Summer Building Site, 1952

Frank Auerbach (born 1931)
Summer Building Site, 1952
Oil on board, 76.2 x 106.7 cm
© The Artist, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Study for Shell Building Site from the Festival Hall

Frank Auerbach (born 1931)
Study for Shell Building Site from the Festival Hall
c.1958
Pencil on paper, 19 x 22 cm
© The Artist, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Construction of One New Change Street, behind St Paul’s

Frank Auerbach (born 1931)
Construction of One New Change Street, behind St Paul’s
Cathedral, 1955 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Maples Demolition Site, 1960

Frank Auerbach (born 1931)
Maples Demolition Site, 1960
Oil on board, 148.6 x 153.7 cm
Leeds City Art Gallery

Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites, 1952-62, at The Courtauld Gallery


This exhibition explores an extraordinary group of paintings of post-war London building sites by Frank Auerbach (born 1931), one of Britain’s greatest living artists. The series of fourteen major paintings was produced during the first decade of Auerbach’s career and gives a remarkable account of his early artistic development. It was during this period that Auerbach emerged alongside Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud as part of a powerful new generation of British painters. Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites, 1952-62, on view at The Courtauld Gallery from 16 October 2009 to 19 January 2010, will give the first comprehensive account of these works, which are among the most profound responses made by any artist to the post-war urban landscape.

Auerbach’s years as a young art student in London, from 1947 to 1952, were spent in a city deeply scarred by the aftermath of the Second World War and at the beginning of a long period of recovery and rebuilding. The Blitz had levelled whole areas of London and left numerous buildings severely damaged or destroyed. This wounded landscape was punctuated by remarkable survivals, most famously St Paul’s Cathedral standing defiantly among the ruins. Another spectacular sight was the rebuilding effort which saw armies of workmen clearing the debris and excavating new foundations. Ubiquitous symbols of the rebuilding were the tower cranes which sprang up across the city in advance of the new steel-framed offices and blocks of flats which were to transform London’s urban landscape (fig. 10). For Auerbach, hungry to prove himself as a modern painter, the building sites of London made the most compelling of contemporary subjects. As he recalled recently, “London after the War was a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountains and crags, full of drama… and it seemed mad to waste the opportunity and not to take notice of the fact that there were these marvellous images… all around one”.

Towards the end of his studies at various London art schools including, most importantly, David Bomberg’s inspirational teaching at the Borough Polytechnic, Auerbach began voraciously sketching the city’s building sites, as did his close friend and fellow student, Leon Kossoff. There was, Auerbach says, “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”. For Auerbach, the sense of survival must have seemed particularly profound. He had been sent to England from his home city, Berlin, shortly before his eighth birthday and the outbreak of war. Both of his Jewish parents were killed in the concentration camps and Auerbach made London his new home. He combed the city, filling his sketchbooks with details of particular sites, capturing the activities of workmen and machinery as they reshaped London’s bombsites into new structures. He recalls how he would enter a site “by inching along the planks, out over the excavation, just clinging on and dodging the wheelbarrows”. It was the early stages of a construction site that most excited Auerbach, before the building had fully emerged from the ground and there was still a sense of struggle between the formlessness of the raw earth being excavated and the beginnings of architectural order.

Auerbach’s first painting, in what would become a group of fourteen major works, was Summer Building Site, 1952, (fig. 1), a construction site on the Earl’s Court Road. It was a breakthrough work for the twenty-one year old artist and he considered it to be his first truly original picture. “I had done my own painting,” Auerbach recalled, “I didn’t know if I would ever be able to do it again, but at least I knew what it felt like.”

Auerbach’s subjects included many of the major construction sites of the period, such as the Time and Life Building on Bruton Street, the rebuilding around St Paul’s Cathedral (fig. 7) and the John Lewis building on Oxford Street. He made repeated visits to perhaps the most spectacular site of all: the Shell Building on the South Bank, London’s first ‘skyscraper’ built on the site of the 1951 Festival of Britain (figs. 9, 10 and 11). Its height necessitated dramatically deep excavations which Auerbach described as being like the “Grand Canyon”. His Shell Building Site from the Thames (fig. 4) is a particularly dramatic evocation of his experiences there. The composition is dominated by a crane from which a cable drops into a deep excavation which appears to radiate light from within. Rembrandt’s Deposition in the National Gallery was a source of inspiration for the work and the crane’s form faintly recalls that of a crucifix, further imbuing the image with the theme of death and resurrection, which perhaps lies at the heart of all Auerbach’s building site paintings

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