Leon Kossoff obituary


Leon Kossoff, who has died aged 92, once said: “London, like the paint I use, seems to be in my bloodstream.” His work was rooted in Dalston, Willesden, the Embankment, Mornington Crescent, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green, in the London roads and railway lines, the tube stations and street life, in the public swimming baths. But it went far beyond topography: it was an expression of the undying human need to wrest a separate existence for art from the universal stuff of local daily life.

Like his friend Frank Auerbach, whose work bears outward resemblances to Kossoff’s, he was a rugged individualist who drew daily – mostly with charcoal – and painted through years of being not merely unfashionable, but positively spurned.

In 1995, when he represented Britain with a one-man show in the national pavilion at the 100th-anniversary Venice Biennale, one Sunday newspaper critic dubbed him irrelevant, which probably translates as uncool. Even David Sylvester, a critic who admired Kossoff and should have known better, described his work as a footnote to history, as though history were a simple linear progression from one advance to the next. Kossoff’s work, through all the fashions from kitchen sink to pop to Brit art, cleaved to its own path, regardless of public fickleness or media theory.

Perversely, the turning-point for Kossoff’s reputation may not have been the multinational showcase of the biennale but the retrospective the Tate gave him a year later, when the selection, the hanging, and the catalogue by Paul Moorhouse, clearly based on thorough talks with the artist, served him well. Kossoff, like Auerbach, had trained himself for the marathon, not the sprint.

READ  ‘Finland’s Munch’: the unnerving art of Helene Schjerfbeck

More than 20 years later, in 2018, a survey of modern figurative painting at Tate Britain, All Too Human, saw Kossoff take his rightful place “at the exhibition’s heart”, alongside Auerbach, Paula Rego, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. “Whatever it is that makes art profound,” Jonathan Jones wrote in a Guardian review of the show, “they have it. They are the true heroes of modern British art.”

Leon Kossoff photographed by Bruce Bernard in Spitalfields, London, in the 1980s.



Leon Kossoff photographed by Bruce Bernard in Spitalfields, London, in the 1980s. Photograph: Image courtesy Virginia Verran © Estate of Bruce Bernard

An early exam failure while at St Martin’s School of Art – dismissed by his fellow student Auerbach as reflecting more on the college than on Kossoff himself – seems to have led to a lifetime of self-doubt, and thus a lifetime of working to rectify that. As late as 2013 Kossoff himself said that his life’s work “has been an experiment in self-education … I don’t seem able to do a drawing.”

But Kossoff’s works are real painting, rather than the semi-narrative documents once so beloved in British art. Many of his charcoal on paper drawings are actually charcoal and eraser on paper, because the soft rubber in Kossoff’s hands was as much a drawing tool as the charcoal; the key points of the drawing often emerge from the action of the eraser on the charcoal rather more than from the bed of dense charcoal marks on the paper. This kind of duality of positive and negative carries through from portraits to the townscapes and nudes, in which scraping and repainting and rescraping are integral to the canvas’s life as an object in its own right as well as a depiction of a subject.

It is common to speak of the loneliness of the people in Kossoff’s paintings, the isolation one from another of the great unwashed in his street scenes. But the portraits and nudes have the density and containment of ancient coins, the image and the space around the image of equal weight and importance in the impact of the whole.

An almost brutally thick pigment and directness of attack is characteristic of his paintings. The technique covers a wide range of feeling, from the vividly expressionist paintings of the railway tracks leading into Willesden Junction under a windswept sky to portraits and nudes in which the image struggles towards intelligibility through the thickly layered colour.

Sometimes that colour causes his heavily outlined images to glow like George Rouault’s of the Fauvist period; more usually they emerge from a mess of pigment and the life of the surface comes from subterranean gleams of light.

His townscapes began with holes in the ground – the new, postwar London emerging from weeds and rubble of bomb sites, but from the late 1980s he returned to a soaring scene of his childhood, Arnold Circus, where he once attended the Rochelle infants’ school, an area now home to fashionable restaurant and creative businesses, and produced a series of canvases of Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, Christ Church, Spitalfields, from a child’s-eye view, the weight of the sky leaning on the building, a tree buttressing it.

Shell Building Site, 1962, oil on board.



Shell Building Site, 1962, oil on board. Photograph: courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art

Kossoff was born on City Road, within walking distance of the subjects he was to paint through his long career. His father, Wolf, a baker, and mother, Rachel, had fled to Britain from persecution in Ukraine 20 years earlier. After Rochelle, and then Hackney Downs school, Leon was evacuated to King’s Lynn for three years during the war, where the Norfolk family who took him in encouraged his passion for drawing.

On his return to London in 1943, Kossoff went to life classes at the adult education centre at Toynbee Hall, Commercial Street, and on Saturday mornings at St Martin’s. He told his parents that he was determined to be an artist, and his prudent father agreed, but insisted that he should study commercial art, which Kossoff did at St Martin’s until he was called up. From 1945 until 1948 he served in Europe with the Jewish brigade of the Royal Fusiliers. These years apart, his whole life was spent painting in London.

Following national service, he returned to St Martin’s, but the inadequacies of his drawing technique caused him to fail one of the key exams. Auerbach pointed Kossoff in the direction to prove vital to his later success – evening classes at Borough Road Polytechnic with the artist David Bomberg: Bomberg’s influence was to prove crucial in both their careers.

Bomberg’s approach to drawing, unlike the normal academic discipline, was the result of an intense visual and emotional engagement with the subject. Kossoff said that watching the likeness of the sitter appear as Bomberg drew “seemed an encounter with what was already there”. Bomberg himself summed up his approach as seeking “the spirit in the mass”, and Kossoff said that joining Bomberg’s class was like coming home.

The mid-50s were a key period: in 1953, Kossoff married Rosalind (also known as Peggy) and began to study at the Royal College of Art, and in 1956, his final year, Helen Lessore gave him an exhibition at her Beaux Arts gallery in Bruton Street, the little space that launched many big painters. He moved to his Willesden studio in 1966, where he stayed and painted for the rest of his life.

King’s Cross Stormy Duo, No 4, 2004, charcoal and pastel on paper.



King’s Cross Stormy Duo, No 4, 2004, charcoal and pastel on paper. Photograph: courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art

Supplementing his income with teaching at various London art schools, Kossoff showed steadily until the Venice Biennale of 1995. He had his first show with Annely Juda Fine Art in 2000, and the gallery continued to represent him.

In 2012, he made a fresh series of drawings of Christ Church and Arnold Circus, struggling there each day with his drawing board. The new works were exhibited two years later, in London, Paris and New York. He said then that he would not paint any more, or go out drawing as he had always done, that the physical exertion was just too much. But he kept his drawing board and some materials at hand just in case.

Peggy and their son, David, four grandchildren, Alex, Abigail, Aaron and Natasha, and two great-grandchildren, Samuel and Safiya, survive him.

Leon Kossoff, artist, born 10 December 1926; died 4 July 2019



READ SOURCE

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here