German-born British artist Frank Auerbach finds his subjects within his own neighborhood in northern London.
Since 1954, he's worked in the same studio in the English capital's Camden Town area.
“This part of London is my world,” said the painter, who fled Germany as a child on the eve of the Second World War. “I have been wandering through these streets for so long. I am very attached to them and love them like other people love their pets.”
His comparison is typical of someone who doesn’t require grand gestures. He famously takes just one day off per year, and is someone interested in showing the “defiant, inescapable presence of everyday objects” in his art.
“For people with imagination, they are often quite surprising,” he told Catherine Lampert, his biographer, portrait model and curator.
A son of our city and world renowned painter, brought to safety in Britain from the Nazis on Kindertransport, has yet to arrive again. Claudius Lotter, Writer, Letter to the Editor
Mr. Auerbach grew up in Berlin’s sounthwest district of Wilmersdorf, though the streets there have become insignificant to the 84-year-old.
That’s unlike his cousin, the late literature critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who lived three houses down from Mr. Auerbach on Güntzelstrasse and occasionally babysat little Frank in the evenings. Unlike the painter, Mr. Reich-Ranicki returned to visit his childhood house and neighborhood after the Holocaust.
In April 1939, 8-year-old Frank was forced to flee the Nazis. With the help of Iris Origo, a wealthy writer who made great efforts to rescue refugee children, Mr. Auerbach’s parents managed to send him to London. Both sets of the boys' parents were later murdered by the Nazis.
Today, small memorials to them are set into the sidewalks in front of their homes. In total, 23 such commemorations, known as "Stolpersteine," or "stumbling blocks," are in front of Mr. Auerbach’s childhood apartment building. According to the district’s Stolperstein initiative, 13,200 Jews from the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf area were deported and murdered by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. In all of Berlin, 55,000 perished.
Mr. Auerbach has suppressed his past. He lost touch with his parents during the war and he never tried to find out how they got along in Berlin until they were sent to their deaths.
“I think I did this thing which psychiatrists for very good professional reasons frown on: I am in total denial,” Mr. Auerbach told the Evening Standard in 2009. “It’s worked very well for me. To be quite honest I came to England and went to a marvelous school, and it truly was a happy time. There’s just never been a point in my life where I felt I wish I had parents.”
Just moments after the his arrival at Bunce Court, a boarding school in Kent where Jewish refugees were teaching, he felt strangely liberated. Mr. Auerbach remembers his Berlin childhood only in fragments. Like when his mother feared that her son might have been poisoned after accepting a candy from a stranger in the park. Or taking joyrides with his family on Berlin's newly opened highway, a memory that resurfaced for him in 2013 after Ms. Lampert mentioned attending a Kraftwerk concert in the city, referring to the German band’s song “Autobahn.”
Ms. Lampert, an art historian, has been visiting the artist in his studio biweekly for years, posing for portraits and chatting about art. These meetings led to her recent publication, “Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting,” a series of essays in which she details his career.
She discusses his interest in art, first sparked by his dedicated teachers at boarding school, as well as his major exhibitions in London, Venice, New York and Hamburg. She also writes about his loyalty to the select few people who have posed for him for decades, Ms. Lampert included. The book also includes passages about Mr. Auerbach’s friendship and artistic partnership with painter Lucian Freud, another native Berliner who fled the Nazis.
It seems that Mr. Auerbach’s hometown has suppressed him as well. In Berlin, only art afficionados recognize his name. And that's likely because he's been hailed “Britain’s greatest living painter” by The Times in London, where a major retrospective of his work is on display at the Tate Britain.
To this day Mr. Auerbach’s work has never been exhibited in his hometown, though Ms. Lampert curated a show in the western German city of Bonn. Udo Kittelmann, the director of the National Gallery in Berlin, is determined to change that.
“Having an Auerbach exhibition is a personal dream of mine,” said Mr. Kittelmann, adding that he looks forward to realizing this goal. The impetus came from a reader of Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.
“A son of our city and world renowned painter, brought to safety in Britain from the Nazis via Kindertransport, has yet to arrive again,” Claudius Lotter wrote in a letter to the editor. He was referring to both the organized rescue of predominantly Jewish children during the months before the outbreak of World War II, as well as Berlin’s political obligation to one of its native sons.
Mr. Auerbach brushes off questions about the possibility of a retrospective in Berlin and what it might mean to him, according to Ms. Lampert. “I don’t want too many exhibitions,” she quoted him as saying.
Mr. Kittelmann emphasized that the retrospective wouldn’t be biographical but rather focus on the “unique quality” of the painter’s work.
So far, however, an agreement between the Old National Gallery and the Tate hasn't been possible due to the recent closing of Berlin’s New National Gallery, where an Auerbach exhibition would have taken place. Furthermore, Mr. Kittelmann said his museum has been focused on refurbishing and presenting its own large selection of works.
Back in Mr. Auerbach’s childhood Berlin neighborhood, however, there are some for whom the memory of the celebrated painter is still alive. Among them is John Grützke, a Berlin artist who lives and works in the building where Mr. Auerbach’s cousin once lived.
When Mr. Grützke’s neighbors traveled to London for the Auerbach opening at the Tate, he gave them a catalogue of his works to pass along to the British painter and included a personal dedication. Mr. Auerbach thanked him profusely and said he was very impressed by Mr. Grützke’s skills, energy and the bold momentum of his works.
“He underlined the word ‘very,’ ” Mr. Grützke said with a laugh. Mr. Auerbach did not, however, react to Mr. Grützke’s pointing out that studio was only a few doors down from where he once lived.
Mr. Auerbach has complicated feelings about what happened to him as child in Berlin. He told a British newspaper in 1998 that he avoided “all the gnawing of the past,” although he would always remain aware of what had happened.
“I was lucky to belong to the ‘innocent side,’ ” Mr. Auerbach said. “If I would not have been a Jew, who knows what I would have done or felt. I was also young enough to arrive here without all the emotional baggage.”
How would Mr. Auerbach react to an exhibition in his hometown?
“Ultimately, he would be happy,” Ms. Lampert said.
“For a Berlin exhibition, probably even more so,” said his son Jake Auerbach, a filmmaker. Still, his father would be unlikely to come to Berlin, he added.
Jake Auerbach says, however, that he would gladly attend such an event in Berlin.
This article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]