The Courtauld Gallery unveils first exhibition dedicated to Frank Auerbach’s Charcoal Heads
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A group of hauntingly beautiful, large-scale portrait heads in charcoal by Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) – considered some of his early masterpieces – has been unveiled for the first time in an exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery.
Produced in the 1950s and 1960s during his early years in post-war London, this series of monumental charcoal heads reveal the significance of drawing to the development of Auerbach’s practice as he found his voice as a young artist.
Auerbach created a new way of drawing that pushed the medium beyond conventional limits, and he considered these drawings to be of equal status to his paintings. The qualities and possibilities of charcoal allowed him to make works that offer us experiences – by turns unsettling and beautiful – of what it feels like to comprehend deeply the unique presence of another person.
This series of charcoal heads emerged over numerous sessions with a small handful of sitters who were important people in Auerbach’s life, and who modelled for him over long periods. Auerbach spent months on each drawing, working, erasing and reworking them completely, sometimes breaking through the paper before patching it up and carrying on. The scars of this intense and vigorous process are evident in the finished portraits, which are richly textured and layered, emerging from the darkness of the charcoal as vital and alive after an embattled process of creation. The drawings connect us to the tenor of their times as lives were rebuilt, and London slowly recovered following the destruction and upending of the Second World War. The drawings express the fragility of life but also how remarkable it is to experience the vitality of a human presence. As Auerbach later put it:
“I feel there is no grander entity than the individual human being… I would like my work to stand for individual experience.”
Auerbach had been sent by his German-Jewish parents from Berlin to school in England in 1939 for his safety when he was seven years old. His parents were killed in the Holocaust and after he left school Auerbach came to London in 1947 aged sixteen and enrolled at art school. The life drawing classes he took, led by the pioneering artist David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic Institute, had a formative influence on his commitment to drawing as a fundamental aspect of his practice. This, and his friendship with fellow art student Leon Kossoff, emboldened Auerbach to make the large charcoal heads as works that had equivalent status and impact as his paintings.
He began making a group of these drawings in 1956 of Stella West, with whom he had a long and intense relationship. West sat for him in her bedroom with Auerbach kneeling on the floor, his drawing board propped on an old chair, working long into the night. He also made a group of portrait heads of Leon Kossoff at this time. In the late 1950s he embarked on two self-portraits and made a group of remarkable drawings of a few other people he knew well, including his older cousin Gerda Boehm and Julia Wolstenholme, whom he married in 1958. These works, each produced over many months and always reworked from top to bottom at each session with the sitter until he deemed them finished, combine deep and considered scrutiny with liveliness and spontaneity. Above all, the enduring presence of the sitter is paramount.
The exhibition at The Courtauld brings together seventeen of these major drawings, showing them alongside a selection of six paintings Auerbach made of the same sitters.
Auerbach considered his painted and charcoal portraits as entwined, and he worked on them alternately with the same intensity over similar extended periods. The choice of paintings in this exhibition demonstrates the interplay between them and his drawings. Such was the importance of the charcoal heads to Auerbach that his second solo-exhibition at the Beaux Arts gallery in London in 1957 was dedicated to a group of these works and he also included them alongside his paintings in subsequent shows.
The exhibition at The Courtauld is the first time such a substantial group of the post-war charcoal heads have been brought together, drawn from public and private collections, including works that have rarely been exhibited before.
Many of these works were made in Auerbach’s studio in Mornington Crescent, London, which he took on in 1954 and where he still works to this day. Throughout his long career, Auerbach has continued to make paintings and large standalone drawings of a small group of people who have sat for him over many years. His remarkable post-war charcoal heads established Auerbach’s way of working and his fascination with the human form that has endured for more than seventy years.
The exhibition is curated by Barnaby Wright, Deputy Head of The Courtauld Gallery, and is accompanied by a catalogue, the result of new research and conversations with the artist, including an essay by Colm Tóibín. The catalogue is available to buy at The Courtauld Shop.
The exhibition’s lead sponsor is Griffin Catalyst, the civic engagement initiative of Citadel Founder and CEO Kenneth C. Griffin. The exhibition is supported by the Huo Family Foundation and The Garcia Family Foundation, with additional support from the Rothschild Foundation.
With thanks to Frankie Rossi Art Projects for their support in the organisation of the exhibition.
The post of the exhibition’s curator, Barnaby Wright, is generously supported by Daniel Katz.
The Courtauld Lates
9 February 2024; 24 May 2024
The Courtauld Gallery will be open for late-night access until 22:30 on the first and last Friday of the exhibition as part of its Courtauld Lates series – giving visitors the chance to enjoy an evening of world-class art, cocktails and music surrounded by The Courtauld’s collection of masterpieces at Somerset House. Book now
The catalogue to accompany the exhibition is available to purchase from The Courtauld Shop, located on the Lower Ground floor of the Gallery, and online. Shop Now.
The Griffin Catalyst Exhibition: Frank Auerbach. The Charcoal Heads
9 February – 27 May 2024
The Courtauld Gallery
Somerset House, Strand
London WC2R 0RN
Opening hours: 10:00 – 18:00 (last entry 17:15)
Temporary Exhibition tickets (including entry to our Permanent Collection) – Weekday tickets from £14; Weekend tickets from £16.
Friends and Under-18s go free. Other concessions available
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NOTES TO EDITORS
About The Courtauld
The Courtauld works to advance how we see and understand the visual arts, as an internationally renowned centre for the teaching and research of art history and a major public gallery. Founded by collectors and philanthropists in 1932, the organisation has been at the forefront of the study of art ever since through advanced research and conservation practice, innovative teaching, the renowned collection and inspiring exhibitions of its gallery, and engaging and accessible activities, education and events.
The Courtauld cares for one of the greatest art collections in the UK, presenting these works to the public at The Courtauld Gallery in central London, as well as through loans and partnerships. The Gallery is most famous for its iconic Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces – such as Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. It showcases these alongside an internationally renowned collection of works from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance through to the present day.
Academically, The Courtauld faculty is the largest community of art historians and conservators in the UK, teaching and carrying out research on subjects from creativity in late Antiquity to contemporary digital artforms – with an increasingly global focus. An independent college of the University of London, The Courtauld offers a range of degree programmes from BA to PhD in the History of Art, curating and the conservation of easel and wall paintings. Its alumni are leaders and innovators in the arts, culture and business worlds, helping to shape the global agenda for the arts and creative industries.
Founded on the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to engage with art, The Courtauld works to increase understanding of the role played by art throughout history, in all societies and across all geographies – as well as being a champion for the importance of art in the present day. This could be through exhibitions offering a chance to look closely at world-famous works; events bringing art history research to new audiences; accessible and expert short courses; digital engagement, innovative school, family and community programmes; or taking a formal qualification. The Courtauld’s ambition is to transform access to art history education by extending the horizons of what this is and ensuring as many people as possible can benefit from the tools to better understand the visual world around us.
The Courtauld is an exempt charity and relies on generous philanthropic support to achieve its mission of advancing the understanding of the visual arts of the past and present across the world through advanced research, innovative teaching, inspiring exhibitions, programmes and collections.
The collection cared for by The Courtauld Gallery is owned by the Samuel Courtauld Trust.
About Griffin Catalyst
Griffin Catalyst is the civic engagement initiative of Citadel founder and CEO Kenneth C. Griffin, encompassing his philanthropic and community impact efforts. Tackling the world’s greatest challenges in innovative, action-oriented, and evidence-driven ways, Griffin Catalyst is dedicated to expanding opportunity and improving lives across six areas of focus: Education, Science & Medicine, Upward Mobility, Freedom & Democracy, Enterprise & Innovation, and Communities. For more information, visit griffincatalyst.org.
About The Huo Family Foundation
The Huo Family Foundation’s mission is to support education, communities and the pursuit of knowledge. Through its donations, the Foundation hopes to improve the prospects of individuals, and to support the work of organisations seeking to ensure a safe and successful future for all society. The Foundation aims to make art more accessible to all through its support for galleries, museums and centres for the performing arts. huofamilyfoundation.org/
About The Rothschild Foundation
The Rothschild Foundation is a charity supporting Arts and Heritage and the environment by awarding grants and through its support of Waddesdon Manor, a French chateau in Buckinghamshire.