From a rich and sumptuous web of viscerally applied oil paint, the just visible form of a head emerges in Frank Auerbach’s Head of Leon Kossoff. Painted in 1954, this dramatic and intimate portrait of the artist’s friend and fellow artist, Leon Kossoff dates from a seminal period of intense experimentation in the artist’s career, during which he forged an entirely new and unique conception of portraiture. Never before seen at auction, Head of Leon Kossoff was originally in the collection of David Roemer, son of Auerbach’s lifelong friend, the filmmaker, Michael Roemer, who was one of the earliest and most important supporters of the artist. With its richly impastoed, sculptural and viscous surface, the profile of Leon Kossoff radiates from the dark, densely painted background, his forehead illuminated by a bright streak of light that crosses his face. Filling the picture plane, the figure’s head is gestured downwards; his eyes downturned in a striking and enigmatic pose. One of the earliest of a series of intense and heavily worked portraits of Kossoff, this painting not only serves as a poignant testament to the extremely close and collaborative relationship between these two artists, but it boldly displays Auerbach’s novel approach to portraiture. Not concerned with rendering a faithful physiognomic likeness, Auerbach has depicted an introverted vision of his sitter, capturing a raw and immediate physical presence, or as the artist described, ‘the haptic, the tangible, what you feel when you touch somebody next to you in the dark’ (Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London, 2015, p. 23).
Auerbach first began to depict his beloved Primrose Hill, a quiet rural sanctum in the middle of the bustling urban metropolis, in the late 1960s. From this point onwards, this part of London has become central to the artist’s work, providing endless inspiration. ‘This part of London is my world’, he explained, ‘I’ve been wandering around these streets for so long that I have become attached to them, and as fond of them as people are of their pets’ (Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, N. Rosenthal & I. Carlisle, eds., Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh. cat., London, 2001, p. 15). Setting out at dawn, Auerbach went to the park at Primrose Hill and made rough sketches of the landscape: rapidly rendered charcoal or felt-pen drawings of trees, clouds, vistas or horizons. On his return to the studio, Auerbach used these sketches not as exact studies or plans for his paintings, but instead as impressions of the atmosphere; records of his experience of the landscape in front of him. Not completed en plein air, Auerbach’s process enables him to conflate his memory and experience of the landscape in his own time, capturing ‘what it was like to actually draw there that morning…what I see is what I was looking at when I did the drawing and it reminds me of it. That’s what it was for. I see the sunlight and the trees and the hill so I paint from these by looking at the drawing…I’m looking at black and white drawings and the lines signal colours to me’ (Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London, 1990, p. 166).
Like Constable’s large and evocative depictions of the landscape, Auerbach’s paintings capture fleeting and ephemeral moments in time, yet these scenes are monumentalised, meticulously worked up by the artist to create an image of permanence and durability. In this way, Auerbach’s landscapes belong in the great heritage of European landscape painting, but, with their powerful portrayals of London, these works occupy a particular place within this lineage: as Auerbach has observed, ‘I have a strong sense that London hasn’t been properly painted. New York has been – think of Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge, or O’Keeffe’s Shelton with Sunspots. Paris has been painted to the last detail. But London? Monet on the Thames, Derain at the docks; bits and pieces, rather spottily, by Whistler and Sickert. But it has always cried out to be painted, and not been’ (Auerbach, quoted in ibid., p. 84).
Featuring one angular, striking hawthorn tree in the foreground, which Auerbach has described as, ‘a tree that shoulders the cloud ceiling’ (Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London, 2015, p. 172), the dramatic composition of Tree on Primrose Hill is evidence of a rare trip that the artist made outside London in 1975. Following a visit to Tretire in Herefordshire, Auerbach’s depictions of Primrose Hill changed. Here, the artist was captivated by a tree outside his bedroom window, and as a result, when he returned to his depictions of London, the motif of a singular tree became increasingly prominent. Though Auerbach cannot recall why he chose this particular tree on Primrose Hill, he remembered that he was aiming to capture the ‘feeling of the branch shaking in the wind’ (Auerbach, quoted in ibid., p. 176), and integrate this into the rhythm of zigzagging strokes and vigorous impasto of the painting.