By: Sarah Kershaw
The show at Mitchell-Innes and Nash (Chelsea branch) depicts work from 1957 – 1967, an evocative period and generally one of the most sought after by collectors of 20th Century British art. During this period a restrained, complex, and new form of beauty emerged in art. The result was The School of London, a term coined by R.B. Kitaj. This group comprised Leon Kossoff, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Kitaj, Michael Andrews and Frank Auerbach amongst others. Kossoff’s work from the 70s is the most well-known internationally: chaotic scenes of packed swimming pools on Saturday morning. These images made a pleasing link with Hockney’s more glamorous output from the West Coast, whilst remaining true to the spirit of the municipal baths of an England that has almost disappeared. The twelve paintings in this exhibition depict either Kossoff’s inner circle of family and friends or local scenes around London, East London and Willesden Junction in particular. This area, Kossoff’s home for most of his life, is resolutely unglamorous and Kossoff’s treatment of this subject matter strikes me as loyal but not sentimental. The paintings are not pretty but there is a compelling weight to them; the careful layers of paint create a wonderfully tactile surface (impasto) that adds movement and rhythm, keeping the eye roving. In fact, it can be difficult to focus on the picture in its entirety, as the eye is naturally drawn to any unusually thick cluster of paint or a pop of surprising color.
Leon Kossoff, Father Seated in Armchair No. 2, 1960.
Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes and Nash.
The strongest image in the exhibition is Father Seated in an Armchair No. 2 (1960); this work comprises a seated figure, head bowed, facing left. The outline and shape of his body is marked by contrasting light and dark paint, his features are not immediately discernable but the expression is unmistakable - he is weary. This is devastatingly simple and honest. The irrepressible confidence of the younger Kossoff is as clear as the father’s fatigue, for his handling of paint is strong and clear. It is this confidence in particular that makes the image especially successful, for in it we see the tension between the two generations: in one corner the younger, optimistic, talented son and in the other a tired old man. This idea is all the more poignant if you consider the atmosphere in Europe at the time. Kossoff, the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants was born into a world still reeling from two catastrophic wars that had depleted the young men of an entire generation. By the 1960s things were on the up, but life had certainly been difficult for the immigrant families who had fled to Britain in the 50s and 60s in hope of a better life.
Another successful portrait is Head of Mother (1965). The sitter’s head is in profile, which draws the eye to the strong chin, suggesting resolve, and her clear-sighted gaze to the left, traditionally signifying the future in Western art. This was someone who was not tired, who had not given up. The grey outline of her head recalls the ancient female representations of Athena and Minerva, those simple, recognizable figures designed to inspire confidence and pride in the society that created them. Perhaps this is a leap too far however, I believe this is where the strength lies in Kossoff’s work. By painting a select group of cherished individuals, he presents them as innately personal, yet imbued with universal qualities. This compelling combination makes this exhibition a must-see.
My only criticism is that the gallery is very brightly lit to bring out the intricate colors hidden in all of the paintings. However this is at the expense of the more brooding qualities, which only exist on the picture’s surface when the light is tailored towards each picture individually. But this is nit-picking, for as with fellow-painter Lucian Freud’s best work, Kossoff’s compassion for humanity it best showcased when he is painting the people or city that he loves. In this instance, the true beauty is in the details.
“Leon Kossoff: From the Early Years 1957 -1967” runs through March 28th
Mitchell-Innes and Nash
534 West 26th Street
Take the C or the E train to 23rd Street and/or the M23 bus to 23rd Street and 11th Avenue
Gallery hours: Tues-Sat, 10-6pm
Gallery website: www.miandn.com