Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads ★★★★★ Courtauld Gallery | Feb 9 - May 27, 2024

For those unfamiliar with Frank Auerbach's work, this compact exhibition will provide an intriguing introduction. The two galleries display twenty-three portraits, seventeen drawings and six paintings, produced in the 1950s and 1960s. The faces often emerge from a dark background or layers of paint, and only gradually do they reveal themselves to the viewer. With the exception of the self-portraits, the eyes are generally averted and it is only the pose and the artist's presentation that expose the sitter's character. The works were produced over several months as the artist strove to capture his sitter, and they do not open themselves up quickly to the viewer. Each piece rewards one in proportion to the amount of time spent studying it. The works were gradually built up, having been erased, reworked and even patched until they create a palimpsest of individual identity that the audience is enticed to decode. These are people that Auerbach ostensibly knew well: his friend, Leon Kossoff; his muse, Stella West; his cousin, Gerda Boehm; his wife, Julia Wolstenholme. Nevertheless, he struggles to show them, and we are invited to share his formidable challenge of trying to truly see another person. In the self-portraits we are exposed to Auerbach's searching eye and in the rest of his work we are privileged to share that penetrating gaze. This is an exhibition that will delight long-time admirers of the artist and will fascinate those who are just discovering his extraordinary body of work.

Rated: ★★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Image: Frank Auerbach, Self-Portrait, 1958. Charcoal and chalk on paper, 76.8 x 56.5 cm. Private Collection © The artist, courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London

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