Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads

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9 February 2024 to 27 May 2024 The Courtauld Gallery

An image of three abstract portrait paintings with dark, moody tones. Each features a distorted human figure in varying shades of black, white, and gray, with hints of red. The backgrounds are textured, adding to the overall intense, expressionist style.
Head of Julia II, 1960, Charcoal and chalk on paper. Private Collection / Self-Portrait, 1958, Charcoal and chalk on paper. Private Collection / Head of Helen Gillespie II, 1962, Charcoal and chalk on paper. All images © the artist, courtesy of Frankie Ro

A remarkable exhibition of hauntingly beautiful, large-scale portrait heads in charcoal

A group of hauntingly beautiful, large-scale portrait heads in charcoal by Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) - considered some of his early masterpieces – will be presented together for the first time in an exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery, opening 9 February 2024. 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 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.”

The exhibition at The Courtauld will bring together seventeen of these major drawings, showing them together with a selection of six paintings Auerbach made of the same sitters.It 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.    

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 exhibition will be a unique opportunity to see early masterpieces by one of the world’s most celebrated living artists.

Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads 9 February – 27 May 2024

Futher Information & Tickets:  Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads - The Courtauld

The Courtauld Lates: 9 Feb 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, music, and performances surrounded by The Courtauld’s collection of masterpieces at Somerset House. Book now HERE