Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)
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Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)

Head of E.O.W.

Details
Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)
Head of E.O.W.
oil on board
15 ¾ x 12 ½in. (40 x 31.8cm.)
Painted in 1955
Provenance
Paul Jenkins, Paris.
Private Collection, Paris.
Anon. sale, Christie's London, 23 October 1996, lot 61.
Acquired at the above sale by Jeremy Lancaster.
Literature
P. Fuller, in Art Monthly, July-August 1986, pp. 3-6 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 2000, pp. 81 & 226, no. 7 (illustrated in colour, p. 40).
W. Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, no. 40 (illustrated in colour, p. 240).
Exhibited
London, Hayward Gallery, Frank Auerbach, 1978, no. 12 (illustrated, p. 82). This exhibition later travelled to Edinburgh, Fruitmarket Gallery.
London, Christie's King Street, Defining British Art, 2016.
Special notice

Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Tessa Lord

Lot Essay

Painted in 1955, Head of E.O.W. is an extraordinary and intense vision. Turbulent layers of ochre and umber embody the heavy head of Frank Auerbach’s lover Stella West, inclined to the right of the composition. The paint is three-dimensionally dense, accumulated over countless sittings to bring forth the very essence of her physical being. We glimpse her features in a cavernous landscape of oil; warm light catches her forehead, offsets the hollow of an eye, and glances over her ear. Deeply worked shadow swallows some areas almost to abstraction. Stella – full name Estella Olive West – was the subject of the majority of Auerbach’s figure paintings from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. They met in 1948, when Auerbach was only seventeen years old and she thirty-two, and soon became romantically involved. Two-hour sittings were taking place three nights a week by the early 1950s. Auerbach’s works from this decade, during which the two shared a tall, narrow house in Earl’s Court, exude a particularly charged intimacy. For all their plaque-like materiality, these remain paintings rather than sculptural reliefs, and from their spotlit darkness shines the astonishing punch of psychological insight that characterises Auerbach’s most powerful and single-minded work. As his friend Leon Kossoff has written, ‘in spite of the excessive piling on of paint, the effect of these works on the mind is of images recovered and reconceived in the barest and most particular light, the same light that seems to glow through the late, great Turners. This light, which gleams through the thickness and finally remains with us is an unpremeditated manifestation arising from the constant application of true draughtsmanship’ (L. Kossoff, ‘The Paintings of Frank Auerbach,’ Frank Auerbach, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, London 1978, p. 9).

As in many of Auerbach’s works of the 1950s, Head of E.O.W.’s strong diagonals and condensed palette conjure an achingly visceral presence. In a physical sense the work radically fulfils the teachings of David Bomberg, whose evening classes Auerbach attended at Borough Polytechnic Institute from 1948, and who famously instructed his students ‘to apprehend the weight, the twist, the stance, of a human being anchored by gravity: to produce a souvenir of that’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 31). Taking lessons from centuries past, the work’s warm, earthy surface also radiates light in a manner that echoes the paintings of Rembrandt. Auerbach obsessively visited the National Gallery to study the Dutch master’s works, often accompanied by Kossoff. Both artists were captivated by Rembrandt’s combination of free expression and structural vigour. ‘[T]he handling is so rapid and responsive,’ Auerbach wrote, ‘but the mind is that of a conceptualising architect, making coherent geometries in space’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 87). Tenderly intuitive yet constructed with total compositional command, Head of E.O.W. sees Auerbach fusing these qualities in his own work.

While alive with art-historical inspiration, Head of E.O.W. is a totally personal object, reifying a profound exchange between two people. Stella remembers the sittings becoming more and more challenging. Auerbach worked slowly and irascibly, and a portrait could take hundreds of sessions. Nonetheless, she felt a real sense of collaboration in the process. ‘I realised there was some telepathy, some actual communication between us when he was painting me’, she recalled. ‘… Frank didn’t want me to walk around; he didn’t want me to even look, although I did sometimes. Mostly I looked at a spot on the wall, and he used to paint with the canvas propped on a wooden kitchen chair, because he had no easel in my place. Everything was all dripping with paint … the chair became more and more encrusted with paint, like a stalactite’ (E. West, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 2000, p. 134). Head of E.O.W. represents the rich rewards of Auerbach’s distinctive, serious and determined mode of creation: a unique outlook that has forged one of the most vital bodies of work in the last century of British painting.

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