Donald Kuspit on Frank Auerbach’s Destructive Portraits

Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M., 1976. Oil on board, 15 x 15 in.

By DONALD KUSPIT, February 2021

Destructive rage is always motivated by an injury to the self...more serious than the threat to physical survival is the threat of the destruction of the nuclear self.                                                                                       

-- Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of The Self (1)

Why did Frank Auerbach become an artist—a painter, especially of portraits?  Is it because he had a natural gift, more broadly a general inclination to self-expression, as the fact that he almost became an actor, “even taking a small role in Peter Ustinov’s play House of Regrets” when he was 17 (he was born in 1931)?  But his interest in art proved stronger, leading him to study at St. Martin’s School of Art from 1948 to 1952, the Royal College of Art from 1952 to 1955, and also at London’s Borough Polytechnic from 1947 to 1953, where he was profoundly influenced by David Bomberg, like Auerbach a Jewish artist.  Initially an advocate of “pure form”—geometrical abstractions inspired by the so-called machine aesthetic--Bomberg became disillusioned with it, more broadly with modernist insularity, not to say narrowness, the ”otherworldliness” of abstraction in general, implying its inhumanity, its indifference to human vulnerability and suffering, what the modernist advocate Clement Greenberg dismissively called “the all too human.”  The “purity” of abstraction was a defense against reality, more particularly a denial of social reality, and with that a betrayal of life, the kiss of death.  

Serving on the front line in World War I, Bomberg experienced death firsthand:  he was traumatized by “his experiences of its mechanized slaughter” and above all by the death of his brother and two close friends—personal losses, all the more painful because their bodies were blown to pieces.  After the war, Bomberg began painting representational works, most noteworthy portraits as well as landscapes, realistic with an expressionistic edginess.  It was a complete repudiation of pure art, and an attempt to repair the damage it had done to art—to escape purity’s shortcomings, the shortcomings of its escapism—and the damage the war had done to his psyche, to heal the festering wounds of his losses:  he began to make representational art--an art of illusion--to overcome his disillusionment.  The influence of Bomberg on Auerbach cannot be underestimated:  they were kindred spirits, not only because of their Jewishness, but because of their experience of war—the first world war in the case of Bomberg, who lost his brother and friends to it, and the second world war in the case of Auerbach, who lost his parents to it, all the more devastating than Bomberg’s losses, for Auerbach was a child when they died, victims of the Holocaust, and was isolated in Britain, where he had been sent to escape it.  

Bomberg clearly mentored and influenced Auerbach, not only because he was an artist but also, I suggest, because he was a Jewish outsider in London’s artworld.  More crucially, he became a surrogate parent for Auerbach, internalized as what the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut called a self-object, that is, an object that became a core of the self, indeed, its indispensable nucleus.  Bomberg and Auerbach in London were peintres maudits—“cursed painters”--like Modigliani and Soutine in Paris, and like them Jewish outsiders:  “cursed painters” not only because they painted cursed human beings, human beings cursed by suffering, but because to be Jewish in a Christian world was to be cursed.

I suggest that Auerbach’s portraits are of human beings cursed by suffering—putrified and destroyed by suffering, indeed, reduced to a heap of painterly ashes as though they had been cremated in the oven of Auerbach’s unconscious.  One cannot understand anything about Auerbach’s portraits—about their vicious painterliness, consuming their vulnerable human subject matter, indeed, turning him or her into raw painterly matter, the victim of a painterly holocaust, sadistically stripped of human identity, indeed, dehumanized until he or she was barely recognizable as human, stripping him or her of identity until he or she seemed like an anonymous wreck of a person—without understanding the strangely--self-estranging--traumatic effect of being a survivor of the Holocaust.  But one who never experienced life in a dehumanizing concentration camp, who escaped suffering and dying in it alongside one’s parents, having one’s body cremated in one of its ovens along with other victims of the Nazis’ determination to exterminate every last Jew in Europe, let alone Germany.  

That was the fate of Auerbach’s German Jewish parents, who died in a concentration camp in 1942, after having sent their son Frank, then seven years old, to Britain in the so-called children’s transport (Kindertransport) in 1939.  It saved almost 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi persecution, and, had they remained in Germany, certain death in the so-called Final Solution to the “Jewish problem,” the problem being that the Jew was not only not Aryan but a virus—Hitler’s own term--that infected, not to say polluted, German society.  Inherently inferior, the child born of the marriage of an inferior Jew and a superior Aryan—Hitler obsessed about this in Mein Kampf (My War)—had to be aborted.  And so the Jewish Auerbach took his revenge:  he aborted his human subject matter—British, and so implicitly Aryan, at least anti-Semitic, and with that stand-ins for the Nazis who persecuted and murdered his Jewish parents—by perversely fucking them with his painterliness.  Consummating his marriage with them—for every portrait is a marriage of the portraitist and the portrayed--by consuming them as he was consumed by his parents’ loss, Auerbach makes the artistic best out of his suffering.  Ironically, in becoming their exterminator, he identifies with the Nazi aggressor—the enemy—confirming that his art re-enacts, in symbolic form, the extermination of his parents, for the people he portrays are implicitly the parents of his art. 

The individuals in Auerbach’s portraits are incurably sick specimens of an inhuman society—emotionally crippled, failed human beings, as their fragmented, flawed appearance suggest.  They are a sum of gestures that do not cohere into a whole—they have been flayed alive by Auerbach’s painterliness.  Destroyed by Auerbach’s painterly rage at his parents’ destruction, compounded by his guilt at escaping it, his portraits re-enact in imaginative horror the apocalyptic holocaust.  Hatred and suffering are the elemental emotional substance of Auerbach’s vicious portraits, simultaneously murderous and suicidal, for he unconsciously identifies with each and every individual portrayed, reminding us of the truth of Dostoyevsky’s remark that the portraitist “seeks the moment when the model looks most like himself”(2)—his inner self, one should add.  If so, then each and every one of Auerbach’s portraits is a self-portrait, more pointedly a portrait of himself fused with his mother or father, that is, in enraged identification with one of his dead parents.  The portraits have festering colors, like those of a corpse, suggesting they are a kind of memento mori.  In short, they are portraits of Auerbach’s psyche—a convincing portrait works because we unconsciously sense the presence of the portraitist in the portrayed, the latter in effect a physical stand-in for the psyche of the former.  Auerbach’s portraits are fraught with self-hatred as well as hatred of the person portrayed, a symbol of one or the other of his parents, as I have suggested--self-hatred because he unconsciously blames himself for their deaths and hatred of them for abandoning him, as he unconsciously felt.  His profound ambivalence about them finds its way into his portraits, for he destroys their appearance in the act of realizing it.  Auerbach’s portraits are fraught with mortido rather than libido--death anxiety rather than love.  Anxiety is a kind of living death, for it subverts the will to live.  

The pain of his parent’s loss—and he is painting his pain—tormented him, all the more so because he could probably not understand why he was sent to Britain—forced to leave them, to leave his homeland, to become an alien in a strange land (eventually compelling him to make his alienated art) --and his sense that they had abandoned him turned him against them, even as they probably told him that it was for his own good (but it felt bad).  Losing them early in his life, for a reason he could not understand, he became a kind of loser—an emotional loser, inwardly defective, emotionally crippled, without their support, painting surrogate objects, with the unconscious hope that they would turn out to be good objects, that painting their badness would miraculously make them good.  But they always turned out bad, for they seemed to dissolve into the paint--abandon him and disappear--as his parents had.  It made him hate them—or confuse hate with love in his ambivalence about them:  there is nothing loving about his portraits—their human subjects are rather unlovable—nothing tender in his handling of them, nothing idealizing, as there is, say, in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portraits of royalty.  They epitomize the institutional “grand style”—he specialized in painting the British (and Christian) elite, the grandiose, not to say pretentious, entitled powers that be--that Bomberg rebelled against, Auerbach following in his anti-establishment footsteps.  

In short, Auerbach was unconsciously angry at them, leading him to act out his anger via his aggressive handling of the individuals he painted.  His painting is a kind of acting out of his anger about his abandonment by his parents, compounded by the guilt he felt at being forced to leave them, and survive, as I have suggested.  The suffering evident in the faces of his vulnerable human beings is a projection of his own suffering and feeling of vulnerability, not to say the pain of being a Jewish outsider in a Christian society, not to say a loser in a then still very self-important, grandiose British empire.  He was painting his superiors, individuals he was dependent upon for recognition, especially the art historian and curator Catherine Lampert, whom he portrayed three times.  She organized his 1978 retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, supporting him ever since.  She in effect parented his career.  Can one say his horrific renderings of her was his unconscious way of denying his dependence on her?  She too became a victim of his unconscious—of the holocaust that was his inheritance.  There is no gratitude in any of Auerbach’s portraits, only destructive envy of his social betters.

One might say that Auerbach kicked the stuffiness—the greatness--out of Great Britain by deflating some of its native-born inhabitants.  He was erasing their faces in the course of rendering them, as though to forget them the way he forgot what his parents exactly looked like.  It is why the faces in his portraits seem almost blurred beyond recognition, ruined beyond restoration.  “The hysteric suffers mainly from reminiscences” and “strangulated affect” Freud wrote, and Auerbach’s hysterical painting, with its strangulated affects—he projected his into his female and male subjects--is fraught with distorted memories of his mother and father.  His models are nightmarish surrogates for his parents, their nightmarishness conveying Auerbach’s estrangement from them.  His portraits have an odd affinity with German Expressionist portraiture, carrying it to an all but nihilistic extreme.  More broadly, Auerbach’s portraits would be at home in the psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn influential, famous book “The Plastic Activity of the Mentally Ill.  A Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathology of Formal Configuration,” 1922.

Frank Auerbach, Catherine Lampert seated, 1990. Oil on canvas, 24 x 22.2 in.

Auerbach’s faces are defaced into oblivion, and often hellishly painted, giving them a demonic look, as though they sprung from some underworld of insanity.  The heads of Catherine Lampert Seated, 1994, Catherine Lampert—Profile, 1997, and Head of Catherine Lampert, 2000 are ruthlessly distorted by the vicious painterliness, and manhandled with ruthless aggressivity in Head of J. Y. M., 1978 and Portrait of Julien, 2009.  They’re all unrecognizable—amorphous messes.  Strangely, the energy in the painterliness has de-energized them.  They are obliterated by the painterliness, burying them alive, dominating them, overrunning them, subverting them, until they seem inconsequential, excuses for painting rather than meaningful people in their own right.  He does them an injustice, in effect expressing the injustice that he feels has been done to him.  Auerbach’s gestures are vengeful and murderous, but he doesn’t murder to dissect—to uncover and understand the inner truth of human being—but to destroy what he is unable to comprehend—the humanity and inner life of the other.  To emphasize:  he hurts as he was hurt by the death of his parents, which is why he kills the surrogate parents that are his female and male models.  At its least violent, his vicious viscosity pulverizes the human face, reducing it to a nightmarish hallucination:  the Head of Jake, 2006, the Head of David Landau, 2004-2005, the Portrait of William Faeves, 2007.  All but stripped of their identity, they become hadean ghosts in a limbo of solitude.  All the paintings are small and intimate, suggesting that Auerbach has a close relationship with the sitter, but he betrays that intimacy by drowning her and him in a painterly quicksand. 

Frank Auerbach, Self-Portrait II, 2010. Graphite, 30 1/10 in. J. Paul Getty Museum © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art Private Collection.

His Self-Portrait II, 2010 and Self-Portrait, 2011 suggest the method in his madness, in his abuse of the human face:  in the 2010 work he reduces the face to a loose knit sum of prickly details forming a nominally coherent whole, in the 2011 work the details converge into a dense mass, oddly sculptural.  All of Auerbach’s portraits—his heads—have a nightmarish, panicky quality, suggesting that they are not simply passing bad dreams, but necrophiliac obsessions.  They are not simply anti-social, or asocial, as their sealed off look and isolation suggest—but the heads come apart, however nominally self-contained (although they sometimes burst their outline), fragmented however much the “messy” handling glues the fragments together—but charged with what Freud called the death instinct, or at least a death wish towards others, as alien as his parents had become in memory and because they abandoned him, as he unconsciously felt.  

More pointedly, they bespeak what the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm calls the necrophilous-destructive orientation as distinct from the biophiliac-productive orientation.  We all have “the need to relate,” which “derives from man’s loneliness and the powerlessness it entails.  The individual with a necrophiliac-destructive orientation believes he can escape from this situation by seeking to destroy possible objects of relatedness.  His attempted ‘solution’ is determined in part by two factors that also have their roots in man’s isolation and powerlessness, and these are the fear and the thwarting of life.”(3)  No longer able to relate to his parents after they sent him to Britain, in effect abandoning him to his own devices—forcing him back on himself, as it were —Bomberg became an influential new object of relatedness, because he was a Jewish and an artist, an artist who went against the grain of establishment art.  After Bomberg, the people Auerbach portrayed in his paintings became new objects of relatedness, that is he related to them by painting their portraits, which inevitably involved projecting himself—his suffering, his sense of loss, his anger at being abandoned by his parents, his ambivalence about them—into his models.  They became informed by the death inside him.  He used his creativity to de-create them—used his powerful painting to overpower them.

In sum, they were murdered as his parents were murdered.  He probably blamed himself for their deaths—for abandoning him in Jew-hating Nazi Germany, a hatred he internalized and externalized in his portraits, portraits which showed his models as menacing strangers, their faces violently distorted by aggression, the violence of his handling—of his painterliness—conveying the violence that destroyed his parents, the violence of war to the death, the war that Bomberg experienced firsthand and that Auerbach experienced secondhand.  But also firsthand, for he experienced the blitzkrieg bombing of London, its near destruction by Nazi airplanes.  He blitzkriegs his models, bombards them with his gestures.  They have the same eruptive suddenness of an explosion, the same unexpected attack by a bomb—or are they flak trying to fend off a threatening bomber, or the shrapnel left from an explosion?  Certainly they are the volatile signs of some interminable war with himself.  “Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life,” Fromm wrote.  One might ask whether spending one’s time making portraits is living life, or at least a meaningful way of relating to people, a way of giving them meaning.          

A final word:  the art historian Simon Schema regards Auerbach as a “joyous artist,” a “self-indulgent enthusiast of paint,” his studio “the ultimate sweetshop,” “full of touchy-feely paint.”  Where is there joy in Auerbach’s faces?  There is nothing sweet about them.  Auerbach’s handling tends to be rough and ready, however sometimes suave and swaggering---dare one say pretentiously crude, brazenly impulsive, impudent and insulting.  It is masturbatory painting, each labored gesture a sort of ejaculation, the model a sort of stimulant to self-indulgence, not so much enthusiastic as frantic.  The surface tends to be crudely layered, worked to death in a convulsive frenzy.  The gestures might seem raw and abusive, but from an art historical perspective they are stylishly primitive, that is, neo-expressionistic painting, but the portraits are manic depressive “mood paintings” that get to the schizoid essence of the psyche, all the more so because they seemed informed by a paranoid sense of futility.  Auerbach sitters persecute him, and he persecutes them in return.  Indeed, his is a kind of psychotic art—an insane art depicting insane people.  

Frank Auerbach, Primrose Hill, 1978. Oil on panel, 45 x 59 5/8 in. Courtesy of MutualArt.

Just as there’s tone-deafness, so there’s feeling-deafness—deafness to the tone of a feeling, to the feeling-tone of a gesture, color, line—and to the individuals in Auerbach’s portraits.  Schema is tone-deaf to Auerbach’s reckless, ruthless expressionism, its unconscious import, indeed, deaf to the rumblings and grumblings of the unconscious—Auerbach’s unconscious, informed by his unhappy history.  Auerbach’s empty cityscapes—there are no people in them--seem somewhat happier and peaceful compared to his portraits.  Primrose Hill, 1978, Interior Vincent Terrace II, 1984, Chimney in Mornington Crescent—Winter Morning, 1991, Another Tree in Mornington Crescent II, 2007, and The Awning I, 2008 are pleasant places compared to his pain-filled people.  But the scene—the space--is a false paradise, for it is fragmented, its parts awkwardly held together, a sum of shards that add up to an eccentric whole, the fault-lines that hold the space together suggesting its unstableness.  The scenes have an aura of uncertainty; they resonate with watchful anxiety.  They are hideaways—places in which he can hide from the world while staying in it—places in which he feels safe because there is no one in them.  Auerbach’s portraits of places in London are subliminally damaged, in contrast to his portraits of people, conspicuously and irreparably damaged.  The places are more peaceful than his people, less distressed however haunted by his distress, but not exactly restorative reliefs from the anxiety-ridden portraits.  Taken together, the portraits and cityscapes convey the paranoid-schizoid character of Auerbach’s art.

Schema is fascinated by Auerbach’s painterliness, celebrates it as a stylistic end in itself, independent of the subject matter that it addresses.  But style is not simply an aesthetic matter, but the vehicle of an attitude to life, not a transcendent thing in itself but an expressive instrument, a way of conveying unconscious feeling however self-consciously deployed, feeling not self-evident in the object—person, place--it mediates.  It has subjective meaning, whatever subject matter it objectifies.  It is a means of projectively identifying with a subject matter in the process of trying to control, dominate, masters it.  Style is a means of conveying feelings, more generally values, particularly the way one values some subject matter, and oneself.  This is perhaps most evident in portraiture, for every portrait is an evaluation of a particular individual, more generally suggests the portraitist’s values.  Auerbach does not seem to value human beings as much as he values his London environment, understandable in view of the way the Nazis devalued his parents and Jews. WM


(1)Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (New York:  International Universities Press, 1977), 117

(2)Quoted in Max J. Friedländer, Landscape Portrait Still-Life (New York:  Schocken, 1963), 245

(3)Rainer Funk, Erich Fromm:  The Courage To Be (New York:  Continuum, 1982), 43

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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