(Above) Frank Auerbach in his studio holding his picture of the building site on Earl's Court Road in 1953
Exhibition: Frank Auerbach, London Building Sites 1952 – 62, The Courtauld Gallery, London, until January 17 2010
Rebuilding London after the devastation of the Blitz was perhaps one of the most daunting tasks the capital has ever faced.
Daring feats of engineering would not only have to reconstruct an obliterated landscape, but perhaps more importantly restore the shattered hopes of a generation.
Yet against all odds, this was a challenge that architects rose to with unprecedented ingenuity. Frank Auerbach, one of Britain’s greatest living artists, was there to capture some of the most audacious projects and, for the first time, his observations can be seen in their entirety in an exhibition exploring the birth of a brave, new landscape.
Construction of The Shell Building, South Bank (circa 1958). Sir Alistair McAlpine Ltd
Fascinated by the spectacle of London struggling to re-emerge from the debris of the Second World War, Auerbach set himself the task of sketching some of the city’s most ambitious building developments.
Tirelessly roaming building sites, and drawing from sometimes perilous heights, he was often turned away by angry workers yet still managed to create a rich array of prints capturing the city’s transformation.
The real work began, however, when he transferred his findings to his studio. His paintings often took more than a year to complete as Auerbach painstakingly re-painted them.
The results are 14 heavily worked, thickly built oil masterpieces. With their surfaces often an inch thick, this is clearly the work of a perfectionist – a man whose toil was every bit as epic as the mission of rebuilding London itself.
Shell Building Site from the Thames (1959). Oil on board, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
The rarely-seen oil sketches resonate with an extraordinary urgency and excitement, summoning up the chance encounters Auerbach had with the evolving landscape surrounding him.
His subjects are some of London’s most distinctive and celebrated buildings – the Shell building on the South Bank, The John Lewis Department store on Oxford Street and the Regent’s Park Estate in Kings Cross.
The paintings are often almost unrecognisable from the exact, intricate details of these sketches. Favouring luxuriant shades of brown and black, the viewer has to look closely at the works before discernible forms gradually emerge.
With its heavy blobs of paint mirroring the grimy, earthy materials used in construction, Shell Building Site: Workmen Under Hungerford Bridge initially appears to be a lumpy mass of black.
Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square (1962). Oil on board. © The Artist, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
Only on closer inspection is it possible to make out the bridge’s beams and arches and the workmen who gradually materialise from the darkness. The effect is eerily disorientating.
It is almost as if by obsessively repainting the surfaces, Auerbach is trying to find some hidden meaning behind his initial drawings.
An illustration of the Time-Life building with its neatly drawn green grids embodies architectural precision, yet the painting derived from it looks utterly alien. It takes time and concentration to decipher the densely painted ladders and pile of sand in the left hand corner.
Frank Auerbach, Study for Shell Building Site from the Festival Hall (circa 1958). Pencil on paper. © the artist, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
The two most striking pieces depict the construction of The John Lewis Store on Oxford Street. Their stern brushwork and insistent angularity forcefully evoke the energy and drudgery of manual labour.
While they are arresting for their sense of drama, it is also their aura of mystery that holds the gaze. Auerbach refuses to make anything obvious and we are made to search for meaning and familiar shapes.
He is prompting us to contemplate and marvel at the unknown, just as Londoners had to do all those years ago as this city of dreams sprung up before their eyes.
Admission £5/£4 (free for under-18s, full-time students and unemployed).
Visit the exhibition online for videos, podcasts of Frank Auerbach talking about the show and details of accompanying events.
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