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.

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