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9 FEBRUARY – 27 MAY 2024




Head of EOW, 1956; Self-Portrait, 1958; Head of Leon Kossoff 1956-57


Apparently, Frank Auerbach considered his face boring to paint. The Charcoal Heads showcasing Auerbach’s early portraiture works at The Courtauld, Somerset House, includes two self portraits of the young, post-war artist which offer a rare opportunity to judge his perception of his younger appearance. Auerbach stood by his conviction and didn’t return to self portraits until his seventies.

The Charcoal Heads also presents, Auerbach's portraits of those close to him. He focussed on his subjects drawing and painting the same face over and over again. “I feel there is no grander entity than the individual human being… I would like my work to stand for individual experience.”

There are, in fact, several oils in the exhibition which stand out for their mountainous slabs of paint, taking impasto to its limits and best viewed at a distance. However, what is significant about his early works in charcoal is the effort involved which is visible in the final presentation. Auerbach worked and reworked each portrait, often erasing the entire portrait. The paper is visibly scratched and patched. Self Portrait 1958, is a case in point demonstrating how Auerbach tore at the paper sticking large, rectangular patches of corrections like patchwork across the paper.

Auerbach’s works are intense and dark. Together in one setting, the portraits do tend to merge into similarity across subjects (heart shaped faces; high foreheads; eyes downcast) which begs the question did everyone really look so similar? Or is this lack of differentiation the result of relentless reworking of what amounts to a few select sitters?

One of his favourite sitters was Estella Olive West, his long term partner known as Stella. These portraits are simply entitled Head of EOW, using her initials. Stella’s friend, Helen Gillespie also features. The Head of Helen Gillespie 1962, shows red slashes across the portraits which, it has been suggested, represent the torment of losing parents to Auschwitz. Shedding light on these markings, Auerbach explains: “At the end comes a certain improvisation. I get the courage to the improvisation only at the end.”

There are two portraits of his wife Julia Wolstenholme, who became Auerbach’s model for more than 40 years and Gerda Boehm, Auerbach’s older cousin who fled Nazi Germany in 1939 to settle in London. Gerda posed for Auerbach weekly for the next 20 years. Auerbach commented: “to paint the same head over and over leads to unfamiliarity. Eventually, you get near the raw truth about it.”

Now aged 92 Auerbach still works from his Camden Studio in North London. He has outlived his contemporaries who included his good friends Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff. All highly successful and well-known, the artists belonged, as young men, to the London School of Artists.

Such was his friendship with Kossoff that he drew and painted many portraits of the artist. The Head of Leon Kossoff 1954, an oil on canvas, is included in the exhibition alongside several charcoal portraits.

Whilst at the Courtauld, it’s worth checking out two paintings of London building sites - one by Leon Kossoff (Shell Building Site 1962) and one by Frank Auerbach (Rebuilding The Empire Cinema, Leicester Square 1962). Both are large scale, impasto oil paintings in dark reds, blacks, greens and browns depicting the legacy of the blitz after the devastation of the city during the Second World War. Poignantly, as if sealing the friendship for longevity, both sit side by side in the 20th Century British Art section as part of the permanent collection.


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