Essays by James Hyman

Leon Kossoff

Leon Kossoff

 
 

James Hyman
Tate magazine
Summer 1996

Leon Kossoff, Tate Gallery, London, 6 June - 1 September, 1996

TEXT EXTRACT:Leon Kossoff has lived in the city of his birth almost all his life and has become its most intense and evocative painter. As London stages the most substantial exhibition of his work yet, James Hyman explores a deeply urban affair.

Leon Kossoff once commented that "nothing excites me more than London" and the city has remained at the centre of his work for five decades. As a boy Kossoff made pictures of the scenes around his childhood homes in the East End. Then during his years at St Martin's School of Art (1949-1953) and at the Royal College of Art (1953-1956) he developed this enquiry, encouraged by his early teachers in whose work the legacy of the Camden Town School and, above all, Walter Sickert remained strong. As early as 1943, before his military service, Kossoff studied with Ruskin Spear. Later, at the Royal College of Art, Spear and his friend Card Weight were prominent members of the teaching staff. The impact of their highly personalised visions of the neighbourhoods of London was complemented by what Kossoff learned from evening classes with David Bomberg, himself a student of Sickert. Indeed, Bomberg's notion of an animating "spirit in the mass" and his most memorable painting of the war years, `Evening in the City of London' (1944), are powerful precedents for Kossoff's major paintings of the 19505, which also depict St Paul's Cathedral and the City.

For Kossoff, a key to his relationship to the city in which he has always lived (save for evacuation during the war) lies not just in such visual precursors, but more especially in the poetry (not the pictures) of William Blake. The London-based epic poem, Jerusalem, is especially potent, evoking for Kossoff the city as an animate and living entity and conjuring up the residue of earlier patterns of life.

Not only do Blake and Kossoff make use of many of the same inner-city locations - including Islington, Marylebone, St Pancras and Camden - but they also share a belief in art as revelatory and in the existence of metaphysical or spiritual forces behind daily life: "golden builders" may yet create a new Jerusalem. Furthermore, Blake, writing during a period of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, equated "progress" with the spread of evil, while for Kossoff, painting during a period of no less immense social change, the new is feared and emphasis is given to the continuation of the traditional - the family, handicrafts and local trade.

Since industrialisation in the early nineteenth century when the English Romantics first addressed the mdern city, te heart of London has been conceived as residing, not in the leisure of the West End, but rather in the industry of the East End. As the Victorian chronicler Bagehot argued: "The rough and vulgar structure of English commerce is the secret of its life, for it contains `the propensity for variation which, in the social as well as the animal kingdom, is the principle of progress." A visual counterpart is provided by the paintings of Leon Kossoff. We are returned, time and again, to the streets and buildings of the East End as Kossoff continues to draw and paint specific places that impressed him as a child: Brick Lane, the roof-tops of Bethnal Green, St Paul's Cathedral and Christ Church, Spitalfields. In Kossoff's most powerful recent series of paintings, showing Christ Church, he even adopts the low, awed viewpoint of the young child to emphasise the church and its heavenward ascent. There may be precursors for this series, including Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral, Cezanne's late pictures of Mont Sainte- Victoire and Soutine's vertiginous Ceret landscapes, but Kossoff transcends them by personalising his response through the marriage of his present experience of the building with his memories of childhood.

This dialogue with the past is given added urgency by the way in which London's infrastructure, buildings and population distribution have changed over the last half century. The Blitz, coupled with the developers' bulldozers, all but destroyed an inner-city infrastructure geared to serving local needs. In its place high-rise flats, council estates, supermarkets and shopping centres rose from the wasteland. Optimism for the new architecture and urban planning was by no means universal. For many Londoners change meant loss, fuelling a desire to grasp some sense of permanence, stability or continuity.

Kossoff's own anxieties over this change are illustrated by his focus on the motif of the building site and concentration on older buildings and traditional aspects of neighbourhood and family life. The building site as a mechanism of change represents the process of obliterating the past. It is chaotic, choked and engulfing.

Furthermore, the artist rarely shows the results of this activity: there is an almost complete absence of modern buildings in his paintings. Tellingly, Kossoff often relates this activity to buildings of a Baroque grandeur, suggesting a constructive Blakean belief in spiritual rebirth. The building site appears in early works such as the powerful stone lithograph `St Paul's' (1953-1954) and a corresponding painting, the brooding `St Paul's Building Site' It runs through subsequent paintings either as the direct subject, as in a dynamic series charting the demolition of a YMCA building in the spring of ny~i, or as an element, generally in the foreground, as in `Demolition of the Old House, Dalston Junction, Summer 1974'and `Christ Church, Spitalfields, Summer 1987'.

For Kossoff hope lies in reconnecting with the past and identifying its legacy in the present. A lost innocence may be recaptured, a childhood memory recollected. Remnants of the past may survive, renewed. Paintings of London are an exhortation for a new world created not from promises of progress or modernity but through redemption and the renewal of a mythologised past. St Paul's Cathedral, for example, serves as a general emblem of faith (Kossoff himself is a Jew), represents the City and provides a signifier for the artist's own childhood. It suggests the possibility of redemption, a glimpse of an illusive spirit of place and a return to a lost innocence.

Trades, meanwhile, fulfil local needs (Kossoff's parents ran a celebrated East End bakery) and include coal deliveries, men at work on railway lines or men in a timber yard, market trade, salmon curing, roof-mending, construction, demolition, excavation and renovation. Titles often draw attention to the nature of this activity, ranging from a major student work, the glowering gouache `The Coalmen' (1949), to the exhilarating `Dalston Junction with Ridley Road Street Market and Salmon Curers Yard, Friday Morning, 1973' and the initial title for the first Christ Church paintings of 1987, `The Renovation of Christ Church, Spitalfields'.

Kossoff's vision of a continuity of activities that extends back to Blake is, however, growing more and more difficult to trace as local trades and handicrafts decline, industry vanishes and people migrate to the suburbs. His view of London is, therefore, by necessity increasingly constructed, even artificial. Much that is identifiably modern is suppressed. Cars, trains or clothes appear generic rather than modern, and important aspects of today's city are omitted, including high-rise blocks, council estates, traffic lights, road signs, supermarkets and shopping centres. Buildings are either small and nondescript or impressive and of an implied great age.

So is Kossoff's vision really relevant to Londoners' experience of their city in the 1990s? Does the artist's humanistic perspective have resonance for a metropolis of alienated inhabitants? And what purpose is there in the continuing use of a defiant iconography of the church surrounded by devastation that evolved in the Second World War in images of St Paul's by, among others, Bill Brandt, David Bomberg and Muirhead Bone? Positive answers lie in the ways in which Kossoff personalises this view of the capital. First, he reflects the fears of many Londoners by presenting a city terrorised by the planner, the architect and the developer; a city in which older buildings struggle to hold their own against the forces of progress. Second, his isolated buildings provide a metaphoric embodiment of individual defiance and bloody-mindedness. They stand proud and apart from the turmoil created around them. But, above all, it is the people that are the key. His passing crowds are not quite what they seem. When people are shown in the streets of London they initially appear isolated and anonymous. As a result of this first impression, many viewers have read them as an expression of the individual's loneliness and alienation in the faceless city, a place in which survival depends on resilience and stoicism. But these figures are not mere ciphers for an impersonal city. They are neither anonymous, nor alone. Frequently they are identifiable from the artist's remarkable studio portraits as members of his family or close friends and may be seen as Kossoff's attempt to humanise and personalise the modern city.

One way in which he does this is by showing the repetition of daily life. Activities fulfil local or domestic needs and often contain an aspect of story telling, as in some of his most powerful paintings of London, made in the early and mid 1970s, which show the area around Dalston in the East End. In `View of Hackney with Dalston Lane, Monday Morning, Spring 1974' a woman pushes a pram along Dalston Lane. In `Dalston Junction with Ridley Road Street Market and Salmon Curer's Yard' she has turned the corner and makes her way along the market. In Dalston men work on the railway lines and at a timber merchant. Others mend roofs and cure salmon in a back yard. Little space is left for leisure, but people meet on the street, feed the birds, rest on a bench, go shopping or push babies in prams.

The frequent presentation of railways is also highly selective. Railways recur, but in contrast to the nineteenth and early twentieth century when they signified modernity, they now embody the past. In 1962, for example, Anthony Sampson in his pioneering study, Anatomy of Britain, argued that "the railways are the most embarrassing of all Britain's Victorian leftovers. In the 150 years since they came into being, they have acquired a picturesque, feudal and delightful way of life of their own, presided over by top-hatted station masters in cavernous station halls. Local traditions and loyalties persist... It is difficult to remember that the railways were once as daring as supersonic jets today." That same year Kossoff produced his most powerful early painting (and one of the first to gain significant critical acclaim), `Willesden Junction, Early Morning 1962'. Tracks plunge into the distance, echoing a popular photographic convention, while the silver and honey colours lend the image a nostalgic glow.

In his paintings of London, Leon Kossoff does not merely draw from existing conventions. He reworks them. His vision of renewal does not place faith in the established churches, an interventionist state or faceless bureaucracy. Nor does it celebrate progress, change or modernity. Instead, the artist emphasises the individual, the familiar and the local. He champions hard work and draws attention to the family. Hope lies in the resilience of ancient patterns of local life, local trade and local work. Faith is invested in the material survival of the past and traces of an underlying spirit. This is a personal vision, an affirmative vision, a humanistic vision. Leon Kossoff's achievement is to make something so uncompromising (and so unfashionable) so compelling.

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