‘We were like two mountain climbers roped together’
One of only three recorded portraits that Leon Kossoff painted of his close friend and fellow artist, Head of Frank Auerbach is an intimate testament to one of the twentieth century’s most important artistic relationships. Auerbach’s physiognomy emerges from the dark, richly impastoed background, like a figure stepping out of the shadows. His profile, delineated by swathes of earthy tones, is punctuated by hints of silvery white as the light catches the bridge of his nose, forehead and cheekbone. The figure’s head fills the picture plane, his eyes downcast as if caught in contemplation. Among the first decisive expressions of Kossoff’s artistic language, Head of Frank Auerbach personifies a new, instinctive mode of representation that sought to reveal what David Bomberg described as ‘the spirit in the mass’ (D. Bomberg, quoted in P. Moorhouse, exhibition catalogue, Leon Kossoff, London, Tate, 1996, p. 12). This powerful, jewel-like portrait is rendered on a wonderfully intimate scale. By contrast, Kossoff’s two other portraits of Auerbach: Portrait of Frank Auerbach, 1953 (private collection) and Head of Frank Auerbach, 1953 (private collection), are both considerably larger and were completed three years earlier. Cementing their importance within his oeuvre, all three were exhibited at Kossoff’s first one-man show, held at Helen Lessore’s Beaux Arts Gallery in London, in February 1957.
Kossoff and Auerbach met in 1948 while studying at St Martin’s School of Art in London, quickly forming a close and collaborative relationship. Disenchanted by the constraints imposed by St Martin’s academic approach, Auerbach recalls, ‘I think Leon and I were perhaps a bit rougher and more rebellious than the other students. We wanted something a little less urbane, a little less tea-time, a little less limited. And not so linear and illustrative’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London, 1990, p. 29). Attending David Bomberg’s evening classes at Borough Polytechnic from 1948-1954, they found what they were looking for. Bomberg encouraged them to pursue a more immediate, instinctive and instantaneous approach to painting. He instilled in Kossoff a conviction in his own ability, ‘Coming to Bomberg’s classes, was like coming home … What David did for me, which was more important than any technique he could have taught me, was he made me feel I could do it’ (L. Kossoff, quoted in P. Moorhouse, op. cit., p. 12).
Kossoff and Auerbach formed a close bond, continuously working together, either roaming the streets of war-torn London in search of new subjects, or spending long and intense periods of time drawing and painting in each other’s studios. ‘I would sit for an hour and Leon would paint me, and then Leon would sit for an hour and I would paint him, and so we went on all day, turn and turn about. I’ve forgotten how long the process took and I’ve forgotten also how many days a week we did it, it may have been two days a week. It may have taken about two years for Leon to finish two paintings of me … and for me to finish two paintings of Leon’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London, 2015, p. 63). From this seminal period of artistic development, there are only eight recorded portraits in oil by Auerbach of Kossoff and only three by Kossoff of Auerbach. The symbiotic nature of their working relationship at this time led Auerbach to state, ‘We were like two mountain climbers roped together’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, ibid., p. 62). With its dense topography of viscerally applied pigment, Head of Frank Auerbach immortalises the inception of a relationship that would transform the development of figurative painting in the twentieth century.
Keith Critchlow met Kossoff and Auerbach when they studied together at St Martin’s and the Royal College of Art in the 1950s, and the three remained life-long friends. It was Critchlow who also encouraged Frank Bowling to take up painting, after meeting him on national service in the RAF and inviting him to live with his family. Critchlow was a talented artist in his own right but chose to pursue a career in academia, becoming a professor of art and architecture, a highly respected author and an expert in sacred geometry. Critchlow acquired Head of Frank Auerbach directly from Kossoff and treasured the painting throughout his life. This is the first time an image of the painting has been reproduced and the first time it will have been exhibited since helping to launch Kossoff's career in 1957.
This work will be included in the forthcoming publication of the catalogue raisonné of the oil paintings of Leon Kossoff, edited by Andrea Rose and due to be published by Modern Art Press in 2021.