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Viscerally Raw, Profoundly Moving — A Review of ‘Frank Auerbach. The Charcoal Heads’ at the Courtauld Gallery | ★★★★★

Written by: Haomin Li


Juxtaposition of Painting and Drawings
Juxtaposition of Painting and Drawings

Having seen ‘Frank Auerbach. The Charcoal Heads’ at the Courtauld Gallery on the 24th of May, the last Friday of the special exhibition, I now feel somehow different. I feel alive. It was a profoundly poignant and viscerally emotive experience. 


Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) is one of the most well-known figures in twentieth-century British art, together with Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, and Leon Kossoff. Auerbach’s childhood was drenched in heart-wrenching tragedy. In April 1939 young Auerbach was sent by his parents to the United Kingdom to escape the ongoing persecution of Jewish population under the National Socialist regime when Auerbach was not even eight. (Around 3 years later Auerbach would tragically lose his parents to Auschwitz…) Auerbach later attended St. Martin’s School of Art in London, starting his journey to becoming one of the leading artists of his own generation and indeed an icon for the generations which ensued. In terms of his art, Auerbach is most known for his incredibly powerful, dynamic, and even ostensibly chaotic paintings, landscapes and portraits in particular. The latest exhibition at the Courtauld focussed on Auerbach in his twenties and early thirties working on portraits and exploring the connectivity between the raw strokes on paper, board, or canvas and the physiological as well as the psychological features of his sitters.


‘Simplicity' — in terms of the curation of the show — is the first word that came to my mind. The selection of artworks was strategic. As suggested by its title, the exhibition focussed mainly on the very first wave of charcoal heads of numerous sitters — relatives, friends, partners — that Auerbach has elaborately created from the 1950s to the 60s. In terms of quantity, the exhibition had a concisely and carefully selected group of 22 artworks, six of which were oil paintings and the rest were charcoal drawings. The display of the artworks is rational and straightforward. There are several sets of juxtaposition of charcoal on paper and oil on canvas, suggestively displayed on the wall(s) for visitors to readily compare and contrast. Strategically curated, the exhibited works demonstrated visually the simple but impactful overarching argument of the exhibition: drawings on paper can be equally powerful as paintings on canvas or board. Given enough space to ‘breathe’ and to shine, the individual works of art on display each tells their own profoundly poignant and poignantly profound story…



In the first room are portraits of three people: ‘E. O. W.’ (Estella Olive West), artist (and Auerbach’s friend) Leon Kossoff, as well as Auerbach himself. Oil paintings and charcoal drawings sat side by side in the room. O the thick, textured, almost tactile impasto industriously yet intuitively applied on the paintings; o the raw, rough, almost ravishing ‘componimento inculto’ of the human face on the drawings. I was particularly captivated by the two ‘Heads of Leon Kossoff’ — one painted on canvas (1954) and the other sketched on paper (1957). The painted portrait of Leon Kossoff is poetically metaphysical in many ways. The sheer verve, vigour, and vivacity of the painterly touches, smears, and strokes of Auerbach would so keenly remind its informed spectator of those of Kossoff, a giant in modern British art and simultaneously the subject of this portrait. The painting is ‘additive’ in terms of its nature. The oil paint, one layer on top of another, creates a physical and almost sculptural presence. The head of Kossoff seems so intimate, yet it also appears so hauntingly strange at the same time. It is so eerily otherworldly that the spectator would sense the skull that is the structured, submerged layers of paint beneath the flesh that is the superficial layer. While painting Kossoff, Auerbach is also sculpting Kossoff. Ut pictura sculptūra. As is painting so is sculpture. The gradually drying layers of paint during Auerbach’s lifetime must have also resembled the inevitable passage of time and the eventual mortality of man. Ut pictura poesis. As is painting so is poetry. 


Kossoff Detail
Kossoff Detail

The drawing, on the other hand, looks as if it were on the brink of destruction — at the artist’s own hand. From erasing, scarring, patching, reworking, to eventually resolving — Auerbach created a battered and cratered surface, evidencing the artist’s ceaseless, unfaltering efforts to create an image of his colleague and friend that speaks both of his body and his soul. In this drawing, each stroke of charcoal as well as the erasure thereof lay bare the creative process of the artist and the ‘subtractive’ nature of this specific drawing. Boasting a eerie outlook similar to the painted portrait, the drawing showcases poignantly the spirit of Kossoff. What is poetic about this drawing in particular and indeed monochromatic drawings in general is that Auerbach, along with the great draughtsmen of all eras, breathed life into his subject with only one colour, composing the drawing with the abundance, the gradation, and the lack thereof. In both cases the artist kept working and reworking to the absolute material and humanly extreme. In the end the additive painting and the subtractive drawing present an decidedly similar visual outlook and psychological result. Both the painting and the drawing, with their mesmerisingly rough appearances, are brimming with raw emotions and thoughts — of both the subject and the artist.


Head of Leon Kossoff (1957) Detail
Head of Leon Kossoff (1957) Detail

Two works of art — once again a pair of painting and drawing — captured my attention in the second and last room of the exhibition. The painted Head of E. O. W. VI (1961), now collected by the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, clearly shows the rapid artistic development and transformation of Auerbach. Adopting a technique that is identical in nature to that of the 1954 portrait of Leon Kossoff, Auerbach has significantly developed his skills by 1961. The gestural paint in Head of E. O. W. VI is significantly more dynamic and upbeat, in some way more like Kossoff’s techniques of around the same period. I would even go as far as to comment that the strokes of paint in Head of E.O.W. VI is much more rhythmic and ‘musical.’ Just take a look at the paint itself! It only takes a glance to realise that each and every local part of this portrait is an absolute ‘Abstract Expressionist’ masterpiece per se. Do those micro yet potent dancing swirls of paint not remind you of the macro and sublime roaring waves crashing against the cliffs on the East Fife Coast? Rejoice on the rhythm of the brushstrokes! Revel in the melody of the paint! 


Head of E. O. W. VI (1961)
Head of E. O. W. VI (1961)

The drawing that immediately caught my eyes is a charcoal and chalk drawing of Gerda Boehm, Head of Gerda Boehm II (1961). Boehm is Auerbach’s much elder cousin who had fled National Socialist Germany with her husband to London in 1938, one year before Auerbach’s own escape. As Auerbach recalled, Boehm almost always carried — in her appearance as well as attitude — a nostalgic aura and a melancholic sense of her previous life in Berlin before the National Socialists persecution targeted on the Jewish population. In the drawn portrait, Auerbach captured not only the tangible, visible likeness of his elder cousin but also, as Auerbach always did and still does, the intangible, unseeable spirit and aura of his sitter. All the traces of rubbers across the paper surface, resembling the cuts of a knife, evoke the ruthless passage of time that no one could ever stop or prevent. This bygone time, concretised in charcoal on paper, evokes and indeed parallels the nostalgia that Boehm felt towards the free and fashionable prewar Berlin. Nevertheless, towards the end of my musings, I would always like to remind my fellow art lovers and indeed my very self that over-interpretation is the single most dangerous error that an art historian can possibly commit. Here is one fun anecdote by courtesy of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert: when asked about the ‘hidden meaning’ behind the pink dab and stroke on the paper, Auerbach, remaining down to earth up as he always does, answered in his characteristic unpretentious manner: ‘that happened to be the closest chalk within arm’s reach.’


Head of Gerda Boehm (1961)
Head of Gerda Boehm (1961)

At the end of the exhibition on the wall right by the exit are three portraits — one oil painting and two charcoal and chalk drawings — all of Gerda Boehm. Visitors are readily able to compare and contrast them with one another, spotting the divergence as well as the continuity amongst the three masterpieces — whether drawn or painted. The differences and, if not more importantly, the similarities between painted portraits and drawn ones by Auerbach immediately brought one key question to light: How different — really — are paintings and drawings? Certainly, the exhibition is not rashly attempting to single-handedly re-delineate the respective remit of the study of painting and the study of drawing, but it does implicatively pose the questions to its audience: what are the diacritically defining elements of a painting? What then makes something a drawing? In turn, which — if people could ever unanimously tell them apart — boasts more relative merit? These are longstanding questions in the long history of art. These are also the questions raised by this exhibition review as well as the exhibition per se. In the end, it is of utmost importance to admit that these questions are open-ended. Granted, they are intriguing questions, but they are not intended to be answered — at least not definitely, at least not right away. The true stars of the show are the 22 artworks in 2 rooms by 1 artist. Ultimately, the Frank Auerbach show at the Courtauld strikingly demonstrated that an outstanding, impactful, and even life-changing exhibition does not have to be huge and overpowering. It does not have to have a complex and obtuse narrative. As long as the artworks are viscerally raw, the exhibition will be profoundly moving.



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