Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931) Head of a Man 1948
Lot 14AR
Frank Auerbach
(British, born 1931)
Head of a Man
1948
Sold for £56,250 (US$ 74,805) inc. premium

Lot Details
Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931)
Head of a Man
1948

signed twice and dated 1948 twice
oil on board

63.5 by 38.5 cm.
24 15/16 by 15 11/16 in.

Footnotes

  • Provenance
    Private Collection, UK (acquired directly from the artist circa 1949)
    Sale: Sotheby's, London, Post-War and Contemporary Art, 5 December 1985, Lot 392
    J. O'Connor Collection, London
    Sale: Sotheby's, London, Post-War and Contemporary Art, 19 May 1988, Lot 409
    Lane Fine Art Ltd, London
    Private Collection, UK
    Lane Art Fine Ltd, London
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


    Painted in 1948, Head of a Man is a rare surviving work by one of Britain's most important living artists. This was a significant year for Frank Auerbach when he first attended both the prestigious St Martin's School of Art and Borough Polytechnic, where he was under the tutelage of David Bomberg. It was also at this time that he began offering his works for sale; a black and white photograph from June 1948 survives of the London County Council Open-Air Exhibition depicting the young artist seated in front of Victoria Embankment garden railings, the small number of portraits and figurative works displayed around him seemingly unrelated to his classic style. These paintings are not known to have survived, and the remaining works created during this period are not dated, making Head of a Man a great rarity in the initial development of the artist's oeuvre.

    Contemporary art critics drew parallels between Auerbach's paintings and those of Jean Fautrier. Fautrier's most famous series of works, Otages (Hostages) executed between 1943 and 1945 represent the artist's highly personalised response to the atrocities of the Second World War.

    In these works vaguely human features emerge struggling from amorphous head-like forms, their surfaces heavily applied with layers of pocked paint. Their dramatic merging of the figurative and abstract conveying both the personal tragedy of the individual and also the anonymity of the dead, stripped of their identities by the sheer incomprehensibility of the mass graves.

    Frank Auerbach's experiences of the war are well documented. He had been shipped to England in 1939 aged just seven; his Jewish parents increasingly alarmed by the rise of the far right in Germany, settled him in a boarding school just outside the capital. He remained in the UK for the duration of the war, discovering in 1943, barely aged twelve, that both his mother and father had died in Auschwitz. It's very difficult to look at Head of a Man, (executed just five years later) without reading it within this personal and historic framework. Its depiction of an emaciated man with shaven head recalls some of the shocking imagery released following the end of the war and the liberation of the camps.

    As a portrait it is intimate and remote, ambiguous and brooding. It is also visually immediate, dominating the composition in close up, and yet the artist has deliberately angled the subject away from the picture plane, the positioning making his expression very difficult to read. There is certainly an air of introspection about him, our gaze voyeuristic on his apparently naked form, seeming obtrusive. Whilst it is not possible to tell whether the scratched grid like system in the paint was employed for technical or symbolic reasons it does add a further degree of separation between us the observer and he the sitter. Unusually for Auerbach the identity of his subject is unknown, the work's title offering no further clues to his personality, however what is clear is that many of the hallmarks of his signature style are present here even at this early date. The gestural strokes of paint thickly applied in black oil to delineate the human form, the flourish of scarlet blood-like impasto to the man's left shoulder, the scratching away of the surface of paint, and the blend of abstraction and figuration evident in the coloured cross hatching around the figures head and neck, all prefigure the artist's later masterworks.

    Head of a Man from 1948 represents a rare opportunity to acquire one of the earliest works ever to appear on the market by Frank Auerbach, one that not only captures the genesis of his practice but also reflects a fundamentally important moment in the artist's history.
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