Considered a central figure in the School of London, Frank Auerbach has lived and worked most of his life in Camden Town, London, and often paints subjects near his studio. Auerbach’s paintings have never been entirely abstract but are always grounded in reality.
Shell Building Site (1959) depicts the construction area for the Shell company building on the south bank of the river Thames. Fascinated by the excavations for what would become London’s first skyscraper, Auerbach made numerous preliminary sketches on site before starting to paint in layers of thick impasto, losing some details while preserving others. At first glance the viewer sees merely basic, primal forms, but upon closer examination cranes, scaffolding, foundation, and even figures of workmen emerge. Culminating in the background, the groundwork of the tower building reveals itself as the brightest spot in the composition.
The Shell construction site was established in 1956, after the ruins left by the wartime Blitz were cleared and the ground lay flattened. Auerbach saw London as a great city struggling to rebuild itself bigger and stronger by first having to deconstruct itself, a process that paralleled his own artistic efforts in the struggle for a representational style. To Auerbach, the excavations in the center of London, with their considerable earthworks, were far from being simple construction sites. In this painting, the rough, excavated earth stands for the destruction needed to build anew, equal to the artist’s need to paint his works from base layer to surface in order to achieve the intended degree of representational detail.
Frank Auerbach was sent to England by his parents in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution of Jewish people in Germany. His parents died in a concentration camp. From 1947 to 1953 he attended the evening painting class of David Bomberg (1890–1957) at Borough Polytechnic in London, where he met Leon Kossoff (b. 1926). He first studied at London’s St Martin's School of Art from 1948 to 1952, and afterwards at the Royal College of Art until 1955. Auerbach taught at several institutions, including secondary schools and the Slade School of Fine Art in London. He lived and worked most of his life in Camden Town, London and repeatedly returned to the people and urban landscapes near his studio. Auerbach’s paintings were never entirely abstract but were always grounded in his close reality. He is known for his thick impasto technique, as well as for his painstaking attempts to achieve the image he wants. He sometimes scraped his canvases dozens of times before realizing a finished work. Auerbach is considered a central figure of the so-called School of London alongside artists such as Francis Bacon (1909–1992) and Lucian Freud (1922–2011). In 1986 he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and was awarded, with Sigmar Polke (1941–2010), the Golden Lion prize.