Head of Gerda Boehm III has remained in the collection of the artist's family since 1961, when Frank Auerbach gave the drawing to his first cousin, the drawing's subject Gerda Boehm, soon after it was completed. Nearly 20 years later, in 1980, Gerda gave the drawing to her brother, the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, for his 60th birthday and it remained hung on the wall of his Frankfurt apartment until his death in 2013. It was later inherited by Marcel's granddaughter.
Gerda and Marcel were the elder, first cousins of Auerbach and after moving to Berlin in 1929, they were brought up on the same street as the artist, who was born in the city two years later. In his autobiography, Marcel fondly recalls his time spent babysitting his younger cousin, who was just five years old, writing:
'The child I had to look after during those evenings never woke up once. An exemplary charge, and now one of the most famous painters in England - Frank Auerbach.' 
In April 1939, Auerbach was sent to England to attend Bunce Court School in Kent, he would not see his parents again as they remained in Germany and died at Auschwitz. In the same year, Gerda and her husband Gerhard (Gerd) also left Berlin for London. As Auerbach's closest living relative, Gerda became his legal guardian, supporting him financially during his time at art college. After Gerd's death in November 1956, Auerbach would meet with Gerda every Sunday evening, a tradition that continued until 2004. Gerda passed away in 2006, aged 99.
Gerda sat for Auerbach every week from 1961 to 1982, and Head of Gerda Boehm III is the third drawing he made of her. As a group, Auerbach's first three drawings of Gerda provide a remarkable insight into his working process, revealing the artist's deep engagement with his subject, in his search for an authentic image. In the present work, Auerbach adopts a similar viewpoint to that in his first drawing Head of Gerda Boehm, 1961. Gerda is shown at a slight angle with her eyes downcast, but now, perhaps more used to his subject, Auerbach approaches her at an even closer range. Her domed head fills the entire sheet and confronts the viewer with an image of undeniable power and intensity.
In conversation with Catherine Lampert in 1978, Auerbach explains the necessity of knowing his sitters well, outside of the artistic process:
'… simply because one knows more about them. The thing is, after all, done from the mind, and the accrued information enriches the content to an extraordinary degree. I mean, if one has the chance of seeing people apart from the time when one's painting them, one notices all sorts of things about them. If one sees them in movement, one sees all sorts of truths about them and one's infinitely less likely to be satisfied with a superficial statement. Those things that are particular to them to some extent may lead to a particularity of image, because one thereby gets the confidence to make statements that one knows to be true, which conform to no statement that exists in painting.' 
Auerbach's desire to express the essential truth of his subject can be traced back to his artistic education under David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic. Bomberg's advocation of 'an intenser expression…stripped of all irrelevant matter'  and his belief in 'the spirit of the mass', that is, in achieving an exact expression of the thing you are representing, by seeing and feeling, would have a profound impact on Auerbach's work. In his own words, creating works in this vein would mean '…they would not be paintings or images but that they would carry in them hints of a language of greater depth, freedom and courage…'
Auerbach's portrait drawings are a testament to both his powers of perception and his emotionally and physically arduous artistic process. Produced over countless sittings, in which charcoal is applied in much the same manner as his oil paintings - building layer upon layer, then rubbing away and reapplying again - they often bear the marks of this visceral process. In Head of Gerda Boehm, the paper is worn away in huge areas to reveal a second sheet underneath, which Auerbach has continued to work on, the repeatedly erased and reworked marks creating an almost silvery surface. In Head of Gerda Boehm III, Auerbach binds two sheets together in anticipation of his process and, although there are less areas of wear, if one looks closely, one can see the paper beginning to soften under the weight of this repeated mark-making.
When approaching the human head, Auerbach has commented, 'I have to begin with a lump in my mind'  and in this sense, his drawings, like his paintings from this period, have a wonderfully sculptural quality. Out of his 'lump' appears a human presence created through thick, broad 'brushstrokes' of charcoal and areas of deep, dark black; these are countered by highlights of white, made with an eraser, which show how the light touches the surface of Gerda's face, describing the bridge of her nose or bottom lip. There is a palpable sense of movement in the sweeping arc of Gerda's dome-like head and, despite the stillness of the pose, a sense of energy emanates from the inside-out and is heightened by marks made in charcoal, blue and red, that dance across the page in quick succession. Here one can see clearly Auerbach's desire to distil the aura of his sitter, giving it a physicality through material and form in this powerful and resonant drawing.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki is regarded as one of the most influential contemporary literary critics in the field of German literature and has often been called the Literaturpapst ('Pope of Literature') in Germany. His autobiography, published in 2001, was the number one bestseller in Germany for over a year and was made into a feature film for television in 2009. In January 2012, Marcel addressed the Bundestag in Berlin on the annual Holocaust Memorial Day, recounting the story of his rushed marriage to Tosia in the Warsaw Ghetto on 22 July 1942, the same day the order to liquidate the Ghetto was issued. In 2003, Marcel dedicated the book Meine Bilder, a collection of his own artworks, mostly portraits of writers, to Frank Auerbach.
1 Marcel Reich-Ranicki, The Author of Himself, The Life of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Princeton University Press, 2001 2 'A Conversation with Frank Auerbach, 1978', reproduced in Frank Auerbach, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 2015, p146 3 Bomberg quoted in William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, Rizzoli, New York, 2009, p9 4 Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, Thames and Hudson, London, 1990, p32 5 Ibid, p135
The Artist Gerda Boehm, gifted by above Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Frankfurt, gifted by above 1980
Thence by descent
Offer Waterman, London
William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, Rizzoli, New York, 2009, p248, cat no.114, illus b/w
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