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14 February 2024

Frank Auerbach’s unsettling charcoal heads

These portraits have a haunted quality, the spectres of all the deleted images that went before.

By Michael Prodger

In 1963, the photographer and Soho habitué John Deakin took a celebrated photograph of a group of young men at a table in Wheeler’s restaurant. It is the earliest document of what became known as the School of London – a group of postwar painter friends who lived, worked and socialised in a city that still bore the scars of the Second World War. There sit Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews; of the main figures, just Leon Kossoff is missing. Auerbach, now 92 and still painting, is the only one of them still alive.

Back in 1963, the artists were beginning to make a name for themselves – for their rackety lifestyles as much as their art. And although Auerbach has been famous and widely collected for decades, at the time of Deakin’s photograph neither he, nor any of the others, were comfortably off. Even when they were in funds money was drunk or gambled and never stuck.

It wasn’t until Auerbach was in his fifties that he felt financially secure. Born in Germany in 1931, he was sent to England in 1939 by his parents, who would both die at Auschwitz, leaving him with no financial or emotional buffer in his quest to become a painter. The first 30 years of his career meant warming his hands on an oil stove before he could start work. His method was to paint in oils and if the day’s work displeased him he would scrape it off the canvas and start again. The paint he could barely afford ended up in the bin.

So for him, charcoal was not just a traditional drawing medium – and as an artist reverent about earlier painters that was important – but a matter of economics too. The collection of charcoal heads currently on display at the Courtauld Gallery date from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and are therefore both portraits of individuals who were close to him and works by an artist who knew what financial precariousness was and who feared he might not make a go of things.

They are remarkable and deeply unsettling images in which heads emerge out of the gloom, coalescing and dissolving in front of the viewer’s eyes, as if reflected in a steamed-up mirror. Drawing and painting, Auerbach has said, are “fundamentally part of the same process” and the portraits show him painting with charcoal – massing his strokes, laying mark on top of mark, sometimes rubbing his way through the paper and patching it, then erasing to leave a burnished surface, and reworking as he went.

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These are distinctly physical pictures that clearly show the effort needed to look at the faces in front of him and then conjure them up from the void of the paper. He sought, he said, his sitters’ “unique image” but “I find it all very difficult”. As with his paintings, he would draw a face and then rub it out after each sitting and start again, as many as 50 times over several months. The torn edges where the paper has given way curl like the impasto of paint and, unnervingly, resemble scars or peeling skin. Because the 17 large portraits on show, all made between 1956 and 1962, are the product of multiple long sittings there are no fleeting glances or expressions caught in the moment of change, but rather features that have settled into their most essential form. The skull beneath the skin is tangible.

Auerbach has only ever felt comfortable when painting people he knows well, so the sitters here are Stella West, with whom he had a close relationship in the early 1950s; his friend Leon Kossoff, a fellow student under David Bomberg; his wife Julia Wolstenholme; her friend Helen Gillespie; Auerbach’s older cousin Gerda Boehm, the only family he had in England in the years after his arrival; and himself. “I feel there is no grander entity than the individual human being,” he has said. “I would like my work to stand for individual experience”: the purpose of the charcoals therefore is to depict a life rather than a set of features.

Despite the arduousness of his process, however, the portraits have a surface vivacity, as if all those rubbings out and restarts were mere preparation for a final frantic push. “At the end comes a certain improvisation,” he says. “I get the courage to do the improvisation only at the end.” By the time of the eventual image he has absorbed not just the geography of faces and poses – the light on brows and cheeks, the downward tilt of the head – but the physical presence of the sitter too. And that knowledge suddenly comes out in a flurry of hatchings, scumblings and smears. Nevertheless, the faces are made of light, not line.

If Bomberg’s influence can be clearly felt there is another presence too: that of Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist of an earlier generation who used charcoal to similarly intense and unnerving ends. There is a haunted quality to her faces – the unshakeable weight of experience – that can also be felt in Auerbach’s. His sitters often look as if they have seen a ghost, the spectres perhaps of all those deleted images of themselves that went before.

Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads
Courtauld Gallery, London WC2R
Runs until 27 May

[See also: Byron’s war on tranquillity]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland

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