Leon Kossoff is quoted as saying: “London is in my bloodstream. It is always moving – the skies, the streets, the buildings. The people who walk past me when I draw become part of my life”. Entering the space at Annely Juda for his much-anticipated retrospective on this theme, one is met by a pulsating, vibrant, series of works that fit his portrayal precisely. My initial impression being one of dizzying delight at an artist imbued with such passion and desire to discover and represent his native London, that I was magnetically lured into the tactility and the emotion of his marks; his personal traces, and felt an abundance of near overwhelm at the skeins of his lines that testify to the fact that everything including inanimate objects can be likened to living beings.
One gets the impression of a mad orchestral conductor who lashes his working surface, making marks at breakneck speed. It is also evident that he is constantly looking, which makes sense that there are lines literally everywhere, as well as seemingly multiple, or sometimes even wonky perspectives. Everything pulsates, even a lonely depopulated staircase.
Atmosphere is key to their potency as images, and it is Kossoff’s atmosphere that gives a notion of volume and place, instead of a traditional measured use of perspective. In the swimming pool series for example, in which there is included a painting of substantial scale, it is as if all senses are engaged: the visual, the tactile, the olfactory and the auditory, as if one can smell the chlorine amidst the echoing of gleeful squeals of children splashing in the enclosed space of a London community pool. As a centre that is one of the most representative of the city’s international status replete with such evolving economic and social history, the Kings Cross series, which he began in the sixties is an interesting personal documentation of one of the most important developmental areas in the history of London. Other areas, such as Dalston, Ridley road market, Wilsden and Kilburn underground station are revisited by the artist again and again with his board, drawing media and his scrutinising gaze. Kossoff’s style seizes the moment, as if there is no time for reflection, and as if even the wind is something he snatches at, in his yearning to capture life.
Through the act of drawing, we are able to discover places, objects, people and feelings. It is a way to uncover the world and our surroundings. Kossoff is reputed to be a humble individual who is even somewhat self-deprecating about his ability to draw. However that feature of his personality transformed a desire to learn into a career spanning over six decades that has since reached international acclaim, but after all it is well-known that he learned from the masters when he is said to have taught himself how to draw at the National Gallery.
London Landscapes, one of the city’s most important exhibitions on at the moment displays 100 works, of which there are ten paintings. Kossoff feels that drawing is a precursor to painting, but he also sees that painting is a drawing, which is why perhaps the exhibition emphasises the latter over his thick impasto oil works which are so heavily built up that they border on sculpture. But also, now due to ill health, Kossoff feels that a return to drawing has become a necessary mode of working.
In this obsessive and frenetic mark-making the viewer is compelled to enter his experience and this show does exactly that. It is a journey through time as well as place, culminating in a series where he returns to Arnold Circus, the setting of his childhood. These evidence a softer, more luminous quality with brighter colours, and although they still maintain the liveliness and animated character of the style for which he is known, there is a distinct change from the dark grittiness of the earlier drawings to a use of the medium which seems to dance over the surface with a lighter hand.
The Kossoff exhibition is a both a chronicle of London, and testament to art as a way of affirming life and stimulating our senses. Surely, that is what this city is about. The exhibition will later travel to Paris, New York and Los Angeles.
WORDS KAREN GARRATT, IMAGES COURTESY OF ANNELY JUDA © LEON KOSSOFF 2013
LEON KOSSOFF: LONDON LANDSCAPES – ANNELY JUDA Until 6th July