A few weeks ago I reread “The Emigrants,” W.G. Sebald’s sublime 1992 requiem of four men driven, in the face of totalitarianism, from Central Europe to England and America. In its last and most moving chapter we meet the refugee Max Ferber, a painter whom the narrator watches in a dusty Manchester studio, working and reworking a series of portraits with almost obsessive repetition.
“He applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded,” Sebald’s narrator observes. He watches the artist paint and scrape, draw and erase — and then marvels that somehow “Ferber, with the few lines and shadows that had escaped annihilation, had created a portrait of great vividness.”
When Sebald first published the novel in German, Max Ferber was called Max Aurach — and he is based in large part on Frank Auerbach, the British artist of oily, encrusted paintings that teeter between durability and disintegration. Auerbach, who turns 90 in April, is the last surviving member of a pathfinding generation of postwar British figurative painters, and 25 of his industrious paintings and drawings, made across four decades, each the hard-won product of months or even years of labor, are on view at the Manhattan gallery Luhring Augustine.
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