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.