The reworking of the native

'The strange, ever-changing light, the endless streets, the shuddering feel of the sprawling city.' After 50 years, London still haunts the work of Leon Kossoff.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"I know only one city in the world and can find my way around it by feel in my sleep," wrote the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in one of her Northern Elegies. Moscow was to Akhmatova as London has always been to the great Jewish figurative painter Leon Kossoff.

"I know only one city in the world and can find my way around it by feel in my sleep," wrote the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in one of her Northern Elegies. Moscow was to Akhmatova as London has always been to the great Jewish figurative painter Leon Kossoff.

Kossoff grew up in Shoreditch, where his father, a refugee from the pogroms in the Ukraine, ran a bakery. Since he first began to paint with confidence in the 1950s, he has been honing and rehoning his London cityscapes: the tangled network of railway lines at Willesden Junction; the vertiginous mass of Hawksmoor's Christ Church at Spitalfields, and now, in his first London show for eight years, the area around King's Cross Underground station.

What is it about London that has kept his attention for half a century? The city haunts him, and has always done so. His need to paint it is also part of an attempt to reconstruct the past of his childhood, as he himself once wrote: "The strange ever changing light, the endless streets, and the shuddering feel of the sprawling city linger in my mind, like a faintly glimmering memory of long forgotten, perhaps never experienced childhood..."

The creation of these cityscapes is an increasingly arduous business for a man now in his mid-seventies. The paintings are always worked up from preliminary drawings made in situ. Kossoff then returns to the studio with these sketches, and the real work begins: the constant application, scraping off and reapplication of oils to board - not canvas, mind you, never canvas, because canvas cannot resist the sheer physical attack. Kossoff's method is to apply, and then remove, layer upon layer of paint, for months or even years at a time - he works on many paintings simultaneously - and finally, as if by miracle, the finished image appears, quite suddenly, in a matter of minutes...

The surfaces are thickly layered, almost sculpted. The paint adheres to the front and edges as if eager to consume everything in its path.

The King's Cross images in this show have a feverish, Soutine-like quality about them - the frenzied movement of human figures crossing each other's paths, crazed as wasps in early summer; the way in which the station building looms overhead, almost collapsing into the picture space. Everything seems to sway and lurch, the images rising, after an almighty struggle, out of a chaos of marks.

Kossoff's range of colours is narrow. He uses five or six, from which he mixes up everything he wants. An especial favourite, seen to great effect in this gallery, which swims in opulent sunlight on its best days, is a thickly applied dull pink, teetering on the brink of orange - think of a fillet of palely uncooked salmon...

But there is more to Kossoff than cityscapes. There is also Kossoff the painter of sombre heads, and Kossoff the tender painter of nudes. In this show there are portraits of Fidelma, Heinz, John, Jacinto and Pilar, some charcoal and pastel drawings, others fully worked up oils. I refer to them in this familiar, first-person way because Kossoff has a particularly intimate relationship with his models. They are his friends, his extended family. He is not the sort of painter who can paint anyone. When a model leaves, it is as if a hand - the painting hand - has been amputated.

Kossoff needs to see deeply into the characters of his models, and the only way to do this is to paint and to draw them again and again over a period of months and even years. It is a quest, as his first teacher, David Bomberg, put it, for "the spirit in the mass". And how does he ever know when a head is acceptable? Because one day he will look at it and find that it is unlike anything that he has ever done before.

Kossoff has no high-minded notions about the value of painting. Painting doesn't necessarily civilise. How could anyone in our century really think so? His need to paint and to draw seem to be largely a private obsession from which we have been fortunate to benefit. He wrestles, every day, with his medium because there is no alternative. It is what he does. He needs to prove to himself, over and over again, that he can do it, that, one day, he can make time collapse and see into the heart of things.

To 5 Aug, Annely Juda, 23 Dering Street, London W1 (020-7629 7578)

Comments