As already stated on this site, Leon Kossoff’s death on July 4 marked pretty much the end of an epoch. Of the for artists who led the so-called School of London – Bacon, Freud, Kossoff and Auerbach – only Auerbach now survives.
In one way his paintings are now anachronisms. In another way, they are vivid reminders of what we have lost – ELS
The fact that these four artists have dominated the discourse not only about painting but about contemporary art in general here in Britain is in many ways strange. These four artists were significant talents, but they made an odd fit, not just in the ongoing narrative of British art, but in the history of contemporary art and Britain’s place within it. Kossoff was the only one of the four to have been born in Britain, of immigrant Russian Jewish parents. Freud and Auerbach were refugees from the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Bacon, of British and Australian descent, born in Ireland, was the only one of non-Jewish stock. Where the other three are concerned, though British art has been friendly to foreigners – think of Holbein and Van Dyck – it is hard to think of any artists of Jewish descent, previous to these, who occupied such a prominent position in British culture. A possible exception was David Bomberg, son of a Polish Jewish immigrant leatherworker, born in Birmingham in 1890 – that is to say more than twenty-five years before Kossoff.
Bomberg was a leading British Modernist is the years immediately before and after World War I. His painting The Mud Bath (1914), now in the collection of the Tate, makes the productions of his later successors from the same background look conservative. Though he was unable to get a teaching position in any of London’s major art schools, Bomberg nevertheless had a significant influence post World War II on the young artists he taught part-time at the Borough Polytechnic in London, and was a leading light in two groups, the Borough Group (1946-51) and the Borough Bottega (1953-55). Leading critics have, however, never accorded him quite such a central position in the British art of his time as they offer to the four names listed above.
The general story of British art, in the most recent years, has been that of artists manifesting themselves as supposedly avant-garde figures, then fading away. The most recognisable comparatively recent ‘art movement’ in the old sense of that term, was that of the so-called YBAs (Young British Artists) who made a big splash in the 1990s – that is to say, more than twenty years ago. The survivors are Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and maybe Jake and Dinos Chapman. Today our art-celebrities are the amiable transvestite potter Grayson Perry, perhaps better known as a pundit than for what he has made as an artist, and the elusive graffitist known as Banksy, a master of self-publicity. No wonder we tend to go running back to the School of London – if not just for what they’ve produced, but for reassurance the visual art is as it used to be, a painting hanging there on the wall, waiting for us to come and look at it.
The Tate website tells you that Kossoff was known for “portraits, life drawings and cityscapes of London, England” – a simultaneously comprehensive and restrictive list. His work not art about ‘me/me/me’. Nor is it in the least way photographic. It is about what the painter has observed, transformed into paint on a surface. This process – observation, digestion, transformation – seems to be fading away from contemporary art. In one way his paintings are now anachronisms. In another way, they are vivid reminders of what we have lost or are in danger of losing, and a, therefore, paradoxically very much of the present moment.