Artist profile

Leon Kossoff

Leon Kossoff died on 4 July 2019. This is an address given at his funeral by Andrea Rose, former Director of Visual Arts at the British Council and editor of the catalogue raisonne of Kossoff's paintings:

"This was originally planned as a small funeral for family and close friends.  Leon would have been astonished to see how many people are here today.  It is a mark of the man, and his genius for closeness, that so many people who came into contact with him felt that they were not just close friends, but part of his extended family.  

Many of you will know that about a decade ago, Leon returned to Arnold Circus, where he’d spent part of his early childhood.  He would stand in the street with his drawing board and sketchbook, moving around so that he could capture the Circus from every aspect, in all angles, and all weathers.  One day, as he stood on the corner of Calvert Avenue, a cyclist got off his bike to see what he was doing.   Looking over Leon’s shoulder, he said: 

‘Hey’, you’re an artist.   Can you paint me heaven?”

And Leon, with that wry smile of his, said ‘ ‘Come back in a couple of weeks,’ ‘I’m trying to paint the earth first.’

The earth, the here and now, the specific place, the particular time of day, the individual sitting in front of him in all his or her variety and complexity -  these were the things that concerned him, and which he orchestrated into paintings of sustained spontaneity, using his formidable powers of concentration and self-discipline. 

Who else could have painted his father with such presence?  Or his wife Peggy with such unsentimental devotion over seven decades; his son David splashing about in Willesden Swimming Pool with the unaffected joy of childhood – or as Leon would have put it, ‘ the possible joy of childhood’; and  his young grandsons, Alex and Aaron, whose brotherly affection he painted with such acuity? In all his portraits, whether friends or family, models or passers-by in the street, he gives people their due.  He doesn’t big them up or minimise them – and he makes every allowance for mood.   You just have to look at the surfaces of his paintings to see that although they may have been suddenly finalised, they were, in fact, evolved over time, and not snapped like photographs.

Time of course was one of Leon’s great themes:  time and doubt. He was specially strong on doubt. Colin Wiggins will testify to the fact that it took Leon ten years to make up his mind about accepting Colin’s invitation to show at the National Gallery, but doubt -  or irresolution -   served him well in his paintings. His friend, the painter Mike Andrews, once said that ‘painting was the most elaborate and most marvellous way of making up your mind,’ and Leon fully engages in the process of making up his mind.  From that great uprush of emotion he must have felt when he first encountered a subject, through the sheer torment of making a painting work – the hours, days, weeks, years of patient observation and attention while all the time allowing himself to remain open to every possibility -  every brushstroke is a clue to the story of doubt, chance, decision and opportunity behind the making of the work.  But when the final image emerges, in a sort of brinksmanship with the mass of material at hand – the paintings spring to life. They are full of brio and incident.  Even in those morasses of place and domestic situations, you recognise how vividly he has got hold of the way we keep busy, snooze, take the weight off our feet.  Only a painter of Leon’s toughness, and impeccable sense of pictorial structure, could hope to build paintings of such grandeur and monumentality; to make the ordinary become promising, and the promising quite glorious.

One of his legacies is that when we leave here today, we are guaranteed to see the world as Leon saw it.    Or, at the very least, as he encouraged us to do, to look more, and therefore to see more.  We are not in any of his chosen heartlands here – Mornington Crescent, Bethnal Green, Willesden Junction, Dalston Junction, Kings Cross, Commercial Road, the Embankment, or Willesden Green, but when we leave here, even in Golders Green, I am sure we will do so with his words in our ears:

‘Perhaps everything is beautiful’."

 

Kossoff grew up in London's East End and the city always has been of his most abiding subjects. His pictures of London, which are generally of areas where he lived – from the East End and City to Willesden and Kilburn – are peopled by family and friends identifiable in many cases from studio portraits. His favoured urban subjects included railway bridges and sidings, churches and other imposing local buildings and building sites. Kossoff returned to favoured motifs, such as King's Cross St Pancras showing the change happening over the past decades, or Hawksmoor's Christ Church, Spitalfields. His figure paintings are often of close friends and family members; and his pictures of nudes are often of his wife, Rosalind, or of his long-standing model Fidelma. 

Biography

1926
Born in London
1949–53
Studied at St Martin’s School of Art, and attended twice weekly evening classes at Borough Polytechnic, London, with David Bomberg (1950–52)
1962
Elected into London group
1995
Represented Britain at Venice Biennale
2019
Died in London

Selected exhibitions

2013–14
Leon Kossoff: London Landscapes, Annely Juda Fine Art, London; Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York; L.A. Louver, Venice, California
2010–11
Recent Paintings, Annely Juda Fine Art, London
2007
Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting, National Gallery, London
2004–05
Leon Kossoff – Selected Paintings 1956–2000, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek; Museum of Modern Art Lucerne, Lucerne
2000
Leon Kossoff, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York; Annely Juda Fine Art, London
1995–96
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings. XLVI Venice Biennale, British Pavilion; Düsseldorf Kunstverein; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
1972
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings. XLVI Venice Biennale, British Pavilion, June–Oct.1995; Düsseldorf Kunstverein; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam until Mar. 1996
1957
Leon Kossoff, Beaux Arts Gallery, London

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