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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border