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Leon Kossoff is a British painter most commonly associated with the School of London, which included artists such as Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. He is best known for his portraits, cityscapes and life drawings and his distinctive use of thick impasto. Born in Islington, London, to Russian-Jewish parents, it was only during the war, when Kossoff was evacuated to Norfolk, that the young artist discovered his love of painting. Upon his return to London in 1943, he enrolled at Saint Martin’s School of Art. After a three-year interlude of military service, he returned to Saint Martin’s in 1949 and the following year attended Borough Polytechnic, where he took special classes under David Bomberg until 1953 and met fellow student Frank Auerbach. After studying at the Royal College of Art between 1953 and 1956, he started teaching in 1959 at Regent Street Polytechnic, the Chelsea School of Art and Saint Martin’s School of Art. In this period, he began to receive some recognition, featuring in shows with Auerbach, Freud and Bacon.
Along with other artists of the School of London, Kossoff reinvigorated figurative painting after the war. His figure paintings are often of his close friends and family, including his wife Rosalind and long-standing model, Fidelma, allowing him to revisit the sitter and create extremely intimate portraits. Kossoff has described the laborious process behind his portraits, explaining that, “the subject is visited many times and lots of drawings are made, mostly very quickly.” He tells us that, “the work is begun in the studio where each new drawing means a new start until, one day, a drawing appears which opens up the subject in a new way.”
For Kossoff, London was and continues to be his most enduring subject. He chronicled the places he was most familiar with, including Mornington Crescent, Bethnal Green, Willesden and Kilburn, depicting urban subjects such as railway bridges, churches and building sites. Even the people that feature in these cityscapes were familiar to him, choosing to populate his canvases with his close friends and family, making these scenes intimate insights into the artist’s life. By returning to certain landmarks, such as King’s Cross St Pancras and Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields, he recorded the changing physical and social landscape of the city, and its reconstruction after the severe aerial bombardment during the war.
Kossoff has been hailed as one of Britain’s greatest living artists, principally due to his fascinating creative process and distinctive expressive brushstrokes, earthy colours and dense impasto, resulting in viscous, energetic canvases. He places much importance on drawing as a crucial part of the painting process, but also as a medium in its own right. Indeed, his works start as drawings, which he briskly paints over, often finishing them in a day. After completing a painting, the work is moved to a small room in his home, sometimes for several weeks, while he decides whether to let the paint dry or scrape it off and start again. When he chooses the latter, the final canvas has on it layers of paint and past compositions hiding under the surface. Between 2002 and 2008, Kossoff adopted a lighter palette, abandoning his previous city greys and browns, to capture the cherry tree in his garden in brighter colours.
Kossoff has received many accolades in his lifetime, representing Britain in the Venice Biennale in 1995, and was the subject of a major retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London in 1996. He was also offered the honour of receiving a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth, but he declined. He has been honoured with numerous exhibitions, including “Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting,” at the National Gallery of London in 2007, “Leon Kossoff-London Landscapes,” in 2013, which travelled internationally, and most recently, was featured in the Tate Britain’s 2018 exhibition, entitled, “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life.” His works feature in collections worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the MoMA in New York and The National Gallery of Art in Washington, to name a few.