Frank Auerbach Wrests Light From the Darkness 


Frank Auerbach, “Head of Leon Kossoff” (1956–57), charcoal and chalk on paper, 29 3/4 x 22 1/8 inches, Private Collection (© The artist, courtesy Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London)

LONDON — A miasma of melancholy hangs over the work of Frank Auerbach, from first to last. Last! Last? A little premature perhaps — he is still, at the age of 93, working every day at his studio in Camden, the very same studio where he has always worked, painting and drawing, striving to wrest a little light from the darkness. 

A Jewish boy in Germany, he survived the war by escaping to England. His parents had no such good luck. The sad London of the 1950s, whose atmosphere we almost breathe in this great suite of charcoal drawings from the 1950s and 1960s, recalls how he has written of those times: a ruined city, atomized by its physical destruction. 

Two impressions grab you by the throat when you enter The Charcoal Heads at the Courtauld Gallery. What these portraits have achieved has in part depended upon an extraordinary economy of means. Auerbach had very little money to buy materials, and charcoal is much cheaper than paint. And when color does enter in, something else has begun. Possibilities of new creative directions emerge.

9. Frank Auerbach b.1931 Self Portrait 1958 Charcoal and chalk on paper. Private Collection © the artist courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects London
Frank Auerbach, “Self-Portrait” (1958), charcoal and chalk on paper, 30 1/4 x 22 1/4 inches, Private Collection (© The artist, courtesy Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London)

I do not use the words light from darkness, with its echoes both religious and funereal, lightly. The fact is that many, in fact the great majority, of these portraits, these single heads, seem to be emerging out of the darkness of their backgrounds, as if by some miracle. They are newly alive as images. They have escaped into life. They are lucky to be witnesses to the fact of their own existence.

The images of Auerbach’s old friend Leon Kossoff, for example, seem to possess a kind of reverential downward and sideways tilt — possibly a tilt of homage to an unknown savior. Fanciful? Perhaps. 

The drawings are hard fought over, winners after a long struggle. We see that by the way they have been worked over, again and again, patched up like a serried rank of the hanging wounded against these gray walls. Charcoal is very messy and dirty stuff to work with — it gets everywhere. But you can also achieve marvelous results when you rub it and smudge it and make your finger ends filthy with the stuff. There is much manipulation of light and shadow in these drawings, many quick, slashing strokes, sudden flashes of illumination. 

4. Frank Auerbach b.1931 Head of Gerda Boehm 1961 Charcoal and chalk on paper. Private Collection courtesy of Eykyn Maclean © the artist courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects London
Frank Auerbach, “Head of Gerda Boehm” (1961), charcoal and chalk on paper, 30 x 22 inches, Private collection (courtesy Eykyn Maclean; © The artist, courtesy Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London)

They are larger than visitors might expect. Many of his later portraits, whether drawings or paintings, are on a much smaller scale. These early drawings are more full of detail too — this is not the world of many of the later portraits, in which the human head is reduced to a kind of skeletal scaffolding. 

The scale of these drawings evokes another body of work in which he captured the sense that London had been nigh on overwhelmed by the forces of destruction: his sludgy paintings of the rebuilding of Oxford Street, also from the 1950s. They too were created with an extraordinary economy of means. Dun predominates. Why? Once again, it was down to money. He could not buy his way into the world of color. 

Here the starkness of monochrome is its own message, and it is a sobering and baleful one.  

3. Frank Auerbach b.1931 Head of EOW 1960 Charcoal and chalk on paper. The Whitworth The University of Manchester © the artist courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects London
Frank Auerbach, “Head of EOW” (1960), charcoal and chalk on paper, 31 x 22 7/8 inches, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester (© The artist, courtesy Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London)
10. Frank Auerbach b.1931 Self Portrait 1959 charcoal and chalk on paper private collection © the artist courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects London
Frank Auerbach, “Self-Portrait” (1959), charcoal and chalk on paper, 30 x 21 3/4 inches, Private Collection (© The artist, courtesy Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London)
6. Frank Auerbach b.1931 Head of Julia II 1960 Charcoal and chalk on paper. Private Collection © the artist courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects London
Frank Auerbach, “Head of Julia II” (1960), charcoal and chalk on paper, 30 x 22 inches, Private Collection (© The artist, courtesy Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London)
16. Frank Auerbach b.1931 Head of Gerda Boehm 1964 Oil on board. The Sainsbury Centre University of East Anglia © the artist courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects London
Frank Auerbach, “Head of Gerda Boehm” (1964), oil on board, 24 x 24 inches, The Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia (© The artist, courtesy Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London; photo Sainsbury Centre, UEA)
1. Frank Auerbach b.1931 Head of EOW 1956 Charcoal and chalk on paper. Private Collection © the artist courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects London
Frank Auerbach, “Head of EOW” (1956), charcoal and chalk on paper, 30 x 22 inches, Private Collection (© The artist, courtesy Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London)

Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads continues at the Courtauld Gallery (Somerset House, Strand, London, England) through May 27. The exhibition was curated by Barnaby Wright, Deputy Head of the Courtauld Gallery.



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