Born in Berlin to Jewish parents, Auerbach was sent at the age of 8 to England to escape Nazism in 1939 by his parents, who stayed behind in Germany and subsequently died in concentration camps. Auerbach spent his childhood at Bunce Court, a progressive boarding school for Jewish refugee children located in the Kent countryside and was naturalised in 1947.
He later attended St Martin’s School of Art (1948-52) and studied evening classes with David Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic, where he became friends with fellow painter Leon Kossoff. After then studying at the Royal College of Art from 1952-55, Auerbach was given his first solo exhibition at the Beaux-Arts Gallery in London.
His thick application of paint was criticised by some at the beginning of his career but has come to be a distinctive feature of Auerbach’s oeuvre. He is regarded as one of Britain’s most prominent post-war artists and his works are some of the most internationally collected of living artists.
Within Britain’s art world he is known as a hermit, a holy fool who brooks no disruption to his hair-shirt routine of tussling with paint in the studio. There he either works alone or is visited by one of the handful of loyal confidantes who return, week after week, to sit for their portraits. “I am a beast in a burrow that does not wish to be invaded,” he once said.
He has been exhibited across the globe and extensively in London at the Marlborough Gallery, the Haywood Gallery, the National Gallery, and most recently at the TATE Britain.
Auerbach continues to paint portraits and city scenes from his studio in Camden Town.
The rise of Hitler and increasingly restrictive environment in Nazi Germany caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee. The German annexation of Austria in March 1938 and increase in personal attacks on Jews followed by the nationwide pogrom Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) in November and seizure of Jewish property caused around 36,000 Jews to leave Germany and Austria in 1938 and 77,000 in 1939.
On top of Jewish emigration, many academics, artists, authors and musicians whose work was labelled as ‘degenerate’ left for Europe or the United States as persecution increased throughout the decade. Degenerate was a term used to describe nearly all modern art, which was severely restricted.
Throughout the 1930s a large number of Jews were seeking sanctuary in the UK due to persecution in Germany, but the immigration policies relating to them were very restrictive. In November 1938 the Kristallnacht pogrom convinced Chamberlain to ease the admission policy, but even then refugees were only allowed entry on temporary visas. The British cabinet agreed that they would try to secure a home in the UK for Jews expelled from Germany who had achieved success in a number of fields including art.