Seeing a painting

I loved Frank Auerbach’s apparent combination of sensitivity with joyous, self-confident exuberance, and had to go back. The galleries are quiet on a Friday afternoon and I can sit in front of a number of paintings, while people take care not to walk between me and the work. Students sketch.

Here is Interior Vincent Terrace, painted 1982-4.

Frank Auerbach, Interior Vincent Terrace

That light, in the top right corner. The flat base of the bulb is opaque, to reflect up into the shade. It looks clinical, sterile, though the idea of such lamps was to diffuse the light without shading it. I feel the red oblong is a door, and there is a kneeling figure before it, in a robe, and a helmet or mitre: an archimandrite might wear such a thing. From below, in the ceiling lights, the smooth surfaces of thick paint on the back of the robe glistens and shimmers.

Under the mitre- it seemed much clearer on the original than this reproduction- I see his right cheek, and it looks soft and vulnerable. In the door there is a glass panel, and through it I see darkness.

I have a story for this painting. It is of agoraphobia: the kneeling figure is frightened of going outside, into the dark; yet the dark seems organic, living, full of possibility where the light is unchanging and oppressive. It is also claustrophobic. The room is oppressive. The robe and mitre are adopted for protection, yet they do not protect; the armour is merely heavy, the beauty on the surface. Those who read my blog daily, attentively, will see these are my current concerns. Out in the darkness there is freedom.

Later, from the other side of the room, I hear two women discussing it. “Where’s the cat? I can’t see a cat anywhere.” I could not, either, though on this picture I might have identified its ears. There is an explanation of the picture in the leaflet I did not take- I don’t want to read, I just want to look at the pictures.

-A vertical mark connects the lampshade to the ashtray on the table.
-Oh, that’s an ashtray? It is a wonderfully confident mark, from top to bottom.
-Though we read that he might scrape the paint off two hundred times. He might have made that mark a hundred times, to get it right.

There are two people in the painting, the artist, and his seated wife Julia. It is their home.

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