Auerbach/Bevan: What is a Head?

Michael has just curated an exhibition of works by Frank Auerbach and Tony Bevan entitled “What is a Head?” at Ben Brown Fine Arts London. The show will run from December 2020 – February 2021.


Foreword by Michael Peppiatt

What, indeed, is a head? For us, surely, it’s as big as the world, as existence itself, and just as unknowable. It contains everything we are and everything we can ever know, including our own limits, because whatever we do we can never go beyond its bounds. The head is all, the centre of the universe, as well as in the long term its circumference. Small wonder, then, that heads have preoccupied artists from the very beginning of recorded time and still intrigue them, re-emerging, Hydra-like, as the central symbol of humanity.

The head also serves as a mirror of the whole history of art: its significance and the way it is represented have changed constantly over the ages. One wonders what in fact, after the combined ingenuity of centuries, is left in the subject for contemporary artists to explore, since the head was so radically reinvented during the last century that at one point it vanished altogether into the white heat of abstraction. Hence it is for good reason that, when contemplating the heads of Frank Auerbach and Tony Bevan, you are struck by a sense of resurrection: of elements destroyed, recovered from the past and reintroduced into the picture plane. A half-forgotten language has been retrieved, its subtle syntax, its infinite moods and accents brought back into play.

Bevan and Auerbach are a generation apart, and beyond their shared fascination for all the conceptual and painterly possibilities of reinventing heads, there is as much to differentiate them as to bring them together. In Auerbach, who grew up during the war, one experiences palpable layers of excavation: the buried image rising through stratas of paint to resume its fragmented presence, a memory disinterred that might fade again into the flurry of brushstrokes as swiftly as Hamlet’s ghost. Bevan’s ‘Heads’ are also reconstructions, of a different order.

More linear than painterly in his practice, Bevan approaches the head through its working parts, its muscles and sinews, exploring its inner structure as an unknown space, an experimental architecture that defies all known rules.

For both artists, the head is perceived as the prime vessel of human life, the nerve centre and brain box that controls us and everything we do, not least when it is rife with contradiction and patently out of control, as we, the heirs to a century of psychoanalysis, are ready to acknowledge. That is its greatest fascination, of course, the constant warring it contains – as in a domed boxing-ring – of impulse and restraint, instinct and order, spontaneity and discipline. In Auerbach, it reaches points of incandescence, sparks of a long struggle lapsing into melancholy exhaustion, with the fire burnt indelibly into the muddied colour. A violence of opposites courses through Bevan’s heads as well, black outlines on a hot ground of red, orange or yellow, but the violence is latent, suppressed, and all the more threatening. What has already ravaged Auerbach’s universe like the passage of time is still kept at bay in Bevan’s, where the fractures hint at the explosive strain.

Are two heads better than one? Surely, when they are as searching and perceptive, as committed to revealing the multiplicity and complexity of ourselves in paint as Auerbach and Bevan’s have proved to be. Looking into the ‘Head’ of one reveals more about the ‘Head’ of the other than one might have conceivably imagined. This double vision highlights the differences and similarities inherent in the same subject, setting up a dialogue not only between generations but within painting’s renewed insights into mind and identity.

For more details, visit Ben Brown Fine Arts here.

Quarantine Diary

Michael was approached by the Literary Review to create a diary entry covering his thoughts on life under quarantine and his unexpectedly long stay in Southwest of France:


If you have to remain in quarantine, the house where we live in southwestern France is probably as good a place to be as any. It is naturally isolated with only a handful of farmsteads in sight and a small, Romanesque chapel. For the past month, our trips outside the house have been strictly limited to buying food at the nearest supermarket and an occasional walk through the surrounding woods and fields. Even for the latter, we need a printed ‘attestation’, with the box duly ticked under ‘activité physique individuelle’, because the local gendarmerie has been zealous in handing out heavy fines for anyone caught without; but so far we have come across no human beings at all, only horses and cattle grazing and the odd bird of prey circling overhead.

I miss not being able to go further afield to see the more dramatic, sweeping views around our hamlet or the numerous prehistoric sites that dot the landscape. With their base long eroded by rivers, these rock shelters overhang ancient pathways or loom out of tangled copses, immediately evoking a way of life so primitive that the mind stalls and falls back on stock images of Neanderthal man. Once you have identified one of these sites, you recognize them immediately and realize that some have remained in use until quite recently. Close to our house is an old ‘lavoir’, a rough stone reservoir fed by a stream under an overarching cliff, where clothes were beaten and washed until less than a century ago.

Other ubiquitous landmarks are the Romanesque churches that grace almost every town and most villages in Charente. Some of them are in poor repair and many no longer hold Mass, but the miracle is that they are still so present, in a wide variety of sizes, styles and architectural detail. Our house is an old presbytery and, towering over one side of our garden, is a 12th-century chapel with a handsome, storeyed bell-tower and carved stone figures on the façade; its vaulted interior contains a faded medieval fresco of mounted knights at battle. The other evening, in a show of solidarity by all the churches in France, the chapel bells rang out for the first time in ages, and the whole hamlet, where votive candles glittered in every window, reverberated as night fell.


The most unattractive sight for miles around is the graveyard, a gloomy, walled compound filled with pompous tombstones. Death is very much on all our minds, but what surprises me most, as a relative newcomer who has lived his entire life in major capitals, is how plainly visible death becomes in the deep countryside. Deer roam freely through the fields around us, wonderfully graceful as long as they don’t break through our hedge, as they often do, and crop all the flowers. The other day we were shocked to come across a handsome young roebuck that had just died, apparently of natural causes, in the undergrowth. A local farmer helped dispose of it, silently and nonchalantly. Since then, I have overcome my squeamishness and now remove dead animals – animals as opposed to the daily hecatomb of insects indoors – on a regular basis. There have been salamanders and lizards, mice and rats, snakes and voles. Most moving are the birds that have flown full pelt into our windows and broken their necks. They lie there with their tiny feet pointing upwards, and when you pick them up they feel unbearably soft and as light as feathered air. Meanwhile, the quince bushes, the wild plum and the magnolia trees burst into vibrant glory.


We flew down to Bergerac well before travel restrictions were imposed, thinking we’d come back to London after a fortnight. Now I am wondering whether our short stay, like Hans Castorp’s at the sanatorium in The Magic Mountain, might not turn out to be far more definitive. A change of scene or some human contact would certainly be welcome, but we are lucky enough to have exhibitions to curate and books to write, and if the evening gets cold masses of fallen branches to build a roaring fire. We also have an extensive music library and a fair collection of pictures but, as we are now increasingly aware, not nearly as wide a choice of things to read as we should like, having left the bulk of our books behind.

Most of what we do have here comes from the thirty years I lived in Paris and, like the paintings, they form a kind of record of my life there. Many of them are in French, of course, and they include a few treasures such as signed copies by writers I knew and whole runs of art magazines like Minotaure and L’Oeil, which I used to consult feverishly to find ideas for Art International, the art magazine I published from my apartment in the Marais. But what I’m proudest of is a complete Collection blanche edition of A la recherche, not because it is so rare (or is it?), but because I tracked all fifteen volumes down over several years in the 1970s by combing through various second-hand book shops in Paris; I still remember vividly the thrill of pouncing on a new, missing tome in some dusty recess. All the volumes (the first took the longest to find) are in good condition, and none of them cost more than a drink on a café terrace. I should like to add that I’ve read the entire series, but actually, although I became obsessed with the Proustian universe, I got waylaid around the middle of it forty years ago and have never returned.

Once I knew we were stuck here, I combed our bookshelves to put together a random selection of books that I might get my teeth into. Volume One of Proust, who knew all about self-isolation, is now first in line on the bedside table. Then comes Erwin Panofksy’s Studies in Iconology, which terrified me as an art history student by what seemed its impenetrable erudition, and, the joker in the pack, Plutarch’s Lives, which I didn’t even know we had. The first few pages of Proust were very much as I remembered them but less immediately seductive, and they have not yet reignited the fire. I was delighted to find that, if one skipped the lengthy quotations in Latin and Greek, the Panofsky was both accessible and rewarding. As for Plutarch, he entranced me most by the strange familiarity of his distant world and the reassuring balance and clarity of his sentences. Like everything else, however, this order might be turned topsy-turvy from one brief nocturnal read to the next.

Michael during a talk at Bedford School

The Making of Modern Art

A selection of essays on modern art brought out by Yale University Press earlier this year.

In his review for The London Magazine, Andrew Lambirth said: “Peppiatt is always worth reading and there isn’t a dud in this stimulating collection.

Full review:

The Making of Modern Art by Michael Peppiatt is a collection of previously published pieces (the author calls it a ‘scrapbook’) ranging from the 1960s to date. It demonstrates once again Peppiatt’s gifts of lively récit, vivid description and jargon-free assessment, which he has spent a lifetime honing and fruitfully applying to art and artists. Here we have a number of the big names of Modern Art, such as Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, Bacon and Jackson Pollock, but also a good admixture of the lesser-celebrated. Among these I would mention Vieira da Silva, Zoran Mušič and Nicolas de Staël – all of whom are not nearly well-known enough in this country. Peppiatt’s choice is inevitably Gallocentric, after all he has lived and worked for most of his life in Paris, but none the less valid for that.

His admitted bias towards figuration at the expense of abstraction is potentially far more worrying; perhaps this is why he is more moved by van Gogh than Cézanne. At one point, in an essay on Klimt, he suggests that artists attempted to conceal the fundamental postwar malaise, or deep uneasiness with life, by disposing of the human figure and going abstract. Clearly he feels this is some sort of betrayal of art, or art’s primary subject. He takes his lead from his mentor Francis Bacon, who dismissed all abstraction as mere decoration.

In his introduction, Peppiatt notes that this collections of reviews, catalogue prefaces and interviews is a kind of voyage of discovery (the critic doing his learning in public), moving, as he puts it, ‘from youthful dilettantism and journalistic necessity to deep commitment’. He muses that such an anthology may be ‘as close as one gets to a true autobiography, a compendium of one’s tastes and times.’ One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the new introduction he has written for each piece, a compact reflection on the history of the writing and Peppiatt’s feelings about the artist, mingled with more personal memories and anecdotes. I would pick out for special notice the compelling essay on Maillol, the story of the correspondence between Dubuffet and James Fitzsimmons, and the detailed investigation of the School of London. But Peppiatt is always worth reading and there isn’t a dud in this stimulating collection.

‘The Valves of Sensation’


Essay discussing Bacon’s process for the creation of the Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the ‘Oresteia’ of Aeschylus.

This essay is now available on the Sotheby’s website here.

Photographs at Michael’s Home in Southwest France

Two recent photographs by Fred Lahache for a forthcoming article about Michael in Christie’s magazine.

On Francis Bacon and My Life in Art

Michael discussed his friendship with Francis Bacon and his life in art, on 16 October at the Cambridge Centre for Visual Culture.

Paris Among the Artists

From The Existential Englishman, Michael shared his experiences in conversation with writer and translator Miranda France, followed by Q&A, of a life spent amongst the artists. A life spent at its bohemian heart, rich with adventures, misadventures and the beauty of one of the most enduringly romantic cities in the world.

The event was a tremendous success. It was a partnership between The London Library and Bloomsbury Publishing, and took place on 15 October.

Bacon / Giacometti: A Dialogue

An exclusive read-through of Michael’s new play took place at Christie’s on 18 June.

A video of the performance is available here.

Talks at the RA and American Library

The American Library in Paris invited Michael to talk about his recent book The Existential Englishman on 27 March.

Michael then joined Royal Academy Artistic Director Tim Marlow on Tues 21 May.