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Leon Kossoff and the art of redrawing

Leon Kossoff (born London 1926) has recently enjoyed recognition as a leading British artist. Notably in the mid-1990s he was chosen to represent Britain at the Venice International Biennale, and honoured with a retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London. In addition, the National Gallery in London invited Kossoff as part of a select group of contemporary artists to contribute works inspired by the permanent collection to its major exhibition to mark the millennium, Encounters. Previously Kossoff’s intuitive, tactile style and subject matter of urban landscapes and intimate figure studies had been at odds with prevailing developments in modern art.

Kossoff studied art in postwar London at St Martin’s School of Art (1949—53) and the Royal College of Art (1953—56), but found the traditional method of life-class teaching ‘rigid and inhibiting’1. During the early 1950s Kossoff took evening classes at Borough Polytechnic under the tuition of David Bomberg. The experience was a revelation. Bomberg’s approach to drawing was at once perceptive and spontaneous. Kossoff recounted how he watched his teacher draw in life-class: ‘I saw the flow of form, saw the likeness of the sitter appear. It seemed an encounter with what was already there.’2 The young artist developed a comparable method, which combined careful study and analysis of his subject with an improvisatory, intuitive manner.

Early in his career, Kossoff began to draw from the Old Masters — a practice he has continued to the present day. Although working from great artists is a common practice, ‘Kossoff’s approach differs from that of Picasso, for example, whose interpretation of say a Delacroix or Manet was often more combative; a means by which Picasso could favourably compare himself to the masters of European art. Kossoff instead considered the process, whether in paint, pen or charcoal, as a step in learning how to ‘draw’. He noted, ‘Every day I awake with the idea that TODAY I MUST TEACH MYSELF TO DRAW I have also each day to experience the fact that images can only emerge out of chaos.3

The French Baroque artist, Nicolas Poussin was not particularly singled out as someone to study by Kossoff. In fact, Rembrandt, Hals, Cezanne and others had received more attention as a means of leading Kossoff into his own painting. Poussin’s painting Cephalus and Aurora caught Kossoff’s eye during a visit to the National Gallery in London. Subsequently, he prepared several works relating to the subject. Interest in Poussin was furthered by the 1995 retrospective held at the Royal Academy, London.

Here, Poussin’s work en masse inspired Kossoff to create a large group of prints and drawings after the 17th-century master — usually working in the galleries before opening time over an eight-week period. Poussin’s measured compositions and careful selection of gesture and palette proved an inspiring source material for the contemporary British artist’s intuitive, expressive style.

The marriage of Kossoff’s vigorous line and Poussin’s dramatic Classical and Biblical subject matter has produced a series of etchings and drawings in compressed charcoal, pastel and watercolour, 44 of which form the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, Drawn to Painting: Leon Kossoff drawings and prints after Nicolas Poussin.

To mark the occasion of the exhibition of Kossoff’s prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Australia, a small group of paintings and drawings principally from Australian public collections is also on display. These works cover the period from the 1 96Os to more recent times.

Jane Kinsman

1. Leon Kossoff quoted in Paul Moorhouse, Leon Lessoffi London: Tate Gallery Publishing 1996. p.12
2. ibid.
3. Leon Kossoff quoted in Richard Kendall, Drown to Painting Leon Kossoff drawings and prints after Nicolas Poussin London: Merrell Publishers Ltd, 2000, p.21

Further information will be added to this site as the National Gallery proceeds with its research and documentation.

Last updated January 2017