A Show of Frank Auerbach’s Charcoal Portraits Illustrates the Start of a Steadfast Career

Early drawings on view at The Courtauld Gallery offer insight into the artist’s radical mystery.

A man stands in a small kitchen leaning on a blue towel draped over a chair
A 2022 portrait of Frank Auerbach. © Geordie Greig, 2022

Frank Auerbach has never been coy about his self-imposed mission to search for the new. New ways of drawing and new ways of creating a painting, all the time adhering to Ezra Pound’s idiom of innovation laid out in his 1934 collection of essays, “Make It New”, the title itself an extrapolation of ancient Chinese philosophical texts. Just look at an Auerbach painting. Great dollops of crusty impasto smeared across the canvas. This effortful 3D miasma is Auerbach not taking out bits that aren’t working. Auerbach is an artist who leaves mistakes and accidents in place, adding and adding until a satisfactory portrait hoves into view like someone emerging from the rubble after a paint factory explosion. That’s Auerbach—digging in and maximizing to come up with innovative solutions when others would rub out or walk away. Embracing mystery also helps Auerbach make it new. He talks freely about how his mind boggles when he’s taken over by the muse, an artist disarmingly astonished at how, with time and patience, his artworks come together as if he has no personal control over their radical outcomes.

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This neurotic newness has served Frank Auerbach well. Not only is he one of the world’s most innovative post-war artists, last summer his 1969 painting, Mornington Crescent sold for $7 million at a Sotheby’s auction, whilst E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown from 1963 went for $5.6 million. Not that this has affected the Auerbach lifestyle much. Age 92, he still paints in the same Camden Town studio (bequeathed to him in the 1950s by art school cohort and artist friend Leon Kossoff) and shares a modest flat with his wife, the artist Julia Wolstenholme, a short North London bus ride away in North London’s Finsbury Park.

A woman wearing orange pants looks at black and white drawings on a gallery wall
An installation view of ‘Frank Auerbach. The Charcoal Heads’ at The Courtauld Gallery. Photo: Fergus Carmichael

The Courtauld Gallery’s “Frank Auerbach. The Charcoal Heads” is the young Auerbach in full-pelt freestyle mode. Not long out of art school, he scratches, rubs and nibbles at the paper’s surfaces to arrive at something that is a drawing but also not. Auerbach studied under the artist David Bomberg at London’s Borough Polytechnic, and it was Bomberg that turned him on to charcoal, instinctively knowing the medium’s maneuverability would suit Auerbach’s celebration of chance. And he was right. Marks fly across Auerbach’s portraits on paper. Noses go Pinocchio and ears become Vulcan for images that are dark by both nature and in their impact. Auerbach is dismissive about his early life (brought over to the UK alone from Berlin in 1939 at age eight, his parents were killed in Auschwitz three years later) but it’s impossible to divorce such physical and emotional displacement from the bleakness embedded in his work, both here in the show, which features pieces made between 1956 and 1962, and throughout his canon.

A black and white charcoal drawing of a man
‘Self-Portrait,. 1958, Charcoal and chalk on paper. Private Collection © the artist, courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London

Drawings of friend Kossoff show the sitter staring downwards, his head a kind of Mekon globe lost in melancholic thought. In one (Head of Leon Kossoff – 1956-57) he is just about discernible amidst a Stygian fog of black dust. The effect is disquieting and emotionally charged. Between the 1950s and the early 1970s, Auerbach’s output was sprinkled with portraits of his on/off lover, actress and boarding house owner Estella Olive West (known to him as E.O.W.), and there are several drawings of her on show. Head of E.O.W. – 1959-1960 is a testament to Auerbach’s reluctance to give up on anything. The paper has been pummeled and there’s even a murky paper Band-Aid on her forehead. Estella looks both resigned and stoic, meanwhile, pushing on through unseen misfortunes.

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Kossoff and Estella were members of Auerbach’s preferred small team of sitters, and there are drawings of Julia Wolstenholme, Auerbach’s older cousin Gerda Boehm and Julia’s friend Helen Gillespie, along with a set of self-portraits on show, too. Auerbach’s drawings of himself gaze out from the page and way beyond, his Self-Portrait – 1958 cutting a Byronic figure (Auerbach is a big poetry fan) still young yet already kicked about by time.

Reflecting his keen interest in acting as a youth, Auerbach refers to his drawings as rehearsals—events done over and over again in preparation for the big stage of painting. And, usefully, there are a few Auerbach paintings here as well, underlining the magical, muse-driven evolution from elongated rehearsal period to opening night. For Head of E.O.W. III – 1963-64, fat ribbons of crimson red, straight from the tube, pull the nose, chin and neck together. This is Auerbach re-interpreting his charcoal paper marks as pigment, transferring a useful drawn line from paper to canvas. And the emotion remains. Squint and you can make out Estella’s downcast expression, her blue worried eyes floating in deep swamps of dirty white. There’s so much paint on the board it’s a wonder the artwork doesn’t bring the wall down. Head of Leon Kossoff 1954 is a grisaille, the kind of black, white and gray painterly layout sometimes used as an underpainting or way of setting out an artwork before adding color. Another rehearsal, then. Here, Kossoff continues to languish in darkness and contemplation. Thumbs of the blackest black bear down around white striations so granular you could file your nails on them.

A dark black and white charcoal drawing of a man in shadow
‘Head of Leon Kossoff,’ 1956-57, Charcoal and chalk on paper. Private Collection © the artist, courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London

These are works that chart the beginning of a steadfast career for Auerbach. One where he’s disconnected from the art world by his own volition. A belligerent career, even—Auerbach is open about his refusal to bow to the influence of trends and styles. Nonetheless, this is an artist who has always wished for nothing more than to address his calling: to make art. Asked about his attitude to his work in a 2001 interview with the Financial Times, Frank Auerbach’s reply was succinct. “If I hadn’t been able to devote myself to painting,” he said, “I’d have felt I had wasted my life.”

Frank Auerbach. The Charcoal Heads” is on view at The Courtauld Gallery in London through May 27.

A black and white charcoal drawing of a man
‘Head of EOW,’ 1956 Charcoal and chalk on paper. Private Collection © the artist, courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London

A Show of Frank Auerbach’s Charcoal Portraits Illustrates the Start of a Steadfast Career