Frank Auerbach ‘The Charcoal Heads’ at the Courtauld

Frank Auerbach ‘The Charcoal Heads’ at the Courtauld

Frank Auerbach The Charcoal Heads at The Courtauld Gallery. Installation View. Photo Fergus Carmichael

Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads, recently opened at The Courtauld Gallery, brings together a hauntingly beautiful series of portrait drawings and paintings by Frank Auerbach (b. 1931, Germany) executed in London during the 1950s and early 1960s. 

Head of EOW, 1955, Oil on board, 78.6 x 66 cm

The portraits are the result of an intensive and prolonged process of creation owed to Auerbach’s reworking of his compositions, continually building the layers up, and stripping them back. As if the process of paint application had overridden his subconscious, the surfaces he commands are equally as emotive and energetic as the forms he renders. Auerbach incites a relationship between artist and sitter, built on the foundation of the person’s essence, a memory of their identity, as opposed to their immediate image. 

As one enters the exhibition space, attention is drawn to the Head of EOW (1955), a hollow form of Estella West, who posed regularly for Auerbach. The onlooker is drawn in by Auerbach’s impasto leaving physiognomic recesses that provide the sitter with a vacant yet captivating stare. In the Head of EOW, Auerbach’s palette is dominated by dulled tones with the occasional warm pink pigment, reminiscent of raw flesh, which appears as a freakish presence in an otherwise pallid rendering.

Head of EOW III, 1963 – 64, Oil on board, 68.6 x 57.8 cm

The portraits have a tactile quality and are captivating for their ability to reach outside of the canvas and, in a three-dimensional confrontation, take on a life of their own. Auerbach’s critic David Sylvester remarks on this, noting, “a head becomes an object which, as we look at it, gives a sensation curiously like that of running our fingertips over the contours of a head in the dark, reassured by its presence, disturbed by its other-ness.” One sees this put into effect in the Head of Gerda Boehm (1964), where paint is applied onto the canvas like shrapnel, and facial features are demarcated by staccato paint lines that protrude from the heavily layered white paint.

Head of Gerda Boehm, 1964, Oil on board, 61 x 61cm

Although the paintings command their own attention on a pure aestheticist level, one cannot help but associate a sense of personal trauma to them. London was still recovering from the damage of the war when Auerbach brought these portraits to life, and one can see how the fractured landscape might have infused his work. One could turn to look at the agitated paper in Self Portrait (1958) revealing the mount behind; the charcoal applied in a slapdash manner reveals a shadow of a presence, recalling a time of destruction.

Self Portrait 1958, Charcoal and chalk on paper, 76.8 x 56.5 cm

“Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads” will be on view at The Courtauld Gallery until 27th May 2024.

About the Artist

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931, Germany) is a celebrated expressionist painter known for his rough impasto techniques. Born in Germany, at seven years old he was sent to Britain to and he went on to study at St. Martin’s School of Art, then the Royal Academy, developing a distinctive mode of application and mark making style.

From 1965 he exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery. He was given an Arts Council retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, London in 1978, and had solo exhibitions at the British Pavilion in the 1986 Venice Biennale, and at the Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam, 1989 and went on to garner major international acclaim.