Reaching into the real: Frank Auerbach at the National Museum of Wales

On a recent visit to South Wales I had a few hours to spare before heading into the Valleys, so I stuck my head through the door of the National Museum of Wales. It had been many years since I’d last visited, but my memory of the place was minimal.

The entrance hall in the museum was bustling, partly due to the cafe being placed there, but a few exhibitions were also placed in rooms just off the main drag. I headed straight upstairs, with no particular destination in mind, but being drawn to the beautiful bronze statue of Perseus by Frederick Pomeroy, guarding over the staircase with his gruesome prize held aloft.

Upstairs, there were more treasures to be had. I was particularly struck by two different pieces: a Frank Auerbach painting entitled Head of E.O.W, inspired by his regular model Stella West, and a sculpted head by the Welsh artist William Goscombe John, called Age.


The Goscombe work was just so lovely. I’m rarely struck by the desire to break rules, but I desperately wanted to touch this: to feel the smoothness of it, perhaps to reassure myself that it was indeed a sculpture. It seemed so alive, and the eyes had a sadness to them that really struck me: age seemed to weigh heavily on this woman. I felt quite emotional when I left her – I felt like I should stay, and hear her story, whilst there was still time for her to tell it.


The Auerbach work elicited quite a different emotion. It is oil on board, applied thickly, and the piece had, for me, a disturbing quality. It was as if the head was rising from its surface, attempting to breach the frame and enter the gallery – it seemed sinister, somehow, dark and foreboding.

When I walked out through the door, the sun was shining and a flock of bridesmaids were swooping by, in giggling synchronicity. I sat down on the steps and thought about my research, and how I could tie it in to what I’d just seen. Certainly, the images I had captured on my phone and camera (my own DIY digitisation projects) did not do the original artefacts true justice. This, of course, gives credence to the idea that it is only the physical artefact that has any credibility: that it’s better to see the real thing. There are arguments about cultural capital here to be had, but what is strongly reinforced is the digital dualist’s argument that the online world is a virtual reality, and the “real” lies in the physical.

This has mostly been discussed in relation to social media, and the real-world ramifications of behaviour conducted in the digital domain. But it plays out in the cultural sector through the implication that digital artefacts are not real, and the physical artefact has authenticity. I don’t necessarily believe this, but how do we recreate the physical in the digital world and for it to have the same sense of tactility? How do we recreate the desire to feel something? And does the boundary between the real and the digital only now exist in our minds – nothing more than a procedural memory?

Katherine Hayles asserted that we have entered the world of the posthuman, where the traditional boundaries between mind and body, man and machine have ceased to be relevant. This lack of boundaries suggests that the relationship between man and machine is not symbiotic but conjoined. This seems as inconceivable as the notion of mind and body being connected, more monist than dualist.

I fell into a bit of a philosophical hole after that, blundering my way from Hayles through to Descartes to Cartesian Dualism and causal interaction (good old Wikipedia!); how consciousness affects one’s physical reality. But what I strongly felt on that day (and still do) is that Auerbach’s painting was some kind of answer. Here was a painting, applied to a solid surface, which seemed to be reaching beyond its natural perimeters. By implication, the paint did not need the board. It was…disconcerting.

I can’t find the quote now, but I believe it was Willard McCarty who said that one of the reasons we struggle with digitisation is our frustration that we are not able to meld with it completely (please correct me if I’m wrong!). I believe that actually, it is that reaching out from beyond the frame that we have a problem with. It doesn’t seem right. I know it’s probably a cliché now, but I’m often taken back to Cronenberg’s Videodromeand that moment when James Woods is eaten by Debbie Harry’s, cherry-red televised mouth.


I’ve talked about experiential crossing in other blog posts, and whilst I think augmented reality goes some way towards facilitating that journey it lacks the tactility we require to make sense of our surroundings. What innovations are there to replicate the corporality of a sculpture – something liminal, occupying a space on both sides of the digital divide? Something like HP Sprout, or haptic technology (which seems to have been around for ages – imagine being able to feel the sensation of a manuscript folio through a screen?), or a combination of all of these things.

In any case, this was a very deep thought process for a Saturday afternoon in Cardiff, especially as the sun was starting to go behind a cloud and it was time for me to board a train. I was very glad to have visited the museum, and to have had the opportunity to see the Auerbach painting, which I highly recommend if you’re in the city.


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