Laura Gascoigne

The ghostly charcoals of Frank Auerbach

Plus: an artist born in the 19th-century who anticipated Warhol by 20 years

‘Head of E.O.W.’, 1956, by Frank Auerbach. Credit: © The artist, courtesy of Frankie Rossi Art Projects, London

‘In some curious way, the practice of art and the awareness of the imminence of death are connected,’ Frank Auerbach said in 2012. ‘Otherwise, we would not find it necessary to do the work art finally does – to pin something down and take it out of time.’

There’s no sense of the imminence of death in Auerbach’s postwar landscapes of London building sites stirring with new life, but there is in his contemporary charcoal portraits, as scarred and sooty as the Blitzed city in which they were made. Auerbach started making large charcoal drawings from life as a student in David Bomberg’s evening classes at Borough Polytechnic, and carried on because the medium was cheap and allowed the endless revisions he found necessary to pin things down.

‘If you want to have clean ideas, change them like shirts,’ he quipped

In art classes the model would sit for a limited period during which he was expected to get a drawing finished, but there were no limits, in theory, on the number of workings and reworkings a drawing could go through if a model was prepared to sit and resit. In practice, modelling for Auerbach required the patience of a saint. In the 1950s the only volunteer apart from his friend Leon Kossoff, for whom he sat in return, was Stella West, a young widow with whom he formed a relationship. Identified only by her initials, E.O.W., she deserves artistic canonisation for sitting for ten drawings over four years.

The over-life-sized heads in the Courtauld’s compelling exhibition – the first to focus on these formative early drawings – were not simply reworked: they were drawn and redrawn from scratch. At the end of a sitting the charcoal would be erased, leaving a ghost image on which the next drawing was overlaid. Only when something had ‘risen out of the battle into being’ would the artist consider a drawing finished. The ease with which charcoal is erased allowed him endless stabs at a subject, each stab abrading the paper until it needed patching; eventually he took to gluing two sheets together in anticipation of the damage.

Two ‘Heads of E.O.W.’ from 1956 are patched with squares of paper bearing redrawn faces; in a later drawing from the following year, the surface of the sitter’s face is eroded like a statue left out in the frost. A ‘Head of Gerda Boehm’ is similarly weathered in the first of three portraits from 1961 but emerges unscathed from two later ones. A fashion designer in Berlin before the war, Auerbach’s older widowed cousin would arrive for sittings ‘slightly unfashionably, sensationally dressed… she felt she had had a wasted life’, he told the show’s curator. ‘She never found a life here.’ In the frowsy glamour of these sweet and sour portraits, it’s as if he’s giving Boehm’s life back the purpose it lost.

‘Untitled (Portrait de Greta Garbo)’, c.1940–1942, by Francis Picabia. Image: © The Estate of Francis Picabia. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London

There are two ways an artist can deal with thoughts of mortality: engage with them or distract himself with thoughts of life. Auerbach was in his early teens when he learned that his parents had died in Auschwitz; Picabia lost his mother to tuberculosis at the age of five. But the nihilistic Picabia didn’t believe in art’s capacity to salvage anything from life’s wreckage: ‘There is no destruction; there is no construction,’ he said.

A gifted draughtsman and pasticheur, Picabia had no signature style. He ran through art movements – impressionism, cubism, dada, surrealism – like women and cars. (He owned 127 sports cars over his life, plus seven yachts.) ‘If you want to have clean ideas, change them like shirts,’ he quipped. The one constant in his shape-shifting oeuvre was his focus on women. Auerbach drew women because they were close to him and had the patience to sit; Picabia drew women because he loved them and it cemented his reputation as a Don Juan. The more than 40 works on paper featuring women brought together in Michael Werner Gallery’s current show are as varied as one might expect. Pristine watercolours of ‘Espagnoles’ with elaborate mantillas and feline eyes – a recurrent motif even in his dada days – mingle with a Matisse-like ‘Nue’ (1910), a 1920s fashionista in a pea-patterned dress, a girl in a blue bathing suit from 1940 and a lewd drawing of a bum-face from 1949 you might expect to find on a toilet wall. But most of the images are pencil portraits of film stars, all Cupid-bow lips and smouldering mascara-fringed eyes, copied from the popular magazines he began using as sources while living on the Riviera in the late 1930s.

On his return to Paris after the war, these images were dismissed by critics as an aberration when they were arguably his most innovative works. ‘Good artists borrow,’ said Picasso: ‘Great artists steal.’ Picabia borrowed from everyone – Picasso included – but in using images of stars from popular media he anticipated Warhol by 20 years. Odd that Auerbach should be regarded as a modern artist while Picabia, born 50 years earlier, is now seen as a postmodern one.

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