Frank Auerbach at The Courtauld Gallery

At The Courtauld Gallery, paintings and sculptural-lite works by Frank Auberbach, produced in the 1950s and 1960s, are being shown in this dedicated solo exhibition, The Charcoal Heads. While the title may seem a tad on the literal side, entering the space and coming quite literally face-to-face with the works show us why curators have chosen to keep it simple. Evoking a post-Second World War malaise (to put it lightly), the emotions and human impact of their historical moment are both utterly palpable. This is not a joyous, nor even an especially hopeful exhibition, but the combination of Auerbach's skill and the alembic elevation of despair, whether considered to be social or personal to the artist, is truly powerful.

Frank Auerbach, Head of EOW, 1960. Charcoal and chalk on paper. The Whitworth, University of Manchester. Copyright the artist, courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London.

Autobiographical details are also hard to overlook: Auerbach was sent to London from Berlin as a child, to escape Nazi persecution, after which both his parents were murdered at Auschwitz. That embedded trauma is inescapable in these works, and while it may feel reductive to perceive such a rooted individual and collective trauma without it being made explicit in the subject matter, the works are of great psychological interest. Spectres appear in each piece, and behold a presence that is difficult to translate into language. The Courtauld's citation of the painting Head of EOW from 1960 says that the portrait of his regular sitter Stella West "appears to press out of the picture into our own space", but this is certainly open to interpretation. Each figure in Auerbach's charcoal works appear physically burdened and tarnished by pain and anguish, to the point that they have no interest in entering the viewer's world. In fact, no figure makes eye contact in the direction of the viewer, except for Auerbach's self portraits. Once again, the sense of alienation and isolation is palpable, as is the sensation of being both physically and mentally broken by the experiences of life, genocidal violence, and death.

Frank Auerbach, Self Portrait, 1958. Charcoal and chalk on paper, private collection. Copyright the artist, courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London.

Textures play a significant part in how we perceive the works, creating a disjointed aesthetic which is almost architectural in its depiction of the post-War moment. Viewers are informed of Auerbach's process, and the most notable is arguably his drawing, erasing, and re-drawing, which he has said he did between forty and fifty times per piece. This, in turn, produces works steeped in visual darkness, but also a certain kinetic, restless energy, where the image has gone through several guises in the transition of being reworked numerous times. In using this technique, it becomes impossible for Auerbach to produce static, one-dimensional portraits of his sitters. 

Official citations accompanying the artist's self portraits remark on how Auerbach appears to accelerate his age through these depictions, suggesting that he looks much older than his twenty-seven years in the Self Portrait from 1958. Instead, these to me feel more reminiscent of war paintings. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder emanates from many of the pieces, perhaps none moreso than this particular work. The ways in which the charcoal and chalk have been rubbed out and re-applied makes Auerbach's face jagged and almost evocative of a monochromatic twist on early twentieth-century Cubism. These techniques tell us that the artist wants to communicate something that far exceeds the mere superficial appearance of the face.

Frank Auerbach, Head of Gerda Boehm, 1961. Charcoal and chalk on paper, private collection, courtesy of Eykyn Maclean. Copyright the artist, courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London.

It should be made abundantly clear that Auerbach's Charcoal Heads are not about war, nor are they about trauma or specific pain. There is no instant gratification at play in the reception of these artworks. The way, however, that simplicity and complexity are fused together is itself a poetry. In terms of historical narrative, while the rebuilding of life after 1945 was certainly still taking place when these works were being made, the drawings do not appear to be frozen in this time period; the emotions on display are somewhat applicable to the current state of the world. The implicit techniques of conveying pain and deep trauma, most of which will have gone unsaid and unsupported in the youth of Auerbach and his peers, are harrowing to a contemporary audience. The stories of the artist's various sitters, including himself and by proxy the legacy of his parents lost to Nazi occupation, are made concrete by the dark yet heartfelt portraits made by one of the greatest artists of his lifetime. 

The Charcoal Heads, an exhibition of works by Frank Auerbach. 9 February - 27 May 2024. The Courtauld Gallery, London.

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