Drawing from Painting

Leon Kossoff is one of the most influential and substantial artists in Britain today. He first understood his calling while studying under the great David Bomberg in London. Kossoff's impact on other artists has been felt since his early exhibitions at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London in the 1950's. He is often associated with the so called 'school of London' which includes Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach among others, but this is a mere category. Kossoff is an individual artist and when his work is given the intense scrutiny it deserves, it becomes clear that it cannot be easily categorized.

Kossoff has always been an extraordinarily reluctant promoter, of both his art and himself. In a career spanning more than five decades he has never given an interview of any kind -with the exception of his interview with Channel four from which the opening quote of the essay is taken. In a video for the National Gallery's London show 'Drawing From Painting' in 2007, Kossoff only allowed his hands to be filmed. The Channel Four interview is a rare, if brief insight into the thinking of one of the world's most esteemed artists. In it Kossoff goes on to say, "I don't feel I am a natural draughtsman, every day I start I think, today I might teach myself to draw?... 'I don't even feel comfortable in my own studio as the subject is always demanding more of you'. Clearly from these rare quotes, one gets the impression of an artist who is on a continuous voyage of discovery. His art is a process, not an end, and a "finished" work is simply a point in that journey where the artist is sufficiently satisfied with the result to steer his energies in a new direction.

In the case of Kossoff's portraits, a sitter may come twice a week for between seldom less-than fifty and frequently more-than a hundred sittings before Kossoff is content with what he has accomplished. He has let years go by, with the painting near-at-hand in his studio, before releasing it for exhibition. The result that we finally see in a show may, in a literal sense, represent only a day's work, as during the process Kossoff erases the work or scales it back with a palette knife at the end of each sitting so that he may start afresh at the following session. But the actual process is a long one. A ghost of the image may remain as well as the memories and some marks from the previous encounters, but the final image is done relatively quickly after what can only be described as an enormous amount of preparation.

When compared to his studio landscapes and portraits, the current exhibition of unique prints and drawings are relatively spontaneous. When he is drawing from the old masters Kossoff secures permission to work before the National Gallery rooms are open to the public. He draws in front of the motif - in this case the old master paintings themselves - but for pragmatic reasons he must capture the image in less time than he might choose. He makes multiple visits to the paintings in the museums, building up his ideas for a response to the original images through numerous visits, sometimes over a period of years. Kossoff?s first visit to the National Gallery in London was at the age of ten and he still visits regularly. He is a perpetual student, constantly wrestling with how best to respond and extract an image of his own from the old master paintings. But he is also an extraordinary teacher - his responses inspiring art lovers and students around the world.

The first major Kossoff exhibition at Annandale Galleries was mounted in 2001 to enthusiastic critical and public acclaim. It was a landmark exhibition of major paintings and drawings that coincided with the exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia that centered around his Poussin Project, a series of unique prints and drawings also done in front of the motif, in this case the Poussin retrospective in London a few years earlier. While other works were on display from collections around Australia, these graphic works with their emphasis on drawing, were the mainstay of the exhibition. Curated by the Getty Museum, the show boasted a handsome catalogue by Richard Kendall titled 'Drawn From Painting'.

The show at the National Gallery in London in 2007 was titled 'Drawing From Painting?'. In both exhibits, the works from the old masters are not titled 'After Rubens' or 'After Goya'. Kossoff is not a copyist. He is is drawing from the old masters. He is reaching across the centuries to commune with these artists and to attempt to unlock their secrets. In doing so he allows us to understand these paintings in a new way.

Kossoff?s swirling line in 'The Blinding of Samson,' drawn from Rembrandt, invites us to go back to the original with a fresh view. Through Kossoff's eyes I have been led to understandings of paintings that, frankly, I doubt would have been possible without Kossoff?'s guidance. He is reaching into the heart of the works and dipping his charcoal into their very essence. Colin Wiggins of the National Gallery in London refers to Kossoff's painting from the old masters as the artist attempting ?to inhabit the paintings.? The key to his understanding of these artists is his ability to reach back through time and establish a true intimacy with the artists and their work.

I have had the privilege on a number of occasions to visit the artist at his home and studio in the Kilburn area of London. It is a quiet, wide residential street not far from where I normally stay in London by Queens Park at the home of Rebecca Nassauer, the daughter of Rudi Nassauer who was a close friend and collector of Kossoff and a mentor to me as an art dealer.

Following our exhibition in 2001, it was with some trepidation that I called on Kossoff for the first time. It isn?t every day that an art dealer gets to meet one of the towering figures of post war art, and although I had met him briefly when he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale when I was touring with Rudi Nassauer and the artist Euan Uglow in 1996, I was understandably nervous.

In the event, this momentous occasion was a lot of fun and very relaxed. The artist?s wife, Peggy, has a terrific sense of humour and infectious laughter. Kossoff himself was generous as well as curious. Upon entering the house he scrutinized me quite carefully, as though he already knew me and - ever the artist - made some comment about my face as though he might like to paint it one day.

On the left side of the entrance foyer the studio door was slightly ajar. The fabled studio had been the birthplace of so many works of art now hanging in galleries, homes, and corporate collections around the world. Naturally, I was curious about the studio. But even though I was not told not to enter, I had the feeling that he would be more comfortable if I didn?t. I accepted an offer of a cup of tea upstairs instead. So the actual working space, like aspects of the work, remains a mystery to me - which is as I think it should be. The studio is a private space.

In the backyard, I noticed an aging tree being held up with the aid of a kind of brace and on subsequent visits I saw that he was using this as a motif. I thought of Monet at Giverny with the lily ponds outside the house in the gardens. We also talked about various exhibitions that were on around town and I was surprised at how many Kossoff had visited and with what enthusiasm and curiosity he spoke of other art and artists.

One thing about my visits with Kossoff that always impressed me were the folios of drawings, sitting often on the floor, of works done from the old masters. I thought how marvelous it would be to have an exhibition of this material. Works drawn from Velasquez, Degas, Poussin, Constable, Veronese, Rembrandt and especially Rubens. Remarkably, that passing thought has become reality. It is this remarkable material, works which, have never before left the studio, that make up our current show.

The ?projects? with the old masters are a means rather than an end, a process that has been going on all his adult life as an artist. Kossoff once told me that one of the benefits of growing older is the ability to that I had to revisit the old masters. Artists he has studied all his life are now appearing in a new, sometimes entirely unexpected light. I recall particularly the intensity with which he spoke of Rubens and I am delighted by the good fortune that has put these works on the walls of Annandale Galleries.

Kossoff?s work hangs in museums all over the world including a number of Australian State Galleries and the National Gallery. His thick impasto paint and his emphasis on have influenced countless students. His impact on Australian art and artists has been widespread. We are delighted therefore that the well-known and highly respected Australian artist, Nicholas Harding, has contributed a marvelous, heartfelt essay for this catalogue. Kossoff has always been a mentor-at-a-distance for Harding and he was both delighted and humbled by the opportunity to put into words his thoughts on the inspiration of Kossoff's work. While Harding has gone on to find his own style and form of expression, he still considers his ongoing study of Kossoff critical to his artistic goals - I suppose in the same way that Kossoff himself views the old masters.

Some of the works in the exhibition may look very busy, even cacophonous, but in fact what Kossoff often does is strip the works back and expose the bare bones - the essential information.. He brings us to the heart of the matter -- which is to feel the art. There is a work drawn from Constable in the exhibition entitled 'Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadows'. Harding points out in his essay that Constable once said; ?for me painting is but another word for feeling?.

When I stand in front of a work by Kossoff, what I become most aware of is how I feel. What I see, an analysis of form or a study of content, while certainly fascinating and often acutely absorbing, is nevertheless entirely secondary to Kossoff's ability to initiate an emotive response in the viewer. Many of these feelings are already inside me but tend to lie dormant until someone like Kossoff, through his art, reawakens me to their existence.

The extraordinary calmness and beauty of the unique print after Degas 'The Combing of the Hair' (see fronticepiece) is a case of extracting the essential feeling. The original painting is drenched in colour. The Kossoff work is monochromatic with an economy of line reminiscent of Matisse but the serenity, pathos and beauty of this simple act between two women is captured in its entirety. The great unique print of Belshazzar's Feast? from Rembrandt is another. The actual painting is a huge canvas rife with colour - a friend of mine, Sharon Nassauer, once told me ?it used to scare the knickers off her? as a little girl?. Indeed to a little girls?s-eyes the piece may have resembled a huge mysterious piece of jewelry. This large painting is so overpowering and the figure of Belshazzar so intense, so larger than life it is almost too much. Yet in one of his more open compositions Kossoff captures all of that again with only a relative few lines. The figure seems almost to jump out of the support as surprised (to find himself there) as we are delighted.

In this exhibition we are extraordinarily lucky in that not only do we have numerous works drawn from Poussin but also works from Goya, Constable, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Veronese, Rubens, and Cezanne. The key to Kossoff's painting and graphic works lies in the drawing, and this exhibition can be seen as a kind of fulcrum of the last ten years of his work. We are extraordinarily privileged to have the opportunity to see these works in Australia by one of the world?s most talented and revered artists.

I would like to thank LA Louver Gallery owner/director Peter Goulds, without whom this exhibition would not have been possible. I am grateful to John McDonald and Nicholas Harding for their insightful essays and my wife Anne and the staff at Annandale for general enthusiasm for the project and design of the catalogue. Most importantly, I want to express my gratitude to Leon Kossoff for his generosity and support of initiatives at Annandale Galleries over the years.

- Bill Gregory Sydney August 2010


Drawing from Painting
drawing & unique etchings
- drawing & unique etchings: After Poussin, Titian, Goya
12 Oct - 11 Dec 2010

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