Frank Auerbach Intimate And Intense Charcoal Drawings Courtauld Gallery – Sue Hubbard

Frank Auerbach The Charcoal Heads,The Courtauld Gallery.

“Drawing is…. A form of mapping, it is a conversation with the self, an attempt to make sense of the physical world by giving it form and weight. No other living artist exemplifies this process with more sensitivity and nuance than Frank Auerbach.”

Of all the plastic arts, drawing is the one that most resembles philosophy and poetry. As Leonardo Da Vinci purportedly said, Art is never finished, only abandoned. There is always more that can be done. Always more that can be seen or understood. At its freeist, drawing is not a faithful capturing but a reaching towards the felt and the imagined. To draw is to exist in the here and now. The close observation gets beneath the subject’s skin, to the heart of the matter in what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to as ‘inscape’, striving towards the unique essence or inner nature of a person, place or thing. It is a state of becoming rather than an arrival. Marks appear on a blank sheet of paper where before there was nothing. Drawing allows for intimacy as well as immediacy, for speed and the drama of light and shade. A form of mapping, it is a conversation with the self, an attempt to make sense of the physical world by giving it form and weight. No other living artist exemplifies this process with more sensitivity and nuance than Frank Auerbach.

The exhibition at the Courtauld focuses on a small group of pioneering charcoal drawings produced by the artist in the 1950s and 1960s. Dense and multi-layered, these erased and reworked palimpsests capture the dark melancholy of the post-war years in a bombed and battered city slowly trying to emerge from the destruction and destitution of war. Poignant and arresting, these heads produced in charcoal and chalk emerge from veils of darkness into the light, pushing the process of drawing to its outer limits. Beckettian, in their self-doubt and lack of dogma, they insist that the artist can only ever fail in the attempt to translate the subject in front of them, then fail again better.

Frank Auerbach was a child of the holocaust. In 1939 he was sent to England by his German-Jewish parents to attend the unconventional Bunce Court boarding school situated first in Kent, then in Shropshire. He would never see them again.

Frank Auerbach
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

Arriving in London in 1947 at 16 without a fixed plan, he enrolled in several art schools, the most significant of which was The Borough Polytechnic Institute. There, he was taught drawing by the brilliant outlier David Bomberg. It was Bomberg who first encouraged him to work in charcoal, a medium more usually associated with sketching and the preliminary under-drawing for a painting. Charcoal allowed him the chance to erase, smudge and rework to experiment with chiaroscuro. Rather than having to obey the restrictive rules of draughtsmanship, an image could be ‘found’ and could slowly emerge. Known for his thickly layered paintings, the charcoals allow us to see that those too are, in fact, primarily drawings, a process of continuous deep looking where the lines of paint have been used to discover the form of the subject. The oil paint becomes an almost sculptural mass that provides the viewer with an insight into the creative thinking of the artist in his effort to capture and recapture what he sees in front of him.

The earliest drawing is that of his fellow artist and friend at St. Martins, Leon Kosoff. The son of Russian Jewish parents, there may well have been an unstated empathy between the two struggling young artists. Too impoverished to pay for models, they sat for one another, offering both encouragement and inspiration. Auerbach liked to draw those he knew well, and many of the heads are of Stella West (the E.O. W. of his titles), with whom he had an intense and complicated relationship. She would sit for him in a chair in her bedroom, often far into the night, lit by electric light. Kneeling on the floor in front of her, Auerbach worked with his paper pinned to a board propped on a wooden chair. At the end of a long night’s sitting, he would erase the completed drawing, rubbing it back so that only a spectral presence remained. This he would use as the starting point for his next session as if building up the essence of the person in front of him, each time probing a bit deeper, in what was almost a form of artistic psychoanalysis. As he worked and vigorously reworked, the paper became bruised and torn like a layer of ripped skin. Undeterred, he would patch it with another sheet as if adding a Band-Aid to a wound. There’s something poignant about these flayed surfaces that invoke the tragic mood of Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas or Roland Barthes’ punctum, that point when the sensibility of the viewer is directly pierced as if by the point of a spear. It is a reminder that pain is often the occasion of beauty or greatness in Art.

Most of the drawings other than those of West were made in the Mornington Crescent studio where Auerbach still works today. The patches, sometimes made on the back of the original drawing, sometimes on the front, are an apt metaphor for human endurance, a reminder of Beckett’s stoic remark: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ Auerbach demonstrates in these works that making art is as much a matter of will and commitment as it is of talent. What he has achieved in these raw and intimate drawings that are not conventional likenesses is the palpable essence of the human subject in front of him. Emerging from extremes of darkness and chiaroscuro (he is a great admirer of Rembrandt), he conveys facets of the personality that can only be glimpsed by this continuous, intimate, intense looking, an act that is akin to meditation. There’s a sense that these works have been ravished by time and encapsulate both previous memories of the subject as well as the present moment of looking.

Auerbach has said that ‘if something looks like a ‘portrait’, it doesn’t look like a person’. By this, he surely means that a simple capturing of facial features will tell us very little about the soul of the subject. That it is only by getting beneath the skin, as the poet T. S. Eliot suggests in The Hollow Men, that we are able to understand that ‘between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the shadow.’

Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads, The Courtauld Gallery 9 February – 27 May 2024 

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Sue Hubbard’s latest novel Flatlands (‘a tender portrait of wartime youth’ The Guardian) is published by Pushkin Press

Her new collection of poetry God’s Little Artist: poems on the life of Gwen John is published by Seren Books




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