Heads hang heavy, bodies sink into the shadowy corners of the room. Frank Auerbach’s charcoal portraits are dismal, dour things, heaving with hurt and pain, but they’re also brutally, shockingly beautiful.
Auerbach came of age alongside Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon (he’s still at it well into his 90s too), part of a group of Londoners intent on reworking the form of painting itself. Auerbach did that in the post-war period with thick globs of pigment, creating dense, viscous canvases, closer to sculptures than paintings. But this show at the Courtauld is about his charcoal portraits from the 1950s and ’60s.
They’re not his most famous works, but they’re incredible. Each one is drawn and redrawn over and over again, erased and remade, erased and remade, so many times that he wears through the paper. They’re feverish, violent, desperate things.
Grim, spectral presences on scarred landscapes
His sitters always turn away, eyes in the gutter, shoulders slumped. Leon Kossoff is a vast cranium, his face lost in darkness. Auerbach’s wife Julia is fragile and stick thin. Stella West is skeletal and sickly. Gerda Boehm is sharp and fractured. Everyone here looks somehow haunted. Only Auerbach himself looks directly out at the viewer, in a rare early self-portrait, but it’s maybe the least successful work here. It’s better when he’s looking outside of himself, digging at another’s essence and pain.
Some works are nothing but shadow, a smudge of grey forming a cheek in absolute darkness. Others are lighter, but no less intense.
These feel like grim, spectral presences on scarred landscapes, so it’s easy to think this is art about the legacy of the war. Auerbach, a Jewish German, was sent to London as a child, while his parents died in the Holocaust. It feels like the work can’t escape the shadow of atrocity.
But I don’t know if this is actually about the war, the Blitz, the Holocaust. I think this might just be about us as people, as beings who wear the passage of time on our faces and in our shoulders, who survive only by enduring the scarification of what we live through. We carry the marks of our experience in the flesh, and that’s what’s on these sheets of ripped paper: the battered, bruised and broken signs that somehow, despite it all, we're still here.