Out of the ashes

Posted on February 13, 2024

JAN WOOLF ponders the images of humanity that emerge from the tormented, destructive process of the Kindertransport survivor Frank Auerbach

Frank Auerbach, The Charcoal Heads
Courtauld Gallery

“IFEEL there is no grander entity than the individual human being… I would like my work to stand for individual experience.”

This statement of Auerbach’s features prominently in his exhibition Charcoal Heads; drawings from the 1950s and ’60s being shown in this combination for the first time. Monumental but deeply human, it is this contradiction that makes them extraordinary.

Down and dirty with charcoal, stuff from burnt trees, trees that could have been from the forests of northern Europe where so much awful stuff happened, he gropes for the essence of a person. Frank Auerbach was sent to England aged seven by his German Jewish parents to save him from the Nazis. This is context!

As is the fact that he was taught by David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic Institute after he left school aged 16. His resonance with that teacher was strong. Bomberg prodded his students to “define their experience of matter.” He wanted them, Auerbach recalls, “actually to apprehend the weight, the twist, the stance of a human being anchored by gravity: to produce a souvenir of that.”

So he pushed and scraped that charcoal, creating a new way of drawing that he considered equal to his paintings – painting that rose from the surface in heaps and whorls of paint. There are six of them here, alongside the 17 drawings of five sitters important to Auerbach, one of them a self-portrait that I think is equal to Rembrandt’s.

Yet unlike Rembrandt’s there is no real eye contact – it is only implied.

He worked and scraped at his surfaces, often damaging them and patching them up, scraping again, erasing, and ripping at the paper using his charcoal and chalks much like archaeological tools. Sometimes the drawing had been discarded and returned to months later, bearing the scars like a mined landscape.

We learn that a flourish of drawing, like a victory roll, overlays some drawings when he felt he’d nailed it, that something had been discovered or excavated. Sometimes a hint of coloured chalk which can give the feel of a charge of electricity. One portrait, or rather head, of Gerda Boehm is done in oil paint over charcoal on paper. It’s a drawing in paint with a reddish under-layer smouldering beneath the surface. It looks like ash on a nearly extinguished fire, but still full of energy.

The artist did not want to make just another picture of a person but “an independent image… that stalks into the world like a new monster.”

I thought the show well curated and the writing on the wall were nice accompanying pieces, not the usual art bollocks. This, next to a Head of Leon Kossof: “Auerbach commented that in London during the decade or so after the end of the second world war there was a sense of survivors scurrying around a ruined city. The drawing can be seen as a distinctly post war portrait that carries themes of vulnerability and resilience.”

I took my old school pal – desk mates 1961-6, the years when Auerbach was working on many of these heads.

“What d’yer reckon?” I ask her.


“Go on.”

“Given the amount of time he’s spent on each one, he’s searching. Not for perfection but an aspect. Like classical music, you know it when he’s hit a chord.”

So I wondered, as a seven-year-old removed from parents that are killed, if he searches faces until he finds an inner worldly attachment, until the person he is drawing speaks back, emerges from the shadows. We can’t know this of course, but like all great art it doesn’t give you the answer but invites you in to find your own.