The Courtauld Gallery showcases Frank Auerbach’s large-scale charcoal portraits. Created in the 1950s and early 1960s and shown for the first time, his exquisite drawings reveal a brutal yet shockingly beautiful quality, emanating a sense of dismal and dour emotions.
Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) regarded his drawings as possessing the same significance as his paintings. His dedication to drawing as a core component of his technique was shaped by the life drawing lessons he attended at the Borough Polytechnic Institute, taught by the groundbreaking artist David Bomberg. This, coupled with his connection to fellow pupil Leon Kossoff, gave Auerbach the confidence to create the enormous charcoal heads as pieces of art with the same stature and significance as his paintings.
Over several sessions with a select group of sitters who were significant figures in Auerbach’s life and served as long-term models for him, these collections of charcoal heads came into existence. With each drawing, Auerbach worked for months, erasing and redoing them entirely, occasionally piercing through the paper before continuing to patch it up.
Due to the properties and potential of charcoal, he could produce works that offer glimpses into the intensely felt sensation of another person’s singular presence—sensations that are both stunning and terrifying.
While Auerbach saw his charcoal and painted portraits as intertwined, he worked on each one alternately for comparable lengths of time, with the same level of intensity. The selection of paintings in this show illustrates how they interact with his sketches. Seventeen of his significant sketches are on display, along with an assortment of six paintings Auerbach created of the same sitters.
Auerbach’s work helps us understand the spirit of the period when people restored their lives as London gradually recovered from the devastation and disruption caused by World War II. They convey both the fleeting nature of life and the amazing experience of feeling human presence.
The exhibition is on view through May 27, 2024.