Property From The Estate of Clive Donner
Forming part of a treasured private collection for over sixty years, Christie's is delighted to be offering four outstanding, early works by the venerated School of London artist Frank Auerbach including Head of E.O.W (1953) in the Post-War and Contemporary Evening Auction, and Head of Leon Kossoff (1953), Study of a Nude (1954) and Study of a Seated Nude (1955) in the Post-War and Contemporary Day Auction. Owned by the artist's life-long friend, the film director Clive Donner, these works were bought with his first big industry paycheck in the 1950s. At this time, Donner was swiftly becoming a defining part of British new wave film. His major break-through directing role came in 1963 with the release of the shoestring budget film, The Caretaker, which was funded through small individual contributions from luminaries such as Richard Burton, Nol Coward, Peter Sellers and Elizabeth Taylor, the actors waiving their usual fees in favour of a share of the revenues. The film, based on the play of the same title by Harold Pinter, was a runaway success, being shown at the Berlin International Film Festival, before later screening in London in 1964. It firmly established Donner within the canon of great contemporary directors and acted as a platform for other major productions such as What's New Pussycat (1965) and Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968) that were to so perfectly capture the spirit of the Swinging Sixties. What's New Pussycat (1965) was a Hollywood comedy written by Woody Allen and starred Peter O'Toole, Ursula Andress and Peter Sellers. The title song was performed by Tom Jones and became a major hit with international audiences at the time. Between film assignments, Donner was also one of the most successful directors of television commercials in Britain. KA
Head of E.O.W. is a rich, sculptural and lustrous portrait of Frank Auerbach's former lover Estella 'Stella' West. The second painting ever realised of E.O.W., it was bought by the artist's life-long friend, the British new wave film director Clive Donner in the 1950s using his first big pay check. Having formed a prized part of his collection, this is the first time this intense and intimate painting has been available to the public for over sixty years. Realised in sanguine red, sienna and burnished ochre, the painting conveys the impassioned intensity that once existed between the two lovers. Fervent in its frenzied application of paint, it suggests a raw emotional energy with its twills and eddies of impasto thickly encrusted on the surface of the painting. Stella's head is gestured forward in an inquisitive posture, as if inclined to listen to something being said. Her expression appears enigmatic if combative, her deep-set eyes cast into dark shadows by a bright shaft of light crossing her face. Executed in 1953, it is the work of a young Auerbach still enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art. At this time, the artist was living inseparably with his model and lover in a tall, narrow house in Earl's Court, and this sense of intimacy and shared experience is imbued in his deeply personal rendition of Stella. As the artist once said of his model, 'if the person has wakened one's mind, one knows what's not worthy of her the whole thing's got a totally different sort of tension from the simple transaction with a hired model' (Frank Auerbach quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 133). During the 1950s, Auerbach was particularly influenced by the examples of the artists around him, becoming an avid visitor to art galleries and museums, often making sorties with his friend Leon Kossoff to the National Gallery in London. Auerbach gravitated towards William Hogarth and the Dutch master painter Rembrandt, who was to become a constant source of enriched visual material and inspiration for the artist.
The intensity of both his relationship and practice is particularly apparent in Head of E.O.W., where the canvas is layered and over-laid with bloody reds and tawny yellows, leaving thick tracks of frantic brushstrokes. Stella's head pushes up assertively against the edges of the composition lending the painting 'a postage-stamp-like authority' (Ibid., p. 25) and giving the viewer a sense of her strongly spirited character. In Head of E.O.W., the paint surface radiates light in a manner that recalls the works of Rembrandt that he so lovingly studied in the National Gallery. His predecessor's skill and eloquence with paint deeply struck him: 'the handling is so rapid and responsive, but the mind is that of a conceptualising architect, making coherent geometries in space' (Ibid., p. 87). These elements were to become essential features of the young Auerbach, as demonstrated in Head of E.O.W. where the impulsive gestures of his brush undulate across the surface to define the character of his composition. Stella's lips are red and full, almost bee-stung, indicated by two striking sweeps of Auerbach's brush. The painting is somehow alive, imbued with the sitter's life, animated in the manner of William Hogarth's The Shrimp Girl that Auerbach encountered at the National Gallery. As the critic David Sylvester wrote of Auerbach's work the year after Head of E.O.W. was created, 'paint laid on with quite outrageous prodigality can be not only seductive but most subtly and mysteriously alive' (D. Sylvester, 'Young English Painting', The Listener, 1954 quoted in W. Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, p. 11).
Auerbach's relationship with Stella West began in 1948 when the young, determined artist stepped out onto the stage of Frank Marcus's production of Peter Ustinov's House of Regrets. Stella was cast in the same play as a White Russian landlady and she remembers liking him instantly: 'Frank was a very beautiful young man, looking very much older than his years, very mature. If he hadn't been a painter he would probably have been an actor' (Ibid., p. 133). Stella was herself an amateur actress of thirty-two, a spirited blonde widow with three children to raise. She ran a lodging house in Earl's Court and the same year, Auerbach came to live in her basement room. Shortly after, Stella became his lover and his principal model, Auerbach propping up his canvas on a chair in their bedroom, kneeling in front to paint her portrait three times a week. In many respects, Stella West and her children offered Auerbach a sense of belonging hitherto denied. The artist had been sent to school in Britain in early 1939 at the behest of his parents following the rise of National Socialism in Germany. The eight-year-old boy was never to see his family again. He last heard from them in 1942, still living under the dark mantle of Nazism. These events may explain Auerbach's ritual of painting the same subject, poring over their form for hours and indeed over twenty years in the case of E.O.W. As the artist once revealingly said, 'the same head over and overleads you to its unfamiliarity; eventually you get near the raw truth about it, just as people only blurt out the raw truth in the middle of a family quarrel' (Frank Auerbach quoted in Ibid., p. 19).
The couple's relationship was intense and sometimes fractious especially in light of Auerbach's propensity to work and rework his canvases. As Auerbach once explained: 'The person posing for me was someone I was involved with so the whole situation was obviously more tense and fraught. There was always the feeling that she might get fed up, that there might be a quarrel or something. I also had a much greater sense of what specifically she was like, so that the question of getting a likeness was like walking a tightrope. I had a far more poignant sense of it slipping away, of it being hard to get. I'd done the painting in some sittings in a relatively timid way, that is I'd tried to do one part and then another part, and save a bit. Then I suddenly found myself enough courage to repaint the whole thing, from top to bottom, irrationally and instinctively, and I found I'd got a picture of her' (Frank Auerbach quoted in C. Lampert et al. (ed.), Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, London 2001, p. 23). KA