifiable by reference to the preparatory sketches that accompany some of the works. But as a friend put it, you can get so much more out of the paintings but reflecting on the sensations they evoke rather than trying to pick out any particular detail. The reworking of the paint makes a striking resemblance to the movement of materials on site.

“Through his labours with paint, Auerback vividly translated the chasms of mud, shored-up earth and equipment into works which express the creation and distruction inherent in London’s post-war building sites” – exhibition introduction

‘Building site near St. Paul’s: winter’ situates the observer inside the construction site of One New Change, a building which has since been redemolished and is currently being rebuilt again. Unlike many images of the cathedral painted during the war in which the dome is seen to rise above the flames of the Blitz, in this painting St Paul’s cowers away in the corner submitting to this new architecture.

‘Shell Building Site: from the Festival Hall’ is one of set of works peering into the excavations for London’s first skyscraper. What’s struck me about these paintings is that while these are images of the construction of London’s modern era buildings, the viewer could be looking at a  site centuries earlier – medieval even.

Probably most inspirational however was the collection of quick hand sketch studies of the sites that feature in some of the works. The lines are very simple but very powerful. Over the last two years I have been on a couple of building drawing classes, and have sketched many buildings: sketches that are about a finished product. But these works are much more about the process than the result. 50 years later another gaping hole has opened up on Oxford Street, a building demolished by developers rather than bombs. I find myself reaching for my sketchbook…