Kelly Power

Rebuilding the Empire Cinema

Have you ever longed to touch a painting, to explore the richness of its texture with your fingertips? Recently, I had that experience for the first time. It was a day of novelties for me, as my trip to the Courtauld Gallery was my first time setting foot in an art gallery of any description. There were, I have to admit, a few nerves, as I know practically nothing about art, and so worried that I would feel ignorant. However, my visit was such a positive one that I wouldn’t hesitate to return there. Here I intend to recount my in-depth exploration of a single painting, giving to it the attention which I believe it merits.

I wandered the rooms of the gallery, searching for a painting which spoke to me on an emotional level, and I followed my first instinct in making my choice. Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square by Frank Auerbach portrays post-war reconstruction in a truly striking fashion, with layer upon layer of paint making it perhaps an inch thick in place. I held up my hand to its mingled browns and streaks of red, and imagined how it might feel, all ridges and chaotic lines.kelly power- blog post

The short description at its side told of the ‘frenetic scene’ that it evoked, and later I discovered a video by curator Dr Barnaby Wright which told the story of its origin: how Auerbach had covertly entered the building site to make his sketches for this, the last of his London Building Sites collection. I learned that the colours he chose to use were in fact the only ones he could afford at the time, cheap earth tones to mimic the dirt and rubble.

Nonetheless, they were perfect. I sat and I looked at this painting, closely, for a long time, until the idea of the frenetic activity of the building site began to coalesce without contradiction into that of the hand of the painter, adding one layer of paint after another, scraping away what was no longer necessary. It was painting as process. It was London as process, the scars of the war laid bare, but within their chronological context as only one small point in history. Beneath them lay the more distant past, written in the ‘primaeval clay.’ It spoke to me of the process of renewal, of tearing down the old and building up the new, and it spoke to me of hope: that even after the terrible tragedy of a world war, the weight of all the loss that London had suffered, the process went on. The city went on.

The painting moved me. With only a little contextual knowledge, I found great depth in the thick brown paint, in the criss-crossed red girders. Dr Wright’s explanation echoed my thoughts, interpreting Auerbach’s work as a representation of the co-existent forces of ‘creation and destruction.’ Before my visit, I couldn’t have imagined that the painting I would care for most would be one which didn’t reflect classical, conventional beauty and notions of artistry, but the more time I spent with Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, the more layers of meaning it seemed to contain.

by Kelly Power


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