Cotton to Gold: The Industrialist Collectors

This article was first published online by Apollo Magazine on 30 Jan 2015

‘From this filthy sewer pure gold flows.’ That was A. de Tocqueville’s response to an industrialised Manchester in 1835, a terrible alchemy that still shapes the way we consider Britain’s industrial age, and in particular the astonishing cultural artefacts we’ve inherited from its great collectors. We flip these objects over and search underneath for the blood of an oppressed population, for the Dickensian squalor of slums, workhouses, and sooty children.

But a new exhibition, ‘Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West’, at Two Temple Place, adds depth to the picture with the stories of a handful of Lancashire industrialists who gifted their collections to local institutions both during and after their lives. For one thing we don’t often consider is that collecting was precisely a means for these men to get away from the tainted ‘gold’ that otherwise threatened to define them.

Yet from all this arises some quite cohesive insights into late industrial society. For one thing, you get a clear picture of the obsessive curiosity – the need to gather, categorise, understand – which animated Britain’s middle and upper classes during the age of Empire. You get a feel for tastes of the period. But most striking to me is the notion of community presented here, bound by ethics and articulated through culture.

All of these men lived and collected into the 20th century. They arrived at the end of an era which itself had obsessively questioned the human cost of wealth and greatness – the century of Carlyle and Dickens, of the Factory and Reform Acts, of the first organised labour movements. Those who made their money in the cotton trade were the third or fourth generation to do so. They were not gaudy nouveau riche who amassed culture as they would capital; they often had been to public school and Oxbridge, where the culture was a refined, if condescending, paternalism rooted in Christian moral duty.

They felt obliged – and proud – to give something back. This was the basis of a whole web of formal and informal institutions in Lancashire towns, of which museums and galleries were only one kind. George Eastwood, who collected ivory sculptures from around the world, encapsulated this reciprocal relationship. He actually worked in a Burnley mill from the age of 10, before making his escape as a venue dresser, and ending up as mayor of Southport, Wales. Yet after his death he still sent his collection to be displayed in the town of his birth.

Katshushika Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Sky, from series 36 Views of Fuji, c.1830-32, coloured woodblock print. (Lewis Collection, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery)
Katshushika Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Sky, from series 36 Views of Fuji, c.1830-32, coloured woodblock print. (Lewis Collection, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery)

There was, of course, a personal dimension to collecting as well – one strongly revealed in the two most impressive collections on show, those of Edward Hart and Thomas Boys Lewis. Both were Blackburn men, born into industrial wealth, who led their family businesses. They were also scholars and eccentrics with intriguing personal tastes. Collecting, which both pursued with great idiosyncrasy and on a gigantic scale, was an escape from business into the realms of history, culture, and aesthetics. Hart apparently paid an auction house with £5,000 in cash, saying that he preferred his bankers not to know how much he spent on books.

This division of business and culture strikes me as essential to understanding the wider social meaning of collecting at this time. Anthony Howe has written of the paradox by which such men were crushing their workers in the boardroom while behaving like saints in their private lives, supporting orphanages, churches and schools (Lewis himself taught classics). The answer is surely that these philanthropic activities, converting cotton not into gold but into more sacred symbolic gifts, justified the moral compromises of business.

Was this generosity motivated by guilt, then, or perhaps vanity? A more relevant question for curators Jack Hartnell and Cynthia Johnston is whether we today are still able to appreciate culture as an invaluable gift in the way Hart and Lewis undoubtedly did. They hope ‘Cotton to Gold’ will remind people of the riches surrounding them in regional museums across the country, such as the Pennine Lancashire Museums which keep these collections. For if visitors are not forthcoming, these gifts will disappear. All that’s required is simply to go and receive them.

Interview: Assemble Architects

This article was first published online by Protein on 28 Oct 2015

The concrete no-man’s land that divides East London and the Olympic Village is not an attractive, fashionable, or even very accessible place for an architecture and design studio. But that makes it all the more fitting for the headquarters of Assemble, a young collective who have built their reputation on finding witty and resourceful answers to imperfect situations, often in landscapes just like this.

With their open, collaborative, project-by-project approach, Assemble have turned a lack of experience into their greatest asset, and given people a new degree of involvement in designing the spaces they will use. And now they are not only securing major commissions such as a new gallery for Goldsmiths University, but have also achieved suitably unusual recognition with a nomination for Britain’s top contemporary art award, the Turner Prize.

Assemble is composed of fourteen individuals, all still in their twenties, and incorporates members from very different backgrounds. It first came together in 2010 around a group of disillusioned architectural assistants who wanted to get out and build something. That turned out to be the Cineroleum, a makeshift cinema in the shell of a disused petrol station on Clerkenwell Road.

Assemble’s Alice Edgerley and Matt Leung

Two of the founding members, Alice Edgerley and Matt Leung, explain how the collective was forged in this venture. “The project wasn’t an architecture project,” says Leung. “It was about running a bar, programming films and that kind of stuff.” In an all-hands-on-deck atmosphere, everyone merged into the fabric of the team.

Assemble’s early work continued with the theme of using inexpensive materials to conjure surprising designs in tricky urban spaces. Many were temporary, although beside their Stratford workspace they have a monument to this methodology in the form of the Yardhouse, a simple wooden-framed structure whose façade of mottled tiles has drawn the city’s selfie-brigade en masse to this unlikely grey landscape.

With their range of skills the team soon became dizzyingly versatile, and in the last five years have worked on performance venues, workshops and town squares, as well as more artistic projects such as the Brutalist Playground they installed at the Royal Institute of British Architects earlier this year.


Assemble has no hierarchy, but the chaos of joint decision-making is compensated for by emotional support and the quality of ideas. “It’s probably one thing that’s absent from most offices, the idea that everyone has an input,” says Edgerley. “It also means no one can fire anyone, because we’re all friends.”

Naturally, as the operation has grown, it has been a challenge for the group to maintain its spontaneous energy – especially as everyone has to make a living. “The thing that we’re trying to do now is find the way that we can all work in gainful employment in the same way that we started working together when we were doing it for fun,” explains Leung. “We don’t have loads of younger people to do all the work for us.”

Assemble’s answer to this problem is what it affectionately terms the ‘buddy system’, where each project is run by at least two members, but is opened-up to the rest of the group for ideas and criticisms at weekly ‘Pan-Assemble’ meetings. Each individual works on a freelance basis, keeping half the fee for the projects they do and putting the other half back into the collective, which pays for some members to do admin roles.


Assemble is so determined to keep its diverse structure because this has given it its edge, especially as it has moved into public-realm projects where understanding the needs of communities is essential. Non-architect members of the team undertake months-long consultations, working with local activist groups to get the public involved in testing ideas and even in construction.

“If you have people enthusiastic and involved from the beginning, and taking some ownership of it, then it means that they’re going to be happy with it,” points out Edgerley. And happy they are, not least in Toxteth, Liverpool, where Assemble’s work with the residents of Granby Four Streets housing estate brought their unexpected Turner Prize shortlisting.

The Toxteth project illustrates how far beyond the cosmetic Assemble are willing to go. They are, for instance, in the process of setting up a business manufacturing household goods, so embedding a legacy of craft and ensuring residents receive material benefits from the Turner nomination. “We’re just one part of the project,” says Edgerley. “Even though it’s an incredibly desolate area, the community spirit there is really amazing.”

This ability to nurture a sense of self-determination in communities is the key to Assemble’s success. They are not reluctant to concede power over the design process – that is their strategy. “It’s about asking for help as well,” says Leung. “In most projects it seems like the architect or designer is not in the best position to work out what all the answers are.”

Mário Macilau’s Portrait of Maputo

This article was first published online by Wallpaper* on 1st Mar 2016

‘As a child builds with his or her own hands a toy to play with, that was photography for me.’ This is the rather poetic answer of Mozambican photographer Mário Macilau when asked how his practice began. It’s quite a story: Macilau started out with a borrowed camera when he was 14, photographing rural Mozambicans bringing goods to the capital Maputo, where he worked at a market. He developed the images at home in an improvised dark room, and later traded his mother’s mobile phone for a Nikon FM2.

Since then Macilau has won numerous awards, and his work is going to the VOLTA art fair, New York, at the start of March. But inspiring as it is to see an artist rise from obscure poverty, this is not the way Macilau would have you look at his photography. His mission is to cast light on some of the most invisible people and places in Maputo and beyond, giving these ‘isolated groups a way to retrieve their own voice and hidden identity’.

Mário Macilau, 'Ninja.' Copyright the artist, courtesy Ed Cross fine art.
Mário Macilau, ‘Ninja.’ Copyright the artist, courtesy Ed Cross fine art.


Macilau does this with photographs that, although undoubtedly bleak, smoulder with personal intimacy and memory. His subjects are starkly framed in a way that seems to drag the viewer into their subterranean lives. Likewise, Macilau says his black and white aesthetic is about ‘the experience of composition, light, shadow, and texture.’ You feel present in a way that is more visceral than voyeuristic.

These techniques allow Macilau to emphasise shared humanity. ‘I like close-ups because they break the borders between people and confirm trust,’ he says. The bold faces and limbs in his photographs project a certain confidence, implying control over their chaotic backgrounds. Macilau’s subjects may be neglected, but for that reason they are all the more masters of their own fate.

Mário Macilau is part of a new generation of African photographers, including the Ghanaian Nii Obodai and Ethiopian Michael Tsegaye, who are using art to reclaim this dynamic continent from the pity of the Western lens. ‘It’s still hard to change the way people see Africa,’ Macilau says, ‘because some people don’t want to see the reality. But I am changing it.’

Making It: Young Artists Today

This article was first published online by Apollo Magazine on 7 Jul 2015

Becoming a successful artist is very much like a lottery in which you work for years just to get a ticket. Those who reach the rarefied art world of echoing galleries and champagne receptions typically arrive there after long periods of insecurity and brutal soul-searching (and as a result, often don’t enjoy it). The intermediate world of aspiring artists is crowded, chaotic, and generally ignored, since it’s much easier to take art seriously once somebody else has validated it. Yet in many ways it is more interesting than the art world itself.

The first question that occupies artists is what art to make. This seems basic, but many artists struggle with it perpetually. The sheer scope of media available today, plus the knowledge that there is a potential audience for pretty much anything, is as terrifying as it is liberating.

This is a problem I’ve been discussing for a while with artist Rob Miles. He has chosen to shelve his interest in computer-generated imagery, claiming that, compared to other artists in this medium, he is ‘like a child playing in the mud’. Instead, he has chosen to concentrate intensively on printmaking, and to explore the possibilities opened up by this singular focus.

Rob Miles, 'Even we, sometimes, make mistakes (II)' (2015), stone lithograph
Rob Miles, Even we, sometimes, make mistakes (II) (2015), stone lithograph

‘You need to narrow it down to what is essential about your work’, he says. ‘For me it was drawing, and then print was the most interesting way to do that.’ He wants to master his medium to discover new ways of using it. The layering process of lithography has given him a way to interpret the overlapping visual systems of modern life, drawing inspiration from digital space and the interaction of reality with media and technology.

Another young artist, Joe Pearson, makes for an interesting comparison here. When Pearson began at the Slade, he says, ‘I had already boxed myself in as a painter.’ Eventually though, his search for affecting imagery led him to experiment with stop frame animation and digital collage. The resulting video projections, which were my pick of this year’s degree shows, combine the mythical figuration of William Blake with the paranoid intensity of cartoons such as Dragon Ball Z. What is essential about Pearson’s work is his idiosyncratic vision, and this has been brought to life by the discovery of a new medium.

But whether you are honing a craft or experimenting, the underlying factor for all artists is time and resources. A universal concern for art graduates is how they will pay for a studio and materials, not to mention bills, and what time will be left for actually making art.

Hannah Rowan, 'Wipe/swipe' (2014), oil on lighting diffusion paper, wood, gaffer tape.
Hannah Rowan, Wipe/swipe (2014), oil on lighting diffusion paper, wood, gaffer tape

Yet such challenges also bring new opportunities for inspiration. For Hannah Rowan, long periods away from the studio working as a set-builder for commercial film have been transformative. ‘My work is still going on in my head’, she says, ‘so often I’d see lighting equipment rigged-up on set, see it as a kind of free-standing structure, and I’d find it really beautiful.’ She has recently made a fascinating series of works that use the detritus of the film industry as a framework for her gestural abstract painting.

The painting itself is done on lighting diffusion paper – a material used to soften lighting for film – which renders the brush-strokes in a uniquely sensitive way. This is attached to a makeshift support using cable-ties, croc-clips, gaffer tape or clamps, and is finally lit with security lighting. All of these techniques came originally from the need for her work to be collapsible and storable in limited studio space (which canvases are not), but she now values their temporary character.

Alison Bignon, 'Silent', from series 'Loose Notes of Sorrow' (2015), rotting ink, print, watercolour
Alison Bignon, ‘Silent’, from series ‘Loose Notes of Sorrow’ (2015), rotting ink, print, watercolour

Young artists are not altogether alone. There are people and organisations dedicated to nurturing talent. One such individual I’ve met recently is gallerist and art dealer Marine Tanguy, an energetic fairy godmother figure who is currently helping seven young artists in their ‘battle of 10 years’ to become established. She aims to get them into respected collections, link them with other institutions and with the global market, find affordable studios and publish coverage of their work.

Tanguy is looking for ‘very strong aesthetics and very strong layers of techniques’, and likes artists ‘who master their techniques for years’. Among these are Scarlett Bowman and Alison Bignon, who have pioneered new ways of working with jesmonite casts and ink drawings respectively. The search for these sorts of innovations seems to be one thing that unites aspiring artists generally. They recognise a world that demands novelty, but do not want to sacrifice integrity in the process. A difficult balance for them, but one that bodes very well for the audience.

Scarlett Bowman, 'P5', from series 'Trashscapes' (2015), composite, jesmonite and acrylic
Scarlett Bowman, P5, from series Trashscapes (2015), composite, jesmonite and acrylic



Larry Bell: Light Knots

This article was first published online by Wallpaper* Magazine on 13 Jul 2015

Larry Bell has been exploring the aesthetics of light and surface for over five decades. In that time, the New Mexico-based artist, who is now 75, has produced a masterful body work comprising sculpture, installations and collages that harness light with serene and haunting effect. A new exhibition, ‘2D-3D: Glass & Vapor’ at White Cube Mason’s Yard, shows several stages of this oeuvre as well as new works.

The distinctive shimmering texture of Bell’s work stems from his discovery in the 1960s of a process called ‘thin film deposition’, whereby surfaces are coated with metal alloys in a vacuum chamber. This method alters the way light is reflected or allowed to pass through sheets of glass or plastic, creating illusions of depth and colourful mists that expand into the gallery space.

Larry Bell: NVD#24 (left) and NVD#28 (right), both 2004, (Black Arches Paper coated with aluminum and silicon monoxide, 57 x 41 in.). Photography by White Cube (George Darrel)
Larry Bell: NVD#23 (left) and NVD#28 (right), 2004, (Black Arches Paper coated with aluminum and silicon monoxide, 57 x 41 in). Photography by White Cube (George Darrel)

Bell places experimentation and discovery at the center of his practice. ‘Control’, he says, ‘is a state of mind, not a physical reality. To me everything is experimental in the studio and that is how the work grows.’ Bell is drawn to the medium of light by its spontaneity, observing that ‘light is free… in one way or another it is like time, it is everywhere at once’.

At the White Cube show, one can see the evolution of Bell’s work from minimalist structures into arrangements of six-foot glass panels, whose exchanges of light occupy an entire room. There are also dazzling two-dimensional Vapor Drawings, as well as his new Light Knot sculptures – curving ribbons of polyester film, suspended like figures frozen mid-dance.

With many younger artists interested in the possibilities of light, Bell’s work currently seems more relevant than ever. He is inspired by Sasha Vom Dorp and Marc Fichou, artists who have, he says, ‘taken a serious step into the unknown, and brought out a sample of the unknown for me to see’.

Erling Kagge: The Art of Adventure

This article was first published online by Wallpaper* Magazine on 1 Jun 2015

Around the waterfront in Oslo, you can experience what the director of Norway’s Institute for Contemporary Art has called the city’s ‘dynamic moment’. Scaffolding signals a new wave of cultural destinations that will join existing gems such as the Opera House, the ambitious Ekeberg sculpture park, and a high concentration of artist-run spaces.

Beside the Oslofjord is the sweeping glass roof of the Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum, which now houses an intriguing collection of contemporary art, titled Love Story. It belongs to Arctic explorer, lawyer, publisher, and all-round thrill-seeker Erling Kagge.

Having sailed repeatedly across the Atlantic, conquered the ‘Three Poles’ – North, South, and the summit of Everest – and reached the cover of Time magazine, Kagge began to seek challenges from the world of art. The result is a collection that emphasises youthful anarchy, pop euphoria, and probing post-conceptual artists.

Kagge’s collection includes comprehensive bodies of Raymond Pettibon, Franz West, Tauba Auerbach, Trisha Donnelly, Sergej Jenson, Klara Lidén and Wolfgang Tillmans. In a book he has published for the exhibition, A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art, Kagge compares collecting to his exploits as an explorer. He likes to gamble on artists early in their careers, buying them in big quantities, and moving on when they become established.

The main theme of Kagge’s collection is not a theme at all, but an unresolved quality. ‘I find it difficult to love what I understand. Great art to me is strange’, he says, ‘I strongly believe you sometimes have to break rules to feel free’. He likes artists who embody their work, and has a special affinity for Trisha Donnelly: ‘It is as though her personality has taken form’.

While most people who turn to collecting because they’ve done everything else have terrible taste, Kagge’s boldness and curiosity have served him well.


James Shaw’s Organic Future

A version of this article first appeared in the Microsoft Five to Nine newspaper, curated by Protein, on 23 JUN 2015

Lately designer James Shaw has been busy considering the advantages of cooking people. He’s working on a hot tub for an artists’ retreat in Sweden, which will be cleaned by plants rather than chemicals. “Humans are full of nutrients,” he explains. “When you’re essentially cooking yourself in a big pot you’ll be oozing nutrients, which you would normally have to balance out with things like chlorine and hydrogen peroxide.” In his hot tub, however, you’ll be feeding the plants your own human stock.

The human body is only the latest subject of Shaw’s endless optimism and curiosity. His south London workshop, hidden behind scaffolding on the second floor of a huge housing estate, is churning out a growing range of bespoke products, from furniture to experimental gastronomy equipment. Everywhere he looks, Shaw sees the potential for new objects and for new ways of making. Time and again he turns to problems solved long ago, and solves them again in a new way.

James Shaw’s Symbiotic Hot Tub in Gotland, Sweden

While some inspiration comes from the products around him, some comes from the darkest depths of the internet and the experts who lurk there. “We’ve got a million Youtube videos available which I use all the time. There’s all these people out there who have so much knowledge and they can teach you to do anything,” he explains.

Shaw is a hands-on designer. He has tried designing for factory production, but quickly became dissatisfied. “There’s this traditional way designers work which is purely formal, where you’re detached from the making of the object, from the materiality of it, just drawing stuff on a sheet of paper or a computer,” he says. “Instead of starting with a blank piece of paper I’ll start with a bit of material and some substance, and try to squish it together and see what happens.” It’s this openness to thinking outside of the box that allows Shaw to be so creative.

He has a way with working with molten substances that he squirts from an array of guns, many of which are tools he has invented himself. The Plastic Extruding Gun, for instance, allows him to work with molten plastic without the industrial equipment usually needed. He hands me a colourful, alien-looking lump of matter, which is in fact milk-bottle plastic. Shaw is drawn to this material because he feels its potential is wasted. “It has this invisibility because it’s so ubiquitous. But you can melt it down and re-use it endlessly.”

Plastic Extruding gun in action
Plastic Extruding gun in action

One such obscure lump provided the starting point for Shaw’s breakthrough project, the Well Proven Chair, a radical new furniture design, made in collaboration with designer Marjan van Aubel, which got him nominated for the Design Museum Award, and which won the Arc Chair Design Award. In this instance, the moment of discovery was a chemical reaction between waste sawdust and soya bio resin, creating a substance that rose like bread in an oven.

Shaw immediately sensed the significance of his discovery. “I really see that chair as an image of an amazing new organic future where objects are grown rather than wasted,” he says. “It’s a much more efficient way of making stuff. We are slowly starting to get to it through biological engineering. It’s going to be the future.”

Like many designers today, Shaw is preoccupied with sustainability, which is a big motive for his various products. But the question is, having discovered a self-growing material, why did he choose to make a beautiful chair out of it? The answer, as the hot tub also shows, is that Shaw sees the desirability of a product as a useful way of opening our eyes to new ideas. “We’re all really good at looking at an object and thinking, ‘what would my life be like with this thing in it?’ I think that’s a really interesting tool to play with.”

Well-proven chairs
Well-proven chairs

It’s clear that for Shaw, sharing ideas is an important part of a designer’s job. He has recently been involved in a community scheme in Manchester called “Tearing Stuff Apart,” organised by artist Àgata Alcañiz, where a team of scientists, artists and designers teach the public about the products they use every day. In one class, they explained globalisation by taking apart a cheap hairdryer and tracing the origins of its numerous parts from around the world. “It’s about people actually experiencing stuff,” says Shaw, “finding ways to make abstract ideas direct is so important.”

But Shaw is only playing his part in the greater explosion of knowledge-sharing that is changing the shape of the design industry, and many others. “We’ve got a million Youtube videos out there, I use them all the time. There’s all these people, they have so much knowledge, and they can teach you to do anything.” This is fertile ground for would-be independent designers. Shaw’s advice to them? “I think the key to any creative endeavour is just to jump in there and get started,” he says. “How you approach unknowns is a big part of it. You need to approach them with openness and confidence.”

Of course, going it alone is tough. But for someone with Shaw’s creative energy, the appeal is obvious: “It means you can design your own life essentially. You can look at the things that are important to the way you want to live, like having a nice lunch with the people you share the studio with every day.”

Frank Auerbach: The Art of Immersion

This article was first published online by Prospect Magazine on 7 Oct 2013

Frank Auerbach’s studio, where the painter has worked day and night for almost sixty years, has long been treasured by journalists, photographers and art historians. The dusty room in Camden, devoid of worldly possessions and inhabited by “stratified chunks of paint,” has itself been painted continuously in words, as if visitors are intoxicated by turpentine and charcoal dust. Artists’ workplaces often create magical atmospheres, and these studio narratives fill me with jealousy. But it seems that the urge to describe this room stems also from the fact that Auerbach himself is so difficult to grasp.

Frank Auerbach came to Britain in 1939, aged eight, a refuge of Nazism and soon to be orphaned. He does not fit glamorous notions of artistic genius. Compared with some of his friends in the London group which has dominated British painting in the last six decades—Francis Bacon the stalker of Soho backstreets, Lucian Freud the gambler—Auerbach’s is not a personality that generates its own column inches. Instead, his story is underwritten by patience, erudition and endless repetition. He has painted the same handful of sitters and landscapes in a precise cycle spiralling back to the beginning of his career; only his style fluctuates, gradually, like an ocean. His art, despite the constant respect of his peers, has at times been incompatible with a mainstream establishment seduced by novelty.

Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W (1965), oil on canvas. (© Frank Auerbach/courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art)
Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W (1965), oil on canvas. (© Frank Auerbach/courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art)

However, that is no longer the case. Auerbach now has not only the financial and critical success he deserves, he also has an honour most artists could only dream of. As of this weekend, at the Ordovas gallery on Savile Row, his work hangs alongside Rembrandt. “Raw Truth: Auerbach – Rembrandt” presents six of Auerbach’s paintings from 1961-5 alongside four works by the 17th century Dutch master.

Auerbach has long spoken about Rembrandt’s influence, and it is clear in the works selected. Three blistering portrayals of Primrose Hill echo, amplify and distort Rembrandt’s brooding etch, The Three Trees. Auerbach’s The Sitting Room and Rembrandt’s biblical scene Joseph Telling his Dreams share structural elements. The works create a rhythm of their own, drawing you in to examine the infinitely detailed Rembrandts, and out again to allow Auerbach’s broad patterns to take shape.

It is tempting to say that the contrast makes Rembrandt appear strikingly modern. In the Portrait of Dr Ephraïm Bueno, the thick brushstrokes seem to presage not only Auerbach but also Soutine. The fertile darkness of The Three Trees is almost suggestive of Goya. Yet this anachronistic approach is misleading. It repeats the conceit that some sort of decisive dislocation—whether it be advanced capitalism or photography—separates “modern” art from all that went before it. This leads to a patronising discussion about which artists from history should be granted the right to join us on this side. It also implies that modern artists need answer only to new criteria.

Installation shot from "Raw Truth" at Ordovas Gallery, Saville Row. Photography by Mike Bruce
Auerbach’s three paintings of Primrose Hill from 1964-5. Installation shot from “Raw Truth” at Ordovas Gallery, Saville Row. Photography by Mike Bruce

The idea behind the Rembrandt/Auerbach exhibition is that there has been not one great upheaval but many—that revolution is itself the common language of great art. Perhaps no living artist could fill this brief as effectively as Auerbach, who considers artists of all ages his contemporaries in an ongoing conversation of ideas. The exhibition is a moving vindication of this deep engagement with the past.

At the stage of his career seen in “Raw Truth,” Auerbach was applying paint with unprecedented thickness­—he recently joked that he would no longer be able to lift one of these canvases—as a result of countless sessions reworking each piece. This unrelenting approach reflects his belief that a subject must be properly understood before its “raw truth” can be reached. Such an understanding is technical, but also emotional, grinding down all superficial relations to discover a fleeting essence. Becoming familiar with a subject “leads you to its unfamiliarity,” he once said, “just as people only blurt out the raw truth in the middle of a family quarrel.”

The purpose of Auerbach’s inner quarrel is to offer the viewer an experience scarcely available in contemporary art: immersion. In an age dominated by momentary distraction, Auerbach, like Rembrandt, presents us with a puzzle, an overwhelming and uncomfortable question. His art is a labyrinth, in the centre of which the viewer must find him. He reminds us that immersing yourself in a painting can be an intense, gripping experience. As Auerbach himself put it, “I dislike the idea of ‘art for the people’—what people like is great art!”