The more courageous that I am in destroying partial success, the more likely it is that I will get something alive and true.” Frank Auerbach

Capable of conveying great depths of human experience, Frank Auerbach’s charcoal heads (created in the late 50’s and early 60’s) have been brought together for the first time, and are on display at the Courtauld Gallery.  His drawings are considered to be standalone works, of equal status to his paintings, so I went along to take a look.  The drawings are hung together in two rooms, looking like raw forms of modern portraiture.  I found a deep sense of melancholy in those rooms, and inter-reflection upon each drawn face.  Even his self-portrait carries a weight of human experience, despite his 27 years at the time.  They are not simply portraits, but something so much deeper.

It is helpful to know Auerbach’s story.  His parents died in a concentration camp during the War and he was an orphan from the age of 11, growing up in a Kent boarding school, without much family left to speak of.  It is no wonder then that his drawings are not simply likenesses of his friends, but are searching for truth and intimacy. His portraits are barely living, as though excavated out of their materials.  They become textures of feelings as much as subjects. 

When he was 16, he started attending an evening class at Borough Polytechnic, taught by the then ‘out of favour’ David Bomberg, whose dense, thick, dark painting technique had a great influence on Auerbach.  In fact a few years later, when Auerbach was taken on by Beaux Art Gallery, his paintings were so heavy with paint that they had to be exhibited flat.  Likewise with these charcoal drawings, at each sitting more and more charcoal and chalk was applied, rubbing away areas with typewriter rubbers so that the paper eventually became burnished, torn, patched and reworked.  Forever seeking to reach the truth about his connection and relationship with his sitter through his materials, most of his sitters would endure 40 or 50 sessions before Auerbach was satisfied that a drawing had reached a conclusion.  

He is now in his 90’s and continues to live in the same studio/house he took over from his friend Leon Kossoff (also a great artist) in the early 1960’s.  You will find him in Camden, north London, which he hardly ever ventures beyond, preferring a routine of early walks in the neighbourhood (he also paints his local landscape).  The afternoons are for portrait sessions with one of a small handful of sitters, each assigned one of the five workdays of the week and with whom he has built up deep friendships.  His contemporaries from the 1950’s are known as the ‘School of London’, and include Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, RB Kitaj, Michael Andrews and Francis Bacon. 

The exhibition includes three women that were very important to him at this time.  Gerda Boehm, was his much older cousin, who had fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and was his only relative in this country.  She sat for him every week for 20 years and her portraits convey a yearning for a previous life.  Another sitter was the amateur actress Estella (Stella) Olive West, identified as E.O.W, with whom he continued a tumultuous relationship for 23 years.  His wife Julia is also included in the sitters from this time.  She was a fellow art student from the RCA and they married in 1958, but separated until his relationship with Stella was over, not reuniting until 1976. 

Perhaps it is also relevant that Auerbach was interested in acting, both at school and as a young man.  It is as though each painting or drawing session could perhaps be described as a rehearsal for the final performance.  One of his later sitters, the art critic and great friend, William Feaver has said,

“We are there to enable him to perform. We keep him occupied…”

In the 1970’s he stopped building up layers of paint or charcoal, instead his sitters found that their portraits had been wiped away to leave only a ghost after each sitting, to be started again.  

“At the end of each session the work comes off the easel and is placed on the floor, displayed casually, like a fresh kill. This is not the moment for critical analysis. There it lies, winded if not slain, close below the easel that holds the larger, current, landscape in progress. What one hopes for, over the weeks and months and years, is that from the familiarity of the pretext – person or place – something marvellously new has been released.” William Feaver

These portraits from the 50’s and early 60’s are heavy with their layers of effort and toil, looking battle-worn and scarred.  Together they are a series of hauntingly sad and fragile lives, of those weighed down in the wake of destruction.  They are the artist’s evidence  of the slow process of realisation that he was seeking whilst with his sitter.  But to us they are a reminder of what we might indeed feel ourselves when the weight of the world sits on our shoulders.

The Charcoal Heads, Courtauld Gallery, until 27 May 2024

Link to Frank Auerbach print, available for sale