Frank Auerbach (British, b. 1931)
The subject of this melancholy artwork is depicted in three-quarter view – it’s a man’s head leaning forwards and downwards. The monotone image is essentially grim, and leaves one with the fleeting impression of a person walking past the viewer in a dark corridor. The austere quality of the image is underlined by the basic and earthy nature of the medium, which is charcoal on paper. A sense of movement is conferred by the ‘unpolished’ finish of the charcoal, particularly on the skin of the man’s face and forehead, which one would naturally expect to be smoother human skin in a veristic image. The background, at once an opaque mass and yet upon a second glance, a dark abyss with implied depth, is highly oppressive and seems to wrap around the figure like a vacuum packed plastic package. The man’s clothes are barely visible, yet a black shirt is implied to be the vetement enveloping the upper body, judging by the collar area. So with this new information, a more natural scene might in fact be a man sitting on the edge of his bed in a dark room. The man’s face is stoic rather than overwrought with emotion. It would seem more likely that this is an image of a personage, at night-time, who is unable to sleep, as his facial expression is alert, rather than groggy. The extreme widow’s peak, leading to an emphasis on the forehead region, may represent a physically large brain, which symbolically in turn might represent unending thoughts in the mind of the figure, which may be keeping him up.
Depiction of individuals unable to sleep is a staple of the arts since antiquity. The central character Strepsiades in Aristophanes’ play, Clouds (Νεφέλαι) of 423 BC is a father hardly able to sleep at night due to debt he has accrued as a result of his son’s profligate habits. Strepsiades is described as wearing the expression of tired resignation, which potentially corresponds well to the figure’s face here in the drawing, if only a stronger light source illuminated the face of the sitter. Elsewhere in the world of the 5th century BC, Buddha supposedly stayed awake all night meditating before realising the last of his enlightenment in the morning. The last hour of his meditation before attaining Nirvana consisted of open-eye meditation in which Maya (the personification of worldly pleasure and delusion) taunted him. Buddha’s facial expression was surely similar to the figure bathed in shadow in the image – somewhat vacant though unbending all the same. Representations of the moments leading up to Buddha’s enlightenment in Asian art, tend, at least since around 1000 AD, to represent Buddha with a slight smile, rather than a stony expression, as is described in the earliest surviving Buddhist texts. In that sense, Auerbach’s image is arguably closer to a Buddha on the verge of enlightenment than are typical eastern representations of that scene.
Charcoal on paper is an atypical medium for Auerbach, who is best known for his oil and canvas paintings utilising absurdly thick impasto. Precise lines are therefore typically difficult to define in his pictures, with this charcoal drawing a relatively rare exception. In and of itself, though a figurative image, it is challenging to make out precise detail, though when the charcoal on paper Head is considered in comparison to Auerbach’s oil works, its areas of precision drawing are more easily recognised. The line of the jaw and the simplification of the left ear are the hallmarks of a quality draughtsman. Although only one half of the head is bathed in light, the outline is still strong and comprises one unit.
The figure in the picture is Leon Kossoff, a contemporary of Frank Auerbach’s. There is a series of portrait works based on the motif of Kossoff’s head that Auerbach created, but I feel personally that the charcoal on paper Head captures with the most visual clarity the likeness of Leon Kossoff, whilst not skimping on the advantages an artistic composition confers as opposed to a photograph.