Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads
弗蘭克·奧爾巴赫 : 頭部炭畫

“The head is included in the body, but the face is not…. The head, even the human head, is not necessarily a face. The face is produced only when the head ceases to be a part of the body…”

                                                                                                                 — Deleuze & Guattari 1

‘Self-Portrait’ (1958) by Frank Auerbach (Photo: Courtauld Gallery)

Frank Auerbach asserts that these are not portraits of faces but depictions of heads. Portraits of faces are over coded presentations that open out into the social field with its ritualised repetitions whereas these heads are attracters of attention, even when not necessarily attractive in any given sense. As objects of attention, they belong to no school or manner, they neither move towards an ideal completed form, nor the abstracted dissolution of formlessness, but reside within the oscillation of such contraries. They are the product of accumulated additions and subtractions, but their process of becoming remains obscure, so they resist simulation as they remain within a space of their own distinction. As such they are neither beautiful or sublime, nor abject even, but they might instead be tinged with qualities drawn from each such categories. Rather than aesthetic attribution they have a far more significant set of ethical traits.  Each head provides its own evidence of being what it can offer by entering the light of visibility but equally it is also a withdrawal into its own displacement into a placeless place that is invariably called absence or non-being. It is just enough of an offering to be designated a name and location without which it might sink back into a sea of generality and non-identity.

In terms of the history of art when do heads become faces and in turn portraits? In archaic culture we are witness to the depiction of heads. Heads open themselves to forces outside of human particularity, to what might be termed the non-human in the form of gods and spirits. The Romans are a junction point for a clear demarcation of this transition, but local to late modernity this oscillation is still in evidence. When Picasso painted ‘Les Demoiselle’ he painted it with reference to other heads, Egyptian, Iberian, and African heads. These heads served as outposts or intercessors, something impossible to convey through the portraits of faces. Turning though to the milieu of Auerbach, Lucian Freud paints portraits, even though they often map out faces with intensity, David Hockney paints and draws portraits, Francis Bacon paints heads, even despite often assuming mannerisms to do so, but Auerbach distinctively paints heads. There is a brute physicality to these drawings, which evokes the feeling of a process of excavation of raw matter to produce resemblance. Many of these semblances are like continents assembles from blackened dust that accumulate into formations and perforations. Rather than being the continuation of vision, they accumulate the process of interruptions and spacings. The struggle is not just one of producing resemblance but overcoming the fall into the region of the shadow realm where deformation and chaos reigns. In this process there is not just a build-up of layers, reversals, corrections, and eliminations but also a reanimation of the temporal progression of the work itself. Temporality of these works is time lead astray outside the principle of reality. Things are subjected to being taken apart, only to be reassembled outside of the order in which they were given.

These heads appear to run parallel to the fascination with the war-torn urban landscape of post Second World War London. The city it seems has its own distinct face and in turn a mask. London was called the ‘smoke’ in the 1950’s and early 60’s due to the smog which formed a ubiquitous blanket over the everyday life of the city. So, the combination of this desolation of a decaying structure and the pollution formed a grimy backdrop to these drawings, themselves produced out of charcoal. The light is thus subdued, a half-light in which absence is contested within a space that trembles by virtue of the struggle to endure. It as though the long passage of sitting for sometimes months, reflects the will to endure. Nothing is given in advance of this, just a process of being-with. This being-with is both intimate and remote at the same as if everything might be touched and in turn known mixed with remoteness and not knowing. Both forces are in circulation. Giacometti shares this same characteristic. Both artists appear as condemned to make work without a sign of finality as there is no proscribed destination or horizon. The difference between this condition of condemned thus contrasts with that of melancholia. It is in a region that places itself beyond psychological characterisation even though it might appear as a signifier of it. The fact that in both cases the idea of slowness is readily evoked, but this is a form of slowness that contains rapidly applied marks as constituent presence to capture what is fleeting within duration. The marks in these drawings, are at the intersection of the interior and exterior and replace the chasm of the two with a fold. They exist in order to eat away of the manifestation of time so as not to reside within either slowness or immediacy but on the edge or rupture of temporality the Greeks termed kairos.  

The word ‘subjectile’ is an ambiguous term employed by Antonin Artaud to indicate the interface between a support or surface and subjective manifestation in relationship to this. With this term, Artaud explored the way the paper or the support betrayed him by becoming a projectile that teared away from what it was subjected too. This points to a form of ontological insecurity that the act of drawing can occasion and when witnessing all the scars, tears, rips, and repairs to the surface of many of these drawings, we can become witness to the pent-up energetics invested in them. They can be understood as maps of this process of discharge. The word ‘subjectum’ is the original Latin word for the subject, which translates as ‘that which is pressed under.’ Drawing not only serves to indicate this condition of discovering being pressed under, but is an opposition or release to it. On the level of figuration, it issues an impossible conjunction, like a wound that is constantly being opened. This sense impossibility simply repeats, but in so doing is coupled with forgetting. In this erasure is part of what is made manifest.

Even though these drawings were produced early in his creative life they have the look of a late style. They also attract a relationship to the late style of other artists, and this is especially true in relationship with late Rembrandt. Beside the obvious relationship to a quality of intensity, there is a glow of ‘interior radiance’ that issues from the employment of black or shadow with both. Temporality simply stops signifying when absorbed into blackness. Late is the threat of dissolution. In a text by Helene Cixous ‘Bathsheba or the Interior Bible’ she asks: “Where does Rembrandt take us? To a foreign land, our own. A foreign land, our other country. He takes us to the Heart.’2 This could have been written about these depictions of heads. The head and the heart together. They are works that not only join the head and the heart, but also the void with a strange dignity. Within this strange dignity mixed with the void, a possibility of grandeur is occasioned, but one that is marked also by vulnerability also. As such they are marks recording an ethical encounter which opens out a pure relationship of being with. Those who sit with this must be touched by this sense. This space of encounter is our ‘foreign land’.


1.Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, P.188

2. Helene Cixous, Stigma, P.6


Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads

The Courtald Gallery

9 Feb to 27 May 2024


Text by Jonathan Miles


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