Leon Kossoff's absence from Tate Modern is further evidence that curators have given up trying to help us appreciate the language of painting, says Susannah Fiennesby Susannah Fiennes / August 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
leon kossoff’s recent paintings shimmer on the walls at the exhibition at Annely Juda Fine Art in London (until 5th August). Basking in the ravishing natural light at the gallery (a rare treat at a gallery, and notable by its absence in the gloomy rooms of Tate Modern), they seem to possess the quality of an organic fresco, with edges made uncertain by the overspill of thick, succulent paint.
Leon Kossoff is that rare bird: a contemporary painter whose work follows a tradition-one which has been handed down through 20th century painters such as Matisse and Soutine, from earlier exponents such as Titian, Poussin and Rubens to whom Kossoff pays homage in the current show, Encounters, at the National Gallery). This common language, reinvented by Kossoff, is a means of dramatising the rectangular picture surface. A piece of paint will serve the dual purpose of at once articulating a position in space, and decorating the picture surface in an abstract way. Kossoff uses oceans of paint with expressive gestures, but this extravagance does not obscure the rigour of the underlying geometry. Like Chinese calligraphy, his marks have both an expressive, decorative power, and a formal purpose.
Much has been written on Kossoff’s choice of subject matter, and his use of London as a theme. Indeed, the key to many of his paintings is characteristically English. Muted, unsaturated colour with little tonal contrast (the darkest colour in the entire exhibition was mid-grey) serves to create a mood rather than an exact description of the subject. Contrast is established by subtle change of temperature values; the resonance of a warm ochre, for example, against a cool grey.
There is nothing literal in these representations. Kossoff aims, as C?zanne did, to make “a harmony parallel to nature.” The subject is transposed, never imitated. By comparison, Lucian Freud does not seek to transform his subjects, he merely describes them in a prosaic way.
The excitement of looking at Kossoff’s paintings lies in their power to help us see differently. He shows us the poetry in a mundane subject. The frieze of figures walking in King’s Cross is presented like a classical relief, the variation and repetition of the angles of their legs creating a rhythmic pattern across the picture surface.
An atmosphere of diluted London light is evoked by the way in which the restrained colour of the people’s clothes emerges out of…