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Rare and important early Frank Auerbach unveiled at Ben Uri
David Glasser, Ben Uri Chairman; Neil Morris, Partner at Druces LLP; Paul Coles; Wendy Philips, Senior Director of Sotheby’s Tax & Heritage Department and Sarah MacDougall, Ben Uri Head of Collections.

LONDON.- Ben Uri has acquired on long-term loan from the collection of Richard and Julia Anson, an important early painting by Frank Auerbach (b. 1931), Head of Helen Gillespie, c. 1962–64. The portrait was unveiled at the gallery in St John’s Wood on 19th May, as part of the exhibition Refugees: The Lives of Others, which explores issues of identity and migration via the German refugee experience in England among the so-called ‘Hitler émigrés’ generation. The exhibition also includes further examples from Auerbach’s oeuvre spanning almost half a century, alongside work by his celebrated contemporary Lucian Freud, and many lesser-known artists, whose careers frequently suffered through the experience of exile. In an era of intense political debate around migration, this is the first of a series of exhibitions presented by Ben Uri marking the wide contribution of refugees and immigrants to British art.

About the painting: Portrayed in three-quarter face view, facing left with downcast eyes, this is one of a group of a dozen portraits (three drawings and nine oils) of Auerbach’s friend Helen Gillespie, painted in the early 1960s. After being introduced to him by one of his key models, Stella West (E.O.W.), she offered to pose, broadening his small ‘family’ of preferred sitters in this period and encouraging him to experiment. The portraits of Helen span a five-year period between 1961 and 1966, forming, as the critic William Feaver has observed ‘a tight but potent body of work, remarkable for their quality’. In this painting, Auerbach employs a notably restricted palette, playing with notions of light and shadow: Helen’s head and shoulders, boldly painted in white, stand out emphatically against a background in a muddy grey-brown reminiscent of the artist’s postwar studies of London building sites. Paint is applied in thick, craggy layers that build up her face; her features and introspective expression are delineated by restrained areas of black. This densely concentrated, swirling impasto creates a weighty, hewn surface akin to that of worked clay, giving the impression of a sculptural relief. This is slightly offset by the close cropping of the head at the top and far right, as well as the unguent quality of the thickly-squeezed pigment. During this period, the artist’s output was low owing to the amount of time and effort involved in each painting and the two-year date range indicates the dedication required by both artist and sitter. Nevertheless, between sittings Auerbach scraped down his surfaces, aiming to reveal an intense concentration on both the form and personality of the sitter even as he applied new layers: ‘All my paintings are the end result of hundreds of transmutations’, he has observed. Three of his heads of Helen Gillespie were included in his first exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art in 1965.

Frank Auerbach was born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1931 and sent to England in 1939; his parents remained in Germany, where they perished in concentration camps. Naturalised in 1947, he spent his childhood at Bunce Court, a progressive boarding school in Kent for Jewish refugee children. Afterwards, he attended St Martin’s School of Art (1948–52), took evening classes with David Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic, then studied at the Royal College of Art (1952–55). He moved to his studio in Camden in 1954, where he has remained ever since, and held his first solo exhibition at the Beaux-Arts Gallery (1956). Since 1965 he has exhibited at Marlborough Fine Art. Following his Hayward Gallery retrospective (1978), he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1986, sharing the Golden Lion with Sigmar Polke, held a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy (2001), and a more recent retrospective at Tate Britain (2016). His work is in international collections all over the world.

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