- Frank Auerbach
Stephen Spender, London (acquired from the above)
Thence by descent to the present owners
Oslo, Kunstnernes Hus; Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art; Venice, Museo d'Arte Moderna Ca'Pesaro; and Dusseldorf, Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf, A School of London: Six Figurative Painters, 1987, p. 30, no. 13, illustrated
William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, pp. 46 and 249, no. 112, illustrated in colour
The present work is the very first rendition of Auerbach’s cousin Gerda Boehm and stands as the flagstaff to the many sittings that followed over a twenty two year period from 1961-1982. This remarkable portrait reveals the artist’s engaging study of Boehm through a tireless process of scraping back and building up layer upon layer of charcoal in an attempt to capture the light and shadow playing across the angles of her face. Each night the drawing was left and then erased, scraped back and erased to a blur before Auerbach began again in earnest. Contrasting with the blackness of the fresh charcoal, the effect of these continually erased and re-worked marks leaves areas of Head of Gerda Boehm with a silvery-surface which, as Robert Hughes noted, reflect the ‘ghosts’ of former images.
David Sylvester lauded Auerbach's first one-man exhibition at London’s Beaux Arts Gallery as the most exciting and impressive first solo show by an English painter since Francis Bacon in 1949." Seeing in Auerbach "the qualities that make for greatness in a painter – fearlessness; a profound originality; a total absorption in what obsesses him; and, above all, a certain gravity and authority in his forms and colours" (David Sylvester, 'Young English Painting', The Listener, 12 January 1956). It was David Sylvester who first introduced the poet Stephen Spender to Auerbach’s work, and it is from the poet’s collection that this work has resided for close to half a century. Spender was one of the first ‘strangers’ (ie. not a friend or family member) to acquire one of Auerbach’s works; this early purchase was a significant act of patronage and further fuel for the admiration they had for each other. Later the artist recalled ‘I met Spender once, I expected a poet with a vocation but I found a civilised man, gregarious, leading a varied, entertaining, virtuous life” (Frank Auerbach quoted in: Jackie Wullschlager, ‘Lunch with the FT: Frank Auerbach’, The Financial Times, 6 October 2012). Indeed Spender, was not just a poet but he was also a critic, and his admiration for Auerbach was eloquently broadcast in the foreword to an exhibition of new work at Marlborough Gallery in 1982: “Since I am obsessive about rewriting my poems, it interests me that Frank Auerbach paints and repaints his pictures, draws and redraws his drawings, twenty five or thirty times, picture superimposed on picture on each canvas or sheet of much-torn, and sometimes glued-onto-with-another-sheet of paper” (Stephen Spender, ‘Frank Auerbach’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Marlborough Gallery Inc., Frank Auerbach: Recent Paintings and Drawings, 1982, n.p.). It is not surprising given this mutual obsession of re-working, that this remarkable drawing was purchased by Spender. The intense vision of sculptural drama that Head of Gerda Boehm broadcasts could have been only achieved through this intense process, awakening what the artist desired: “a sense of physicality” (Frank Auerbach quoted in: Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach , London 1990, p. 206).
Further works from this collection will be offered in Sotheby’s London, Contemporary Art Day Sale, 2 July 2015.