Frank Auerbach : Berlin Yet to Salute Native Artist

After fleeing Nazi Germany as a child, Frank Auerbach grew up to be one of Britain's most celebrated painters. But his hometown of Berlin has yet to honor his work with an exhibition, writes Markus Hesselmann.

Frank Auerbach: Mornington Crescent 1965.
Frank Auerbach: Mornington Crescent 1965.Private collection courtesy of Eykyn Maclean, LP © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio

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’ve been wandering around these streets for so long that I’ve become attached to them and as fond of them as people are to 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.

The streets in Berlin’s Western district of Wilmersdorf though have become insignificant to the 84-year-old. Even though that is where Frank Auerbach lived as a child. His cousin, the late literature critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, lived a few houses down from Auerbach on Güntzelstrasse and occasionally babysat little Frank in the evenings. Unlike the painter, Marcel 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, Frank 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 Frank 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.

The great British painter Frank Auerbach as a child, drawing in his hometown Berlin., around 1935
Frank Auerbach as a child, drawing, Berlin, c. 1935.Copyright Julia Auerbach

Frank 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,” Frank 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. Frank 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 Catherine Lampert mentioned attending a Kraftwerk concert in the city, referring to the German band’s song “Autobahn.”

Stolpersteine in memory of Frank Auerbach's parents Charlotte and Max Auerbach who were killed by the Nazis. These stones are laid in front of Güntzelstraße 49 in Berlin's Wilmersdorf district, where Frank and his parents lived in the 1930s.
Stolpersteine in memory of Frank Auerbach's parents Charlotte and Max Auerbach who were killed by the Nazis. These stones are laid...Markus Hesselmann

Catherine 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, herself included. The book also includes passages about Frank Auerbach’s friendship and artistic partnership with painter Lucian Freud, another native Berliner who fled the Nazis.

It seems that Frank Auerbach’s hometown has suppressed him as well. In Berlin, only art experts recognize his name. And that's while 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 Catherine 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 Udo Kittelmann, adding that he looks forward to realizing this goal. The impetus came from a reader of Berlin’s 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.

Frank Auerbach with his cousin Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Andrew Ranicki, Marcel's son.
Frank Auerbach with his cousin Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Andrew Ranicki, Marcel's son.Copyright Andrew Ranicki

Frank Auerbach brushes off questions about the possibility of a retrospective in Berlin and what it might mean to him, according to Catherine Lampert. “I don’t want too many exhibitions,” she quoted him as saying. Udo 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 the National Gallery in Berlin and the Tate hasn’t been possible due to the recent closing of Berlin’s New National Gallery, where an Auerbach exhibition would have to take place. Furthermore, Mr. Kittelmann said his museum has been focused on refurbishing and presenting its own large selection of works.

Back in Frank Auerbach’s childhood Berlin neighborhood, however, there are some for whom the memory of the celebrated painter is still alive. Among them is Johannes Grützke, a Berlin artist who lives and works in the building where Frank Auerbach’s cousin once lived. When Johannes 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. Frank Auerbach thanked him profusely and said he was very impressed with the ability and energy and adventurous enterprise of the work. “He underlined the word ‘very,’ ” Johannes Grützke said with a laugh. Frank Auerbach did not, however, react to Johannes Grützke’s pointing out that studio was only a few doors down from where he once lived.

Catherine Lampert: Frank Auerbach. Speaking and Painting.
Catherine Lampert: Frank Auerbach. Speaking and Painting.Foto: Thames & Hudson

Frank Auerbach told The Times in 1998 that he avoided “all the gnawing at the past,” although he has been aware of what had happened all his life. And “as luck would have it I found myself in the situation of being the 'innocent party'", Frank Auerbach said. "If I had not been Jewish who knows what I would have done or felt. I was also lucky to be young enough not to come with a lot of emotional baggage."

When the writer W.G. Sebald depicted Frank Auerbach as "Max Aurach" in the German version of his book "The Emigrants" the painter did not approve of a literary portrait that he felt was misleading. Why was that? Catherine Lampert conveys this answer from the painter: "Frank Auerbach thought that the story totally misunderstood the relation of the artist's personality and biography to the creation of art, and it was totally lacking in humour."

So how would Frank Auerbach react if an exhibition in his hometown was finally on? Would he be happy about it? “In the end, he would,” Catherine Lampert said after thinking it over for quite a while. And Jake Auerbach, the painter's son, a filmmaker, added: "I was very impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment shown by the museum in Bonn. I was also aware that the show was described on a few occasions as a 'return'. I suppose that in those terms a show in Berlin could more accurately be described as such." Still, his father would be unlikely to come to Berlin, Jake Auerbach said. The son himself, however, said he would gladly attend such an event.

Translated into English by Handelsblatt Global Edition where this English version appeared first. The original, more extended German version can be found here. There is a curator's talk by Catherine Lampert on Frank Auerbach on Friday 5 February 2016 at Tate Britain. You can find more details here.

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