Paint the town blue

He is our foremost painter of London. Yet Leon Kossoff is not exactly famous. A retrospective at the Tate may change that

He's not exactly a recluse, but Leon Kossoff has avoided the centre stage of the art world for most of his painting career, which began just after the war. Then two years ago the British Council announced that he was to be the British representative at the 1995 Venice Biennale, an honour normally given to much younger artists. Kossoff's Venice show then travelled to Amsterdam and Dusseldorf; quite appropriately, for his paintings have northern European links. Now Kossoff has a retrospective at the Tate Gallery, nicely chosen and hung, probably as good an account of his art as we could hope to see.

Celebrated today, Kossoff retains much privacy and a well-publicised liking for modest north London circumstances, domestic routines and the comforts of family life. Born in 1926, the son of immigrant Russian Jews, Kossoff grew up in Bethnal Green and Hackney and first knew the atmosphere of a drawing class at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel. He also attended classes at St Martin's and, more importantly, came under the influence of David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic. Bomberg's expressive, gloomy manner with charcoal obviously suited Kossoff's imagination. We could say that charcoal and the condition of England combined as he began to find his post-war subjects: derelict land, cratered bomb sites, railway stations and the chaotic, half-hopeless sight of rebuilding projects.

All this is well explained in Paul Moorehouse's catalogue introduction. Moorehouse is well aware of the importance of locality to Kossoff, and he explains how the artist likes to return to familiar subjects and surroundings. However, one senses that he knows more about Kossoff than he publishes here, and he says nothing about the wider context of his paintings. The only person Moorehouse cites as an influence on Kossoff is Bomberg, while admitting that their acquaintance was brief. Moorehouse points out Kossoff's friendship with Frank Auerbach, but although there are obvious similarities of style in the two painters he doesn't actually say where the style began. So what are the origins of Kossoff's manner, and what is the context in which one views his art?

I think he would have looked rather well in the 1990 Barbican exhibition called "Chagall to Kitaj: Jewish Experience in 20th-Century Art". It's not simply that Kossoff comes from a Jewish family, though this is obviously relevant. His style and themes fit well with the tradition outlined in the Barbican show. Surely the great and abiding influence on Kossoff has been that of Soutine. He provided the younger artist with an example of his thick, swirling application. Then there is the sense, common to both painters, of landscape as interior brooding. And I suppose that the eccentric rightward tilt of Kossoff's paintings of Christ Church, Spitalfields, also derives from Soutine, and to a lesser extent Chagall. Viewed in the company of such art Kossoff's painting takes on an international flavour, though he lacks the excitement of Soutine and never shows any of Chagall's definite graphic sense.

Kossoff also has affinities with the tradition of Jewish domestic portraiture, except that he has no precise liking either for people's features or their circumstances. His father, mother, wife and brother are all there in the pictures, to be seen and recognised, but it seems wrong to call them portraits. These figure paintings (so like Auerbach's) record the experience of being with someone else in the room and dramatise the difficulties of conveying the experienced in paint. Hence the aura of frustration and toil in both artists, who also like to imply that they approach art as the deepest kind of hard work while everyone else is relatively frivolous.

Every single painting proclaims Kossoff's seriousness. More than a few betray worry about getting things "right" according to a set of personal rules known only to the artist. Kossoff has the habit of scraping off the whole area of pigment apparently every day. Then he reworks the picture until he is satisfied. These procedures will remain mysterious, but certainly have their origins in the expressionism of the 1950s. Kossoff was uneasy at the Royal College of Art, but when he left the RCA in 1956 he immediately found a home in Helen Lessore's gallery. He had five shows at the Beaux Arts before it closed in 1965 (ie, one every two years) and was also the beneficiary of Mrs Lessore's formidable propaganda on behalf of her artists and the general virtues of brown paint and loaded impasto. And it's this belief in impasto that gives the individual character to Kossoff's painting, for better or worse. At its best, the loaded paint and coagulated drawing make the paintings into fine emotional experiences. But the manner can easily become repetitious, and then self-parodying is all too apparent.

! Tate Gallery, SW1 (0171 887 8000), to 1 Sept.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin