Frank Auerbach was a trailblazer amongst the new generation of artists who built their reputations amidst the embers of war-torn London during the 1950s. He had moved to London from Berlin in 1939 and attended St Martin’s School of Art but soon discovered David Bomberg’s evening classes at the Borough Polytechnic which were to prove inspirational to his development. Bomberg encouraged an organic, spontaneous approach to capturing form, what he termed the ‘spirit in the mass’ and Auerbach remembers that ‘he had this sort of idiom that allowed one to go for the essence at the very beginning to adumbrate a figure in ten minutes and then to re-do it and then to find different terms in which to re-state it until one got something… (the Artist, interview with John Tusa, BBC Radio 3, 7th October 2001).
Head of Gerda Boehm is the ultimate example of all that he had learnt from Bomberg but also demonstrates the dramatic innovations he brought to portraiture, that most traditional of artistic genres. The intensity of his response to sitter and subject is gloriously brought to life through his bravura handling of oil. The paint has been acutely layered to create a textured topography of pigment where impasto seemingly drips from the surface enlivening the bold silhouette that emerges from the composition. In comparison to the earthy tones of black, grey and brown that characterised many of his portraits from the previous decade, such as Head of Leon Kossoff (1954, Private Collection) and Head of E.O.W (1955, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff), the luminous hues of the sitter’s face are immediately striking and contrast dramatically to the energetic outlines of black impasto which vigorously sculpt the eyes, nose, mouth and jaw. Flashes of burgundy punctuate the hair, all framed against a rich background of olive green and ochre tones.
The result of many hours spent before his subject, analysing her every feature and staring into her soul, Head of Gerda Boehm is undoubtedly one of the most psychologically arresting portraits from the decade. The intense accretion of paint mirrors Auerbach’s acute powers of scrutiny and reveals his passionate relationship with paint; building up the surface of the composition, scraping it away only to build it up again, always striving to capture the unique presence of the person, the very essence of the being seated before him: '…the paint became thicker and thicker, and I didn't notice it...the surface of the painting was eloquent, but it wasn't eloquent for its own sake... It wasn't intentional at all. But on the other hand I was quite prepared to let anything happen because I wanted to make something new' (the Artist, quoted in William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, Rizzoli, New York, 2009, p.231).
Gerda Boehm first sat for Auerbach in 1961 and continued sitting at regular intervals until 1982. An older cousin, she was the only member of his family that he saw after leaving Germany before the Second World War and his portraits of her are undoubtedly amongst the most emotionally charged of his career.
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