Following his first one-person show, at the Beaux Arts Gallery in January 1956, Frank Auerbach was left with 'a sense of crisis' partly induced by reactions to the extreme material density and monochrome sobriety of his earliest paintings. For the next eighteen months his output numbered only a few paintings and around ten drawings but these heads and figure studies were as ambitious and heavily worked as the oils. Strongly contrasting dark and light areas, achieved by vigorously handled charcoal sticks and an eraser, are in keeping with the stone-y, bust-like format. When the paper became friable, and the image still elusive, to continue working it became necessary to collage a fresh patch onto the paper surface. This self-portrait of 1958, in its singularity and solemnity, is like a pendant to the better-known heads of E.O.W. 1956-57 which are even more extreme in their contrast of light planes of the forehead, cheeks and exposed chest, and recesses for the shadowed, downcast eyes and dark clothing.
The handful of works identified as self-portraits are exceptional in Auerbach's work, but one could argue that his presence is a constant since all the portraits he makes are realised in a special atmosphere. The working process is very physical, fraught, and driven by spoken recollections of specific people and their achievements, shared with the sitters. One can hardly imagine Auerbach keeping still enough to render his own image, but unsurprisingly his features appear older than contemporary photographs of him at age twenty-seven where he is fuller-lipped and exceedingly handsome. The person seems distant, in spirit and physically, as if the mirror operates as an oracle, the need to expose oneself relevant to special, very private, circumstances.
Kitaj rather hero-worshipped Auerbach, attracted to someone with an unwavering sense of purpose and someone with ritual habits living in an austere studio with few possessions. Auerbach was conducting a life that contrasted with Kitaj's own restlessness and self-reinvention. They both saw artists, actors and writers as both belonging to a cultural continuum and individuals with fresh, specific experiences. However, Kitaj had more feeling for hero-worship and drama, and this quality was present in his collection and his studio.