Etchings, Drawings, Landscapes & Portraits

THE FIRST thing to strike one when confronted by a Leon Kossoff painting is the medium. Pigment, pure and simple and lots of it, applied to the point where at first glance the painting may bring to mind a painter?s palette. The built-up surface has paint flowing in every direction, curling around the sides of the composition board, and emanating an almost sculptural presence.

It is as though the image has struggled up from the morass of paint as one of Michaelangelo?s partially finished slaves appears from the marble. Up close the paintings take on an abstract feel and the image may be hard to discern. With time and the aid of standing back something else again happens. The materiality of the paintings from any period is undeniable, but in the pictures of this exhibition there is a contradiction between the built up surfaces, the viscosity of the paint and the extraordinary simplicity, almost meditative economy of line and gesture which allows one to grasp and hold the images. The simplicity in the final result is extraordinary.

Thick impasto integrated with economy of line, clarity arising from the chaos. The tension and ambiguity between the paint and the image bring the paintings alive. Those familiar with earlier paintings in the Art Gallery NSW or the National Gallery of Australia will notice significant changes in the new work dating from the mid 1990?s. This individual group of paintings and drawings, which have been carefully chosen by Kossoff to compliment each other, reflect a new openness and higher colour range which speak volumes of the great strides and changes in his art in recent years. The drawing is more relaxed while delivering more impact and there is an expanding fluidity and accessibility of image in marked contrast to some of the earlier paintings, which have a sombre less reflective quality, faithfully mirroring the areas of London where they were painted but sometimes difficult to see in the glare of Australian light. The new works generate a luminosity spurred on by the refractions of light over the thick uneven surface and the use of a lighter palette and ochre colours. Indeed, the absorption and reflection of the Australian light make the paintings quite different to view here than they would appear in London. The work is always progressing, never static and like the movement found in individual paintings, the oeuvre itself is constantly in flux.

The current paintings have a mystery to them almost akin to alchemy. The images arise with repeated viewings, sometimes unexpectedly, and pausing long enough on the canvas to capture our imaginations and fix perhaps hitherto buried emotions, alter our perceptions just enough that we may see and think of ourselves and the people and objects around us differently. From the interior of his studio and indeed his own inner self, Kossoff gives us permission to see and feel more. It is a life affirming art and while it refrains from romanticising or falsifying our condition, succeeds brilliantly in stimulating our sensations and fuelling our imaginations.

DRAWING, whether working in oil, charcoal or etching is the armature in which Kossoff constructs his art. Drawing in particular is what distinguishes him from his peers across all mediums. Recognising that drawing skills may become mannered and the idea therefore that he must struggle to overcome his own natural inability to stay fresh, is the key to his success in painting. Kossoff has stated that; ?I think of everything that I do as a form of drawing?. Often dozens of charcoal studies of a particular subject are undertaken before and during the process of making a painting. Richard Kendall in his essay for the book accompanying the NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA show ?DRAWN TO PAINTING? notes that; ?drawing is thus a means of reaching out and finding direction, of establishing a critical connection between the artist and his motif...it follows that drawings must always be exploratory, that the artist is engaged in finding new pictorial truths and exhilaration, unpracticed forms to embody them. By definition, conventional techniques will be self-defeating, and in their place he strives for a paradoxical combination of knowledge and a hard-won practical innocence.? There is an element of epiphany in both the play and struggle of the drawing. He exults in the charcoal even as it lets him down and requires him to start again. Kossoff himself has stated that; ?...drawing begins with ?not knowing?, that it is always starting again and experimenting afresh each moment of involvement...? Drawing lies at the heart of Kossoff?s art, indeed the process of drawing may be seen as central to both the subject and the content of his work and the engine driving the paintings.

INFLUENCES in the 1950?s on the young Kossoff were diverse. As a young man in 1950-52 he attended classes by David Bomberg, an artist now viewed as hugely influential on the school of London but largely unrecognised in his lifetime. Bomberg shared Kossoff?s admiration for Constable and Cezanne and his classes stressed the importance of drawing coupled with intense observation and an intuitive approach in a quest to find, like Cezanne, the ?spirit in the mass?. Kossoff described Bomberg?s classes as ?like coming home? and gave him the confidence and affirmation he needed at a critical early stage of his career. Another aspect of culture in the 1950?s which may have influenced Kossoff was existential thought, which placed great importance on the individual?s direct experience and the capacity for process and materials to define the inner life of the artist. In Paris, Giacometti?s rigorous working method from the model, the monumental scale of even the small pieces and the insistent struggle to resolve his images may be likened to Kossoff. He has a deep admiration for the work of Constable which dates back to a teenage stay during the war years in ?Constable country? in Norfolk. While the nature of the influence is unclear, the simplicity and economy of the impact of the final images in the portraits bring to mind Matisse, particularly the dark broad lines of some of his etchings. Recent works such as ?Cathy II? 1997, has the pose and feel of ?Blue Nude? 1906, and ?Pilar? 1995, is reminiscent of Matisse?s 1904 woodcuts. There also appears to be an affinity with the black line of Roualt?s woodcuts and more expressionistic pieces. His long time peers from what has become known as ?The School of London? including Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, Euan Uglow and John Lessore must also have had a shared impact on his development, but in recent years his insistent progression has distanced his work considerably from the more formal angular compositions of Auerbach or the relatively sleek and finished works of Freud.

Equally important perhaps is the maintaining and establishing of close links with the old masters including; Titian, Velasquez, Hals, Rubens, Goya, Van Gogh, Cezanne and others. The exhibition of works after Poussin ?DRAWN TO PAINTING? is not to be missed and running concurrent to this exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. A number of major twentieth century artists have drawn from the past but as Graham Beal, the former director of LA County Museum, points out it is more rare to see the prolonged engagement inspired in Kossoff by the Nicholas Poussin Retrospective at the Royal Academy where he secured permission to make drawings in the exhibition. While apparently in direct opposition to Poussin?s restrained nature, THE POUSSIN PROJECT produces magnificent results due to Kossoff?s intimacy and experience of the old master gained through drawing. Richard Kendall argues in his outstanding essay that under the swirling expressionism of Kossoff and the measured calm of Poussin lies a paradox of similarities. The shared use of bodily gesture, the use of space to enhance narrative and the reliance on drawing and line is what gives Poussin his vividness and Kossoff his raw energy. To look at Kossoff?s prints and drawings after Poussin is to gain further insight into both artists and, as Kossoff has reached back nearly four centuries in his search, it is an opportunity to discover elements that are truly significant and critical to the act of painting, to what constitutes painting itself.

WORKING METHODS are helpful to understanding both the man and his art. All painting is done from the motif. In the case of portraits and nudes this means directly from the model. Some of the models may be family or friends, some are paid to come on a regular basis. Models may sit for several hours twice a week for years. A painting generally takes months to finish - sometimes years. The reason for this is straightforward. At every session Kossoff starts again. He scrapes the paint back significantly or presses wet newspaper against the painting at the end of a session to leave only a residue of image on the board. In recent years as his technical ability with his processes has become more finely tuned, Kossoff may even transfer images from board to board, and is always at work on a number of pieces simultaneously. After months or even years of working on the same painting the actual image we are left with is in fact done in a matter of hours. It is simply the most recent incarnation of a painting in constant metamorphosis. Kossoff says; ? I never know when a painting is finished. I stop when I can?t go on or when the painting begins to look like the drawing made on that day or when the image opens up a dialogue with the possibility of starting another version.? The consistency and determination of his methods indicate a rigorous working disposition not to be confused with a formulaic approach. While setting out with an idea and a predetermined vision, Kossoff embraces accident and randomness in the result. As the artist himself states when referring to his working method; ?Every time the model sits everything has changed. You have changed, she has changed, the balance has changed. The directions you try to remember are no longer there and, whether working from the model or landscape drawings, everything has to be reconstructed daily, many many times.? Kossoff is working on himself and is somehow inviting the viewer to share his journey as we experience the same situation is in everyday life, never truly seeing the same painting twice even if it is hanging in our lounge room for years. A familiar walk is full of surprises providing we have the eyes to see and the mind to accept the changes.

SUBJECT MATTER for Kossoff falls into in several distinct areas; portraits, nudes and landscapes - usually of city scenes. All contain figures. The artist John Lessore has been sitting for Kossoff for over forty years. One can only speculate on what sort of relationship builds up between artist and sitter over such lengthy periods of time, but Kossoff clearly displays an empathy for his sitters and these ordinary people are more than simple armatures on which to hang his art. David Sylvester has noted in a perceptive catalogue essay; ?the paintings are not about the meaning of these women in the artist?s mind, they are about the presence of these women in the artist?s space.? The portrait drawing of Fidelma, 1996, is a masterpiece of contrasting firm diagonals with the use of arabesque in the curvatures of the neck and the fall of the hair. The situating of the ground has been neutralised by the depth of the background and the image hovers like a piece of sculpture flattened up against a window pane. The portraits ?John 1? 1998 and ?Head of Heinz? 1997 seem to float freely as the images, especially from a distance, seem to hover in front of the picture plane. Particularly in the portraits, his quarry is rather larger than the specific characteristics or personality traits in the sitter. Kossoff is more interested in the universal human condition and his own attempts to induce an emotive response in the viewer and enhance their capacity to identify with those emotions. It is an art of ideas, but the intellect gives way to feeling.

The Nude in art is an image which goes back at least to the Egyptians and was central to the ancient Greeks and the Renaissance artists. It is therefore already a part of art before Kossoff begins. Nudes such as ?Cathy 1? 1997 or ?Cathy 3? 1994 have a remarkable tactile sensation. The critic Bernard Berenson felt the nude the ultimate subject matter for realising what he referred to as ?tactile values? and described as; ? representations... when communicated, not as mere reproductions, but in a way that stirs the imagination to feel their bulk, heft their weight, realise their potential resistance, span their distance from us, and encourage us, always imaginatively, to come into close touch with, to grasp, to embrace them... Also the idea of seeing through the artist other elements...communicating values in terms that are life enhancing.? Kossoff?s nudes allow us to see what we have not previously seen and stimulate our imagination through the movement and tactile values of his paintings to realise an exhilarating truth in the human form.

The landscape drawings, when compared to drawings of portraits or nudes are more a record of place than figure. ?View of Kings Cross and Pentonville Road II?, 1997, is a marvel of whirring circular motion almost arabesque in it?s execution. Kossoff encourages us to use all of our senses and one can ?hear? this drawing. The wind swirling around the cliff like face of the station, the clattering of feet and voices, the traffic noises and urban cacophony as the station swallows up and then disgorges a never ending stream of humanity. Certainly standing in such a place to execute the drawings Kossoff would have been keenly aware of the aural symphony around him and use the marvellous unpredictability of the sounds to further inspire him. When worked up into paintings, colour and scraping become part of the drawing, the figures are foregrounded, more securely trapped and become more prominent, the faces sometimes taking on, perhaps unconsciously, the characteristics of his accustomed models.

Kossoff himself refers to figure or landscape never using the word ?cityscape? to my knowledge. Landscape refers to nature. When all is said and done the primary importance of art is to help us with our place in nature. Nature is all around us and we are all an integral part of nature. Situating ourselves and our search for our own identity in specific culture and the overall order of things is most often done via meditations on nature. In great Australian art we often see abstract responses to the enigmas of the landscape. The non figurative art of Brian Blanchflower for example draws much of it?s inspiration from the pure light and both the minutiae and vast skies of the Australian landscape. Kossoff by contrast uses the detailed observation of the comings and goings outside Kings Cross station in London or the undulations of the human body observed over hundreds of sessions to realise his meditations on nature. The monumental facade of Kings Cross station may be man made but has a feeling similar to a sheer cliff face. Both Kossoff and Blanchflower share an extraordinary intimacy with their immediate environments to which they return again and again in order to achieve their objective truths. However, Kossoff is a painter of the figure, of specific human presence. Like the Aboriginal presence via cave paintings and other markings in the landscape recording human presence in nature, the reclining models or barely defined figures in London streets are also a record of human presence, more specifically how the human figure transforms space by it?s presence. They are also about absence. Like the aboriginal rock carvings and people who made them, someday Kossoff?s models and indeed his paintings will be gone, a fact which makes all artistic endeavour ephemeral.

THE STUDIO pictured in the catalogue is the laboratory for these events, the womb where the paintings are conceived, gestated and eventually borne out into the public domain. The cave like studio has been described by Rudi Fuchs as possessing a seductive romantic air. There are decades of encrusted paint on virtually every surface of the working area, drawings and reproductions are pinned to the walls and paintings rest in various states. The studio is a secluded environment and few are invited. Kossoff is intensely private beyond a few simple explanations of his work and the few visitors that do come are relegated to certain areas. The models for the portraits and nudes come to the studio. The landscapes arrive via the sketches of the city the artist makes ?in situ? and are used as the motifs from which to work up the paintings in the studio. It is as though there are a number of layers he employs to make the work, starting with the emotions and the regard for seeing in the artist himself - his own interiority. The next layer is the studio followed by the models who visit on a regular basis. Finally their are landscape locations like Kings Cross station and the city and people of London.

It is the process of painting itself which is most important and determines the work. The idea of struggle is prominent in a painter who begins anew on a daily basis and the idea of failure is critical to success. Everything in kossoff is in fact struggling to come into being. The images have had to work hard to find their place on the picture plane. The construction of the paintings with their often unsettled multi diagonal axis, the forward tilt of the picture plane and the viscosity of the paint surface, with the figures threatening to slide off the surface and spill into the space of the viewer, all contribute to a precariousness of being. The tension between paint and image, the contrast between vulnerability and the very much anchored ?substantial form? rooted in the drawing, give the paintings an exalting presence. As witness to what is in fact the residue of an extended process of which we only see the final result, the committed viewer is drawn in by the struggle and invited to resolve it according to their own emotions. This is an ongoing process on our part because, as in the making of the painting, we can apply Kossoff?s comments to our own eyes and mind. For every viewing we have changed, the light on the painting has changed, everything has changed. Kossoff is after all working on himself and perhaps invites us to do the same. When we use Kossoff?s work as an invitation to apply the lessons he has learned in painting to our own ability to look, the results can be rewarding and exhilarating.

CONTRIBUTIONS to our overall understanding of art and influence on other artists is in the final analysis how an artist will be remembered. In Kossoff?s case, although he has attracted the notice of critics and writers over the last forty years, his influence has recently become more pronounced. Following his critically acclaimed showing at the Venice Biennale in 1996, it became apparent that his work stood out significantly from his peers. When compared to some late twentieth century masters the work of Kossoff may seem slightly antiquated, or in the words of the critic David Sylvester; ?against all the odds?. However, every few years and regardless of new trends, much of the art world experiences a ?return? to the values and substance of the act of painting as the critical measure of visual art. Serious observation of these cycles and an ongoing interest in what is possible in painting inevitably returns attention to a few outstanding figures like Kossoff. Artists inspired by the possibilities inherent in the rendering of the human figure owe more and more to Kossoff as time marches on. In Australia, figurative artists such as Nicholas Harding are only the most obvious to have been influenced. Artists such as Fred Cress, who have a keen interest in the image making secrets of the old masters, will be fascinated by kossoff?s dialogue with the past in the Poussin Project. Anyone in fact attempting to render human presence and emotion visible has much to learn from his example. Australian figurative painting, abstract renditions of the landscape or a Rainbow Serpent on bark by John Mawurndjul are all meditations on kossoff?s central themes of human presence and absence.

A key to his influence and importance lies in his own understanding of his place in the art historical continuum. A knowledge that the past is never fully understood and an intimacy with what has gone before is necessary in order to be fully present and therefore have an impact on the future. A great artist is always part of his time, but no less important is to look at the past, embrace it and add something new and original. In more detail perhaps, from a different vantage point, but always with new experience and emphasis. As David Hockney knew when he started experimenting with Polaroid photographs, cubism lasted only a few critical years before lapsing into mannerism and to think that our comprehension of it or indeed the understanding of the practitioners of the day was complete is a fallacy. There is always more to discover, more to expose. The juxtaposition of earlier methods with contemporary culture and the corresponding need to see and feel anew in light of cultural change is what is truly lasting and original. Kossoff clearly goes his own way and pays little or no attention to fashions in the art world. His quarry is as basic as breathing - to help us with our eyes and our ability to see. The ideas and the paint are inseparable, bound closely to each other by the emotions of the artist and his extraordinary capacity to generate feeling through seeing. Kossoff?s work is highly focussed and deeply personal, but he is stretching the boundaries of what is possible in painting of substance to the limit and his contribution to the overall human artistic canon constitutes great and lasting art.

- Bill Gregory, Sydney, January 2000


Etchings, Drawings, Landscapes & Portraits
paintings & works on paper
In association with LA Louver Gallery California
20 March - 22 April 2002

Exhibition features:

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Please note, works in previous exhibitions may no longer be available, please visit our stockroom for available works