A brief ekphrasis on Auerbach’s charcoal on paper head of Kossoff


Frank Auerbach (British, b. 1931)

Head of Leon Kossoff, 1956


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.

A summary glance at emerging technologies and the art market.

It might well be inferred from economic trends that in the upcoming ‘twenties, the 2020s, the leading national economies of the world, and specifically apropos the art market, such as the USA, the UK, and China will be becoming highly disintermediated in certain sectors, one of which will no doubt be the luxury goods and art sector. The disruptive use of relatively undeveloped technology of recent decades has led, for example, to the growth of services such as those delivered by Uber or Airbnb. Disruption in the art world has been limited by comparison. Regarding art movements and their power of undermining the status quo, collectors haven’t been quite as entranced by the shock of the new in recent years, as opposed to more reliably chasing blue-chip artists’ brands (I’m limiting the breadth of the discussion to contemporary art, as in a short time essentially all valuable art bought and sold will be of that ilk). With the decline of the late conceptualism of the 60s, the logical endpoint of formalist theory, collectors’ personal opinions on the art they purchase have regained a validity which was lost since perhaps the 17th century upon the foundation of the Académie de peinture et de sculpture. Left to run amok, collectors will either play it safe with highly established artists, oftentimes for essentially speculative/investment purposes, or end up forcefully regressing the cultural niveau of taste, selecting accessibly saccharine, infantile or otherwise mediocre art objects. The essentially selfless, and honestly Sisyphean task of upholding standards is theoretically within the hands of critics and curators, but this is outside the scope of this article to further delve into. Art fairs and the corporate-style mega-galleries of today are in, I believe, a transitionary phase at the time of writing and will be rendered obsolete in their current forms by the incoming tidal wave of societal and technological change. The growth of Facebook and Amazon wasn’t due to quiet words, discreet handshakes, and business practises which hark back to the days of J.P. Morgan (all the same, lacking his ingenuity). The sale (or ‘placing’) of fine art needn’t be so brainlessly inefficient and opaque.

According to the recent annual report of Hiscox (who insure art), 39% of galleries lack even a pretence of having an online strategy, whilst internet sales of art rose 24% in 2015. 92% of those who had bought art online claimed to be open to making further art purchases through the internet in the following twelve months, of which 43% self-identified as ‘young collectors’. As it stands, these figures are generally related to the purchase of very low-end art, typically early 20th century daubs in a backward looking style. Traditional auction houses in prestige locations are oftentimes seen as intimidating and detached to a young person accustomed to making purchases on their smartphone. Whilst auction houses have been highly aware of this (that being the elitist pretence), at least since American A. Alfred Taubman purchased Sotheby’s in 1983 partly as retaliation for how insecure the doormen made him feel, they have had mixed emotions about how to alter the state of affairs in practise. The ‘trendiness & accessibility’ gap was temporarily filled in by small auction houses Phillips and Paddle8 for a short few years, yet now in mid-2016 the lumbering pushback of the Christie’s/Sotheby’s duopoly has hit the contenders hard. Certain minor sales take place entirely online now, such as normal wristwatches and prints. Online live bidding is constantly being improved (although you still have to confirm personal and bank details by telephone beforehand), and catalogues for upcoming sales are now available as PDF downloads, with fanciful blurbs in catalogues next to major lots comparing, for example, a Hirst spot painting to a Rubens nude. Promotional videos are thick and fast with celebrities as guest curators, or providing their opinions on a lot. These are praiseworthy efforts, though as long as the companies reside in Regency properties and the secretaries are achingly aloof, these attempts to seduce those wealthy who are not au courant will have only limited currency.

Whilst key players in the art market have finally begun catching up with what is now mainstream technology, there appears to be zero chance of a contender jumping ahead of the curve in the manner of Uber or Facebook. The large auction houses and mega-dealers would not work with a cryptocurrency or make VR (virtual reality) sessions of their sales or spaces, let alone hold the funds required to invest in research and development of a technology in the way that Facebook purchased Oculus in 2014. Even if they did, a huge and unrealistic culture change would be necessitated first. There does, however, exist a tremendous multitude of ways VR, for example, might be utilised. Say, a booth in the Christie’s King Street lobby where one or two guests might put on headsets and walk around (using a joystick or a motion platform) a Doig landscape in three-dimensions, a specially realised environment specifically inspired from a central work in the sale catalogue. The user would hear the ambient sounds of the nearby steam, birdsong and rustling leaves, or for a series of Hirst spot paintings to be auctioned off, a VR experience of huge spheres in a white abyss crashing into each other with incongruous smashing glass sound effects. Such experiences might well create or heighten a collector’s emotional attachment to a work of art, and may eventually lead to significantly higher bids in the saleroom. Another instance of this technology in use would be mapping a collector’s living space and inserting a digital representation of the artwork into the space, leading a collector to perhaps feel a growing acquaintance with the piece before the sale date. These examples could be more or less automated for those collectors who would already have the hardware installed in their office or living room. More advanced technology of this type down the line could consist of a non-invasive neural interface and/or a holographic projector, which would encourage more communal events of the sort mentioned previously.

Block chain currencies such as Ethereum are decentralised, and are held particularly dear by Silicon Valley types, who are notoriously uninterested in the art market. In the ‘crypto space’, lots of people are singing the praises of Ethereum, which is unusual in itself and all the more so when one considers how new it is. Something for the forward-thinking corporate strategists of the art world to look into…