‘In conversation’ is an odd way to describe the act of hanging paintings by different artists next to one other, as the gallery has done here. Is there some kind of dialogue between work from the 1960s by the radical modern British painter Frank Auerbach and that of seventeenth-century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn? Are they really having a chat? If anything, this is more of a séance, with Auerbach reaching out to ol’ Rembo through some artistic ouija board.
This is nothing new for Auerbach. His 1995 National Gallery exhibition saw him using masterpieces by Titian and Rembrandt as springboards for his own painterly quests. The ‘conversation’ here is at its most fluid when the talk turns to portraiture. Rembrandt’s tiny ‘Portrait of Dr Ephraïm Bueno’ (1645-1647) hangs between two Auerbach portraits of Estella West (both 1964). The quiet gaze of Dr Bueno is echoed in West’s sunken eyes, lost under inches of paint. The dark, masterful intensity of Rembrandt’s delicate touch contrasts with Auerbach's frighteningly thick layers of near-abstraction.
But Rembrandt’s beautifully atmospheric ‘The Three Trees’ etching (1643) is dwarfed by three of Auerbach’s stunning and immense landscapes. It’s hard to see the link between the intricate subtlety of the Dutch master’s work and the Brit’s huge, blobby canvases of beige, black and maroon, even though they share a similar darkness.
Often, it’s up to us to make the connections – as when Auerbach’s interior still-life (‘The Sitting Room’, 1964-1965) is hung between a painting and etching by Rembrandt depicting Joseph telling his dream to his family. There’s modern, gestural painting on the one hand, religious-themed baroque art on the other. Both are beautiful but drawing parallels feels forced.