HHead down, head up, now on one side, then the other. Now, straight ahead. Frank Auerbach’s charcoal heads lean and move away. I don’t think he ever told anyone how to sit or pose – and, crucially, he never told any of his models how to do it. be. They were busy doing nothing throughout the sessions which took place week after week, month after month. When he’s scribbled “A month and a year” somewhere near the edge of a drawing, it looks like he’s sending out a childish cheer indicating that he’s finally finished.
Drawn and erased, redrawn then erased again, Frank Auerbach’s heads emerge from multiple successive attempts and failures. Failing best, as Samuel Beckett said, Auerbach ultimately succeeded. Much is said about effort and the so-called hard-won image in Auerbach’s work, whether in painting or drawing. How would it happen, I often wondered, if he had succeeded on the first try? I don’t think Auerbach believes in miracles, although I think this mystery – and the mysterious connection between artist and model, or between one human being facing another – has more than intrigued him throughout. of his long career.
These people are there, and we think we can hear their minds turning, which is also part of its success, especially when the drawings are such accumulations of the superficial and the restless, the impetuous and the studied, the rushed-to and tender, all these attempts at identification. Auerbach is also an unavoidable presence here, even when he is the one doing the drawing rather than the one in it. His drawings always speak of presence and being, of the multiplicity and richness of the encounter, of the artist and the model, of the artist and the drawing, of us and them. The only gaze we encounter is that of the artist in a few self-portraits, but even then he is looking through us or at something else we cannot see.
The Courtauld purchased together 17 charcoal portraits made between 1956 and 1962. There are only six subjects – three by the painter Leon Kossoff, seven by Stella West (“EOW”), whom he met while they were playing both in a piece by Peter Ustinov, two by Julia Wolstenholme, who later became his wife, three by his cousin Gerda Boehm, Helen Gillespie and two self-portraits. All are drawn with charcoal, sometimes with a little white, blue or red chalk on sheets of paper of approximately imperial size. One of them has been reworked in oil paint and mounted on a sheet of hard cardboard, and almost all the others have suffered countless scratches – the paper so abraded by its gum that its surface is scratched, peeled, worn, torn, patched, patched (sometimes with another type of paper), creased, worn and sometimes almost browned by the repeated rubbing and removal of charcoal, often working with one’s fingers or a cloth but often using a hard typewriter rubber that frequently took the surface directly onto a piece of paper and eventually punctured it right through.
Very quickly, Auerbach began gluing two sheets of paper together, to double its thickness and make it more durable. He always ends up having to make periodic repairs to give himself a surface and keep the designs workable, even when charcoal dust accumulates along the contours of the pieces like irrefutable forensic evidence and the gum has nibbled away the edges which have all disappeared. crumbly and beginning to resemble mice.
Some artists might fetishize this kind of laborious work and paper abuse, and it can easily become a tedious mannerism. Auerbach himself said that he got into it and was interested to see what this curious object was that he found himself making. “It seemed to express the situation,” he said, insisting that it was not a comedy, but that he felt the drawings had “come out of the battle to become an image that defends itself.”
In Auerbach’s drawings, there is something almost magnificent about the way these presences, friends, lovers, and loved ones, rise out of the ruined sheets, and how things seem to fit together with a kind of finality. At the same time, both in Auerbach’s paintings and drawings, one always has the feeling that the final state one has reached remains provisional and precarious. In short, it keeps them alive.
Viewing photographs of works already installed in exhibitions sometimes prompted the young artist to request that the paintings and drawings be returned to him so that he could work on them further. And despite all their erasures and revisions, these drawings are cumulative. The commas, the vectors and the jerky lines, the strokes of light on a forehead or a cheekbone, the light which flattens a face and the layers of black which sculpt caves under the overhang of the forehead, the keel of the nose cutting through the air , differences. on the top of the head which remind us of a scarf or perhaps even a hat from Rembrandt’s disguise box, the rounded neckline which evokes a Renaissance tunic, the marks which scratch the neck and shoulders like if an animal had gotten in there, the quick black lines like a teacher’s adjustment to show how it’s done or a censor’s markup for a demolition job, it all adds up to something.
These are all signs of life, after all, against all odds. It’s hard to look at all the damage and dust without remembering that Auerbach arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport, that his family died in the Holocaust, and that his cousin Gerda and her husband fled Berlin and were arrived in London in 1938, just in time. At the time Auerbach made these drawings, London was still full of war damage and was black with soot accumulated over centuries. His drawings reflect a texture of feelings as much as places.
“At the end comes a certain improvisation,” said the artist. “I only have the courage to do the improvisation at the end.” It’s as if all those previous weeks and months were rehearsals, a sort of character staging for the final performance. I think he always moved away from casualness and didn’t want to be seen as easy – although that was never really dangerous. It is clear that Auerbach’s work is performative, but it is not a trap. Or maybe he wants you to think it’s not a trick or a bravura performance. I also don’t think we’re supposed to be soppy about the ruin and destruction that was involved in these drawings, nor applaud all the effort and paint that went into his paintings.
Artists are often methodical actors who allow themselves to be integrated into the roles they have invented for themselves. Marcel Duchamp said that this was the artist’s greatest invention. It’s a place to work. Occupying only two rooms, Auerbach’s drawings are interspersed with a few paintings from the period, of the same subjects, of the same heads. Drawings are more than informative and somehow contain more time than paintings. I have never loved his work as much as I do today.