Dating from a pivotal moment in Frank Auerbach’s career, the present work stands among his last portraits of his older cousin Gerda Boehm. Between 1960 and 1982 she became one of his most significant muses: his final depiction of her – related closely to the present in form – now resides in Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. Gerda and her husband had emigrated from Germany to London in 1938. Auerbach, aged just eight years old, was sent over the following year, and spent parts of his school holidays with the couple towards the end of the war. Auerbach’s parents died in a concentration camp; in painting Gerda, he was able to capture one of the few blood ties to his father with whom he had any remaining contact. His portraits of her drew upon this emotional connection –Catherine Lampert has observed that they remain some of his mercurial works, capturing multiple states within a single image (C. Lampert, ‘Auerbach and His Sitters’, in Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2001, p. 27). The present work bears witness to this assessment: sculpted from thick swathes of impasto, Gerda appears simultaneously restless and at peace, infused with living, breathing vitality.
As a pupil at Bunce Court School in Kent, Auerbach looked forward to his stays with Gerda in North London, where he immersed himself in books borrowed from the Keats Grove library in Hampstead. These trips, he recalls, were ‘very beneficial to me because I led this extraordinary cloistered life at the Quaker boarding school in the country … there were certain conventions and we seemed to be different from the rest of the world and had never quite caught up with the twentieth century … certainly Gerda Boehm and her husband were very much the opposite of that.’ Indeed, Gerda was something of a cosmopolitan figure: living in Berlin during the 1930s, explains Auerbach, had ‘somehow imparted to [her] a desire to dress well and cut a figure in the world, and an appetite for going out’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London 2015, p. 79). In the summer of 1948, she and Auerbach visited Paris together, where they imbibed the city’s art and culture. Over time, Gerda became a devoted and patient muse, who allowed the artist to make important strides in his work: ‘[sitting] can’t have been in her character particularly’, he confesses, ‘and I had this head start of having seen her over the years’ (F. Auerbach, ibid., p. 100).
Painted between 1980 and 1981, Reclining Head of Gerda Boehm stems from a triumphant period in Auerbach’s career. In 1978, he had mounted his first retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London. Following its success, he was invited to participate in the landmark group show A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1981, where he exhibited alongside international artists such as Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning and Pablo Picasso. The exhibition propelled him to global recognition, bringing his distinctive figurative language to new audiences worldwide. Since its inception, Auerbach’s practice had sought to capture the visceral presence of his subjects, transcending their likeness to reveal the raw impulses of their spirit. By the time of the present work, his technique had reached an extraordinary degree of maturity: wrought over long, intense periods of sitting and working, his paintings – he believed – took on a life of their own. In the present work, colour, form and texture appear held together by a powerful internal tension: though bordering on abstraction, the light of the human countenance shines through, illuminated like a beacon against the darkness.