Frank Auerbach painted numerous portraits from life in which he combined a figurative content with a plastic language close to material abstraction, with the intention of “trapping the physical essence” of the sitter and evoking the presence of a particular individual. His concern with textures and his interest in the expressive qualities of the picture surface led him to use a very heavy, almost sculptural, impasto technique. He also made a significant contribution to the new conception of the image of man, a tragic and monstrous image that stemmed from the new modern awareness.
As may be seen in Head of J. Y. M., executed in 1978, Auerbach’s portraits, like Giacometti’s final paintings, rather than seeking to capture a particular person, are a manner of producing a painting using a model. The gestural brushwork and impasto technique are the only elements that inform the image and any reference to specific identity is accordingly concealed beneath a thick cloak that envelops the background and the figure with the same deforming effect. In order to further underline this intentional anonymity, the sitter’s name is also hidden behind her initials. The present Head of J. Y. M. in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza collection conceals the identity of the professional model Juliet Yardley Mills, whom Auerbach often painted. Like his wife Julia and his mistress Stella West, she is depicted repeatedly in his paintings.