Leon Kossoff b. 1926


Private Collection, Europe
Private Collection, London


1983, New York, Hirschl & Adler, Leon Kossoff, 5 - 26 March 1983, cat. no. 17
1996, London, Tate Gallery, Leon Kossoff, 6 June - 1 Sept. 1996, cat. no. 48
2014, Münster, LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Bare life: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and others: London artists working from life 1950-80
2016, London, Fortnum & Mason, Fortnum's X Frank 2016, unnumbered


Leon Kossoff, exh. cat. Hirschl & Adler, 1983, p. 17 (col. illus.)
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, Tate Gallery Publishing, 1996, no. 48, p. 100 (col. illus.)
Catherine Lampert and Tanja Pirsig-Marshall, Bare life: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and others: London artists working from life 1950-80, Hirmer, 2014, p. 230
This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Leon Kossoff's oil paintings:
Andrea Rose with Stephanie Farmer and Andrew Dempsey, Leon Kossoff: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Modern Art Press, 2019

Leon Kossoff was born in 1926 in Islington, London to a family of Russian Jews of Ukrainian descent. During his childhood he lived in several different areas of London including Shoreditch and Brick Lane. Having been evacuated from the capital during the Second World War, he returned to begin art school. Most notably he studied with David Bomberg, a figure rejected by the art establishment of his day but with a bold and unusual approach to draughtsmanship that inspired a generation of young artists. Often working in charcoal, Kossoff began depicting building sites around Blitzed London and close family and friends in darkly brooding portraits. By the sixties, he used increasingly more oil paint in large scale works derived from extensive drawing. This resulted in the thickly layered, instantly recognisable and unique style for which he is known today.

During the late seventies and early eighties, prior to the death of his father in 1983, the nude assumed an important role in Kossoff’s painting. Through a series of works modelled by women who are named in the titles – Fidelma, Pauline and Sally – he would deepen his engagement with the human form as way to reveal physical and emotional reality. 'I'm always working to make it more like the sitter’ he explained in an interview with Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘to make the structure more real, more intense – but in the end, at the final minute, something else happens, something overtakes me in his presence, or in the presence of whoever I'm painting...I stop thinking for better or worse.' (Leon Kossoff in Conversation with Andrew Graham Dixon in The Independent, 16 September 1988, p.16)

As a part of this series, Fidelma with Arms Raised differs from Kossoff’s depictions of his mother, father or friends in natural positions, seated at rest. Fidelma is posed, self-consciously. She does not display a moment caught deep in thought but is presented by Kossoff as a purposefully constructed exercise in representation. Her pose is protective, like a foetal position, while also exposing her breasts and torso. It is an ambiguous motion, equally recalling the petrified inhabitants of Pompeii and a gesture of confidence, stretching with self-assurance and in total possession of her corporeality.

Kossoff’s use of line is key to realising her figure. His trenches of dark paint operate like drawn lines, echoing his preparatory drawings often made in charcoal. Paul Moorhouse has observed the ‘new tenderness’ in such drawing that ‘caresses the figures, emphasising its nakedness, its angularities, softness, and vulnerability.’ (Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, Tate, 1996, p.23) Kossoff’s use of colour has also changed with this new focus on the nude. Whereas his earlier work used a variety of interfused colours, blended through the liquidity of his paint, here his colour remains localised to register the distinct tone of his sitter’s skin, her seat and the shadowy areas beyond. It is not idealised colour but aspires to communicate the realness of his subject in its most absolute form.

Intense observation from life characterised Kossoff’s working method in Fidelma. He would often spend hours upon hours on a painting over the course of many sittings, sometimes taking a period of months or years. After layering paint over this length of time he would occasionally scrape off areas before working them again in order to reflect change in his subject. The artist himself has written of how “Every time the model sits everything has changed. You have changed, she has changed. The light has changed, the balance has changed. The directions you try to remember are no longer there and, whether working from a model or landscape drawings, everything has to be reconstructed daily, many, many times.” (‘Nothing Is Ever The Same’, artists statement in Leon Kossoff Recent Paintings exh. cat. Edinburgh Scottish Academy, 1987 p.32)

This process of endlessly grappling with the vivacity and truth of his subject prompts an almost overwhelming effect like that Kossoff experiences in front of works by Rembrandt or Poussin at the National Gallery. His subjects become rocked and energised. He is dizzied and bewildered by their physical presence, and every tremulous nuance of this nervous response can be read in the surface of his paint. For the artist, the nature of this experience forms a concrete bond with the world at large and daily experience. One of the many values in his work lies in its ability to imbue daily life with new meaning and beauty. As he said during a recent interview, when casting his eye over the mass of people and buildings in Trafalgar Square outside the doors of the National Gallery, after experiencing such an invigoration of vision ‘it all becomes beautiful, doesn’t it?’ (Leon Kossoff interviewed by Jackie Wullschlager, Leon Kossoff: Drawn in by the Old Masters, 10 October 2014)