Published  07/06/2007

Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting

Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting

The National Gallery, London
14 March-1 July 2007

Leon Kossoff is one of Britain's most significant artists. The National Gallery, London is showing an exhibition devoted to his drawing from painting, which is fundamental to his oeuvre. In the same vein as the National Gallery's millennium exhibition, 'Encounters: A dialogue with art from the past' (2000), the Kossoff exhibition addresses the creative process itself. 'Encounters' took 24 contemporary artists of international stature, including Kossoff, and invited them to choose a work of art in the famous collection as a starting point for a work of art. The artists included Auerbach, Bourgeois, Clemente, Freud, Johns, Kiefer, Hockney, Viola, Rego and Tapies - an international and varied line-up of artists spanning cultural phenomena and style. The result was one of the finest exhibitions of contemporary art and ideas.

Robert Rosenblum, in his essay 'Remembrance of Art Past' (2000), establishes the significance of the dialogue with art from the past in terms of how we have perceived modern art.

Of the abiding myths about modern art, one of the most stubborn would tell us that artists of the last two centuries kept unburdening themselves of the past, hoping forever to wipe their eyes clean of history. Like many grand generalisations, this one is both true, and false and something in between. If the history of modern art is taken to begin with such masters as David and Goya who, born in the mid-eighteenth century, responded to the irreversible upheavals that marked the next revolutionary decades, then this precarious balance between respecting and destroying tradition is at the very roots of our heritage.1

Rosenblum traces the establishment of museums and the degree to which artists such as Manet, Matisse, Kandinsky and Mondrian copied from art of the past, or were influenced by the great themes in art history. He quotes Fantin-Latour's advice to Renoir: 'There is only the Louvre! You can never copy the Old Masters enough'. 'Picasso,' Rosenblum claims, 'once heralding everything new in the twentieth century, has slowly been transformed into the guardian of the past, as we discover the terrorist attacks on tradition turn out to be a way of rejuvenating, not destroying, our heritage, even preserving for us the conventional subject hierarchies of ambitious figure paintings, ideal nudes, portraiture, landscape and still-life.'2

The creative process evolves from personal experience, formal education, a dialogue with art from the past, inner conviction and the manner in which lives are moulded by circumstance. The Kossoff exhibition sheds light on all of these elements of his life and work. The notion of creative dialogue embraces a variety of activities, research being one. It can be oriented to a specific, or it can be a private dialogue, with an art historical phenomena, period or individual. It can be a short-term or life-long endeavour. For artists such as Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Ron Kitaj and Arthur Boyd, it has been a necessary and vital part of the creative process offering opportunities for the reinvention of one's imagery and ideas, new paths of inquiry and stylistic departures. 'Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting' reveals the energy and determination of the artist throughout his career. His drawings have never been academic and refined - instead they harness an existential spirit that began in Kossoff's early years.

Leon Kossoff was born in Islington in 1926 to Russian Jewish parents who were refugees of persecution in the Ukraine, around 1906-1907. With the exception of three years spent as an evacuee during the war, and three years in military service, he has spent his whole life living and working in London. On the occasion of his Tate retrospective in 1996, Nicholas Serota described his work as, 'revealing an unexpected vision of the metropolis'.3 Kossoff grew up in Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Hackney. At around the age of ten he started to draw and found his own way to the National Gallery. This was his first visit to a museum and there he saw Rembrandt's 'Woman Bathing in a Stream' (1654), which affected him greatly for many years. When he was evacuated to King's Lynn in 1939, he stayed with a family who encouraged his art. He drew and saw East Anglian paintings. He also drew from newspaper photographs, which showed London ablaze around St Paul's cathedral. When he returned to London he stayed with his family until he was conscripted. Their house had been bombed, so they had to move close to Christchurch, Spitalfields, which later became a favourite subject. Kossoff by chance discovered a life drawing class, which fuelled his interest in working from the figure. For a short time during 1943-1944, he also attended a drawing class at St Martin's School of Art. His passion for art was well established before military service; when he returned at the end of the war, he found London to be a damaged place, suffering from the physical damage of bombings, and with it economic depression and food rationing. These were the circumstances against which Kossoff's attitude to art and life, were forged.

The loss of faith in humanity in the late 1940s, was such that the human image in art became increasingly difficult to portray. The existential despair expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea (1938)4 found a visual counterpart in the images of despair and alienation of Francis Bacon, the expressionism of Oskar Kokoshka and the apocalyptic visions of Arthur Boyd. For the most part, abstraction in the visual arts dominated because, after the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, artists found images of humanity impossible to create. Kossoff's work always suffered a degree of neglect, compared to his contemporary and close friend Frank Auerbach, and yet the work is now more relevant than ever. Time has played a part in the recognition of Kossoff's complex work, as extended by recent world events, where the confrontation of terrorism has questioned our faith in humanity again.

It was during his first year at St Martin's that Kossoff came to know Auerbach. They met whilst drawing from antique casts, and Kossoff expressed his admiration for Auerbach's work. Auerbach in turn recognised that in Kossoff's roughly executed drawings 'a force of conviction' existed. This remains the experience one has of Kossoff's drawing. Indeed the present exhibition has hints of the awkwardness that Auerbach first acknowledged, but the sheer body of remarkably energetic work is outstanding. As students and young artists, Auerbach and Kossoff worked together and searched out interesting subjects, often in the city's many bombsites. Auerbach encouraged Kossoff to attend the evening life classes taught by the painter David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic. Bomberg confirmed for Kossoff the direction his art was already taking: a way of first drawing from life and then painting that went beyond conventional representation towards a much wider, deeper awareness of, and response to, the model. David Bomberg was an important influence as well as Kossoff's teacher. His views on art in relation to the development of self were particularly apt in the post-war art scene. For example, the gallery system was not considered by Bomberg to be the only way an artist could become established; there was the removal of an élitism in that he encouraged his students to exhibit alongside amateur artists at the Embankment Gardens in 1947 when the London County Council had its first open-air exhibition. Bomberg's words must have had a real poignancy for Auerbach and Kossoff at the outset of his career: 'It is the example the artist gives of fulfilling himself in his work that is of social use to others; for the man who solves his problems thereby involuntarily helps everyone else.'5 Rosenthal believes that in 'conveying a kind of existential fear, Frank Auerbach's paintings act as a therapeutic release'.6 Together with Leon Kossoff, he decided to paint the rebuilding of London and drew in situ every day, 'In his paintings of building sites, he counteracted the abundance of mud and deep holes by deploying cranes and girders, as if they were pictorial lightning rods and "lances".'7 In response to the work of other artists he came into contact with, in the immediate post-war years, Auerbach was dissatisfied. He stated, 'I felt there was an area of experience - the haptic, the tangible, what you feel when you touch somebody next to you in the dark - that hadn't perhaps been recorded in painting before.'8 Bomberg also believed that drawing was an essential part of painting. This too confirmed what was already Kossoff's practice. Kossoff's self-doubt was greatly assuaged by Bomberg's example and encouragement. 'What David did for me,' he recalls, 'which was more important than any technique he could have taught me, was he made me feel I could do it. I came to him with no belief in myself whatsoever and he treated my work with respect.'9

Kossoff's images of London are a far cry from the tourist images with which one is familiar. His is a deeply felt response to place and mood. His rendering of cityscapes, buildings and people all possess a profound and unique vision. In the 1950s, the major theme was London's bombsites, excavations and building sites. Through these, Kossoff showed the aftermath of war and the city's passage from destruction to regeneration. During this period, he also developed his interest in London's railways and underground system, which his paintings of the 1960s reveal. For subjects outside of the studio he typically made numerous drawings of the subject, recording different aspects of the subject. The long process of painting then begins, in which the artist seeks to a definitive realisation of his vision of the subject. Quite often, however, he will scrape back the entire canvas and start again. The finished work, though, may be achieved in a single day's work. Kossoff describes the process vividly: 'The subject, person or landscape, reverberates in my head, unleashing a compelling need to destroy and restate.'

Kossoff's most memorable images and bodies of work include railway subjects, swimming pools and urban landscapes. Of equal importance are his figure works, often monumental in their presence. In 1965 Kossoff painted 'Woman Ill in Bed Surrounded by Family', and while this was grounded in reality - an illness in his family - Kossoff resolved a compositional problem after seeing an engraving by Albrecht Dürer of the Virgin Mary in bed. Kossoff's intense study of life, has always been accompanied by study of the great painters of the past. In the 1970s the relationship between drawing and painting in Kossoff's work became closer.

'Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting' at the National Gallery explores the artist's relationship with the Old Masters and with pictures in the National Gallery in particular. Some 60 works are on display - including paintings, drawings and prints - most of which have never been seen. Kossoff first visited the National Gallery in 1936. Since then it has played a pivotal role in his artistic career, as he has drawn and made prints from the collection. The present exhibition includes works made from the art of Titian, Veronese, Rubens, Poussin, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Goya, Constable, Degas and Cézanne. As well as working from paintings at the National Gallery, Kossoff also made works from paintings in exhibitions such as the Royal Academy. The exhibition also includes one of his paintings of 'Christchurch, Spitalfields' (1999), a splendid example of his London painting - its inclusion forms a link to his wider work methods and enables the viewer to comprehend the immense energy that exists in relatively small 'copies from the masters'. Two other paintings are on show, made from Poussin's 'The Triumph of Pan' (1636) and Rembrandt's 'Ecce Homo' (1634). Two small painted studies of dwarfs after Velasquez that Kossoff made some twenty years ago are also included. 'The Triumph of Pan', is perhaps Kossoff's most overt celebratory drama of the history of art, a triumph of the creative act itself. The palette glows, so remarkably. It is both understated and yet a most passionate composition in a limited but radiant palette.

Dialogue in whatever form helps to anchor artists so that there is a constant thread connecting thoughts and acts as their career unfolds. The Director of the National Gallery in 2000 was Neil McGregor. 'Encounters: A dialogue with art from the past', was his brainchild. In the 'Foreword' to the catalogue he observed:

Every day in the rooms of The National Gallery, conversations go on. Rembrandt talks to Titian, Velasquez looks at Rubens, Seurat nods to Piero della Francesca, and Turner, by his own express wish, hangs forever beside the artists whom he revered and admired above all others, Claude Lorrain …

The artists taking part in this exhibition are not just letting us see the work they have produced as a result of our invitation to respond to a painting in the National Gallery. In the process they allow us to look again at pictures we thought we knew well. And to look at a painting through the eyes of an artists is, in many cases, to discover a new painting or perhaps, more accurately, to be reminded that great paintings are inexhaustible, and always have more secrets to yield.10

For 'Encounters', Kossoff chose Rubens, as he had previously. The result was one of the finest responses in the exhibition; the sheer volume of drawings and etchings was remarkable. Executed quickly they captured Kossoff's lifelong commitment to drawing and the manner in which he has always infused many of his own discoveries, his dialogue with self, in to his dialogue with Rubens. From his resultant work one may experience the combination of that visual and mental working knowledge of Rubens' painting in general as over a lifetime, together with the experience of 'mark-making' itself. So the vital act of drawing, distilling thereby his own living experience, is a reciprocal process, via both drawings and etchings. The most effective process is through etching, where the mark-making process, is intensified by the nature of the medium. In his essay on Kossoff, Richard Morphet writes:

Since at least the 1960s, Kossoff has been widely admired for the strength and distinctiveness of his drawing. Nevertheless in 1987, nearly forty years after starting to draw there, he stated: 'In my work done in The National Gallery and elsewhere from the work of others I have always been a student. From the earliest days when I scribbled from the Rembrandts in the Mond Room my attitude to these works has always been to teach myself to draw from them, and, by repeated visits, to try to understand why certain pictures have a transforming effect on my mind. In the copies, made in the studio, I have always tried to remain as faithful as I was to the original, whilst trying to deepen my understanding of them. I have always regarded these activities as quite separate from my other work and only once, a long time ago, have I consciously used one of these works in the making of one of my own pictures.11

Kossoff's relationship with the Old Master works in the National Gallery has developed over the 70 years since his first visit. Many drawings from the same work are made, and to each he brings a subtly new sensibility. Each experience of drawing captures not only the image in front of the artist but the artist's perceptions and emotions. Each encounter with a work therefore reveals a new take on an abiding subject or theme. No single drawing can be a definitive statement. This characterises the exhibition as a whole. One sees the process of creation as the accomplishment of Kossoff's career, as much as the finished works. Further, it is the body of work that carries gravity and authority more than an individual work and in this the existential spirit is captured with great success.

Kossoff's most successful drawings are often those made as etchings. His simple drypoint lines have a subtle energy and his hand appears to dance across the plate creating an energetic choreography of forms and lines. His interpretations of Constable's 'Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows' (1831) is a good example of how the artist makes repeated reworkings of the plate, and how a subject in a state of constant flux - Salisbury Cathedral in a violent storm, there can never be a point at which the work is definitively finished. Kossoff's etchings in the exhibition are marvellous. His 20-year relationship with his assistant, Ann Dowker, is a collaborative one - she is an artist, not merely a technical assistant - and the works have a cohesive and dramatic quality in part due to her sensitivity to Kossoff's intentions. Kossoff makes unique prints, rather than editions, and in doing so emphasises the state of flux in the moment of creation. 'From Poussin: The Destruction and Sack of the Temple of Jerusalem' (no date) is one of his most successful works, where the architectonic structure of columns is dramatically rooted in the swirling mass of figures. The heaving mass of bodies represents an image of the world possessed. It is rooted in biblical imagery, yet it conveys a potent psychological mood. In doing so, it becomes a universal message of humanity's senseless plight at war and conflict on all levels of experience. Kossoff rarely travels yet his paintings and graphic work reveal a broad range of human experience through the great tradition of European art, and the intense commitment to the lesser-known aspects of the city of London.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Rosenblum R. Remembrance of Art Past. In: Encounters: A dialogue with art from the past. London: National Gallery Company Limited, 2000: 8.
2. Ibid: 11-13.
3. Serota N. Foreword. In: Moorhouse P. Leon Kossoff. London:Tate Gallery Publishing, 1996: 7.
4. Sartre J-P. La Nausée. Paris: Gallimard, 1938.
5. Lambert C, Rosenthal N, Carlisle I. Auerbach and His Sitters. In: Frank Auerbach: Paintings and Drawings, 1954-2001. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2001: 21.
6. Ibid: 12.
7. Ibid: 21.
8. Ibid: 23.
9. Moorhouse P. Leon Kossoff. London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1996:12.
10. Rosenblum R. Encounters: A dialogue with art from the past. London: National Gallery Company Limited, 2000:7.
11. Morphet R. Leon Kossoff: Drawings and Prints after Rubens. In: Rosenblum R. Encounters: A dialogue with art from the past. London: National Gallery Company Limited, 2000: 224-225; quoting a letter from Kossoff in the exhibition catalogue for Past and Present: Contemporary artists drawing from the Masters, London: South Bank Centre, 1987-1988: 38.

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