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Frank Auerbach:  The Charcoal Heads

Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads


Accompanying an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London, Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads presents a remarkable series of hauntingly beautiful largescale drawings by the artist. The catalogue includes a new piece of writing on one of the drawings from critically acclaimed novelist Colm Tóibín.


This catalogue explores one of Frank Auerbach’s most remarkable bodies of work – a series of large-scale portrait heads made in charcoal, produced during his early years as a young artist in postwar London. Auerbach (b. 1931) spent months on each drawing, working and reworking them during numerous sessions with his sitters.


This prolonged and vigorous process of creation is evident in the finished drawings, which are richly textured and layered. Auerbach would sometimes even break through the paper and patch it up before carrying on. His heads thus emerge from the darkness of the charcoal with burning vitality, born of an artistic as well as a physical struggle with the medium. The process of repeated creation and destruction, of which these images bear the visible scars, speaks profoundly of their times, as people rebuilt their lives after the ruination and upending of the war.


The exhibition will be the first time Auerbach’s extraordinary drawings, made in the 1950s and early 1960s, have been brought together as a comprehensive group. They will be shown together with a selection of paintings he made of the same sitters; for the artist, painting and drawing have always been deeply entwined.


The accompanying catalogue – by Deputy Head of The Courtauld Gallery, Barnaby Wright, and with an essay by one of the greatest contemporary voices in the English language, Colm Tóibín – is the first publication to explore in depth this magnificent series. Tóibín spent several hours one afternoon in front of Auerbach’s Self-Portrait (1958), which features on the front cover of the book, looking closely and taking notes. His essay is an account of his experience and offers new insights into the work and the nature of self-portaiture.

  • Barnaby Wright

    with an essay by Colm Tóibín

    February 2024
    Hardback, 250 x 260 mm
    136 pp., approx 70 illustrations
    ISBN: 978-1-913645-59-5


    Dr Barnaby Wright is Deputy Head of The Courtauld Gallery and Daniel Katz Curator of Twentieth-Century Art.


    Colm Tóibín FRSL is a critically acclaimed Irish author of novels, short stories, essays, articles, as well as a critic, playwright and poet. He is widely considered one of Ireland’s greatest living writers.

  • Exhibition details

    The Courtauld Gallery, London
    9 February – 27 May 2024

  • In the press

    ★★★★ Thrillingly alive ... there is something almost magnificent about the way these presences, friends and lovers and people close to him rear up from the ruined sheets, and how things seem to cohere with a kind of finality
    The Guardian


    ★★★★ It’s a privilege to see these intense, uncompromising works
    The Independent

    ★★★★★ Incredible ... feverish, violent, desperate things
    Time Out


    ★★★★ The iconic London artist’s work remains as arresting as ever
    Evening Standard

    ★★★★ These post-war charcoal portraits ... bear a thousand marks recording the struggle of their genesis  
    The Telegraph

    ★★★★ Succinct and certain ... reveals the obsessive and dissatisfied process behind the artist’s haunting artworks  
    The Times


    "Powerful, tender and achingly beautiful renderings"
    Studio International


    "Remarkable and deeply unsettling images"
    The New Statesman 

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