Frank Auerbach is surely one of the greatest British painters alive today (read a Introduction to Auerbach here) – as attested by the current retrospective at Tate Britain (until 13 March). Yet he is probably not as appreciated by the public as he should be – perhaps due to his reclusive and private mode of work. He’s described himself as a “a beast in a burrow that does not wish to be invaded.”

This excellent exhibition brings him – blinking – out of that burrow. The work, mostly on loan from private collections is a true retrospective – largely curated by Auerbach himself.

He has chosen work from each of the seven decades of his career. Each has its own room. It’s a relatively sparse hang, eight or so works per room, carefully spaced out.  Hung on mid-tone grey walls – creating a Spartan and robust mood, perhaps akin to that of his famous Mornington Crescent studio.

You need the space to spend sufficient time in front of each, losing yourself in the paint, seeing them from different angles.

We progress from 50s London – drab, grey/brown and smoke-filled, through his life, lovers, friends, and places he has frequented. There is more acid colour in late 1960s – oranges, reds and sulphur yellows.

Auerbach has said, of looking back on his work: “Like time travel, these things unlock memories for me, sometimes more, sometimes less. It certainly takes me back to a time which, after all, is 50 years ago. It does that thing that painting is supposed to do, that is to drag the past into the present and reanimate it.” 

He famously paints the same places and people – over and again – in the same modest Mornington Crescent studio he’s kept since 1954.

Is this an obsessive desire to capture the world in front of him? To not lose hold of the things he knows? The result of a childhood evacuated from Nazi Germany, where his parents perished at Auchwitz? To capture life in all its shifting form?

His working method is defined by this search – constantly waiting for a conclusion, restarting each image over and again.

His sitters go once a week to his studio. Catherine Lambert, curator of the show, whom he’s painted form nearly 40 years, goes every Friday at 5pm. It can take months, or years before the likenesses are complete. Often the whole image will be scraped back and restarted after each session, until the image forms.

Although, he paints people he knows extremely well – these are not conventional representations but an elusive contract between viewer and object. They appear almost abstract at first, a mass of thick, raw, expressive, mobile confusion  – oil paint sometimes an inch think. But, it is very clear they are not just amorphous and you instinctively seek out meaning and distinct shapes emerge from the chaos – faces (not smiling), torsos, buildings. The image forms and reforms.

Often, the palette is so dark that the structures are hard to discern – you must work to see what’s there. These are the opposite of pop art.

The show travels from the Kunstmuseum, Bonn, and is the first major British exhibition of his work since that at the Royal Academy in 2001.