|Magazine Home | News | Features | Reviews | Books | People | Horoscope|
|Learning to Draw
by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
|"It's all terribly boring. I don't know why you want to talk about all this," moaned the eminent but reclusive English painter Leon Kossoff during a recent interview, which, incredibly, is said to be his first in 45 years. By "all this," Kossoff was referring to the current exhibitions featuring his works after paintings by the 17th-century French artist Nicolas Poussin.
Three major U.S. museums are showing this group of paintings and works on paper -- the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Metropolitan Museum. In addition, the tony New York gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash is exhibiting around 50 recent figure studies and views of Kings Cross Station and Pentonville Road in his first U.S. gallery show since 1990.
Kossoff, 73, is a member of the School of London, a group of loosely representational painters that includes Frank Auerbach, R.B. Kitaj and the late Francis Bacon. Kossoff represented Britain at the 1995 Venice Biennale and was the subject of a critically acclaimed retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1996.
He is celebrated for a body of work that could not look more different than Poussin's warm, idealized Baroque-era pictures. Since the mid-1950s, the subject matter of his paintings largely has been the relentless regularity of life in London. Known for his dour palette and thick impasto surfaces, Kossoff makes even his most intimate portraits of friends and family appear melancholy. London Times critic Waldemar Januszczak once wrote that Kossoff's art "provides so much unrestricted access to such massive amounts of spiritual discomfort that you marvel at its starkness."
Although Kossoff first painted from a Poussin at London's National Gallery of Art some 20 years ago, his work in the U.S. exhibitions grew out of his reaction to a Poussin survey at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1995.
Kossoff obtained permission to enter the Royal Academy galleries at 6:30 each morning, before public admission, bringing with him a drawing board, paper and materials. "It was physically quite demanding," he said. He stood for hours drawing from Poussin's pictures of mythological scenes, like The Triumph of Pan, or religious subjects, such as the Holy Family on the Steps.
After two months he decided, "I'm not really getting closer to the paintings. I wonder if I could be more direct." So he began to draw with an etching needle directly onto the waxed copper and zinc plates. Explaining this decision, he says, "You've got no chance to change your mind with etching, while drawing is endlessly restating. Plus, with etching, you can't really see what you are doing very clearly, it's all intuition."
Another couple months passed, and Kossoff had a body of work that his primary dealer, Peter Goulds of L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice, found so compelling that he invited LACMA's senior curator of prints and drawings, Victor Carlson, to see it. "Frankly, I was blown away," Carlson said, who arranged the exhibition of 40 drawings and etchings.
When Getty Museum director John Walsh saw Kossoff's work, he was similarly intrigued. "Kossoff talks about the difference between knowing and experiencing," Walsh said. "That's what our visitors need, to experience the work, not to read more wall labels on art history."
Walsh invited Kossoff to continue his Poussin work using Landscape with a Calm, a painting the Getty had bought in 1997. Kossoff, who regretted not drawing more from the landscapes during the Poussin exhibition, agreed. But Kossoff didn't want to go to Los Angeles. Fortuitously, the Getty lent the painting to the National Gallery in London, and Kossoff was able to inspect it there.
Initially Kossoff was distressed to find that the Getty's painting lived up to its title. "It was awfully peaceful," he said with a sigh. For the most part, he'd been working from Poussin's figurative portrayals of revelry, reverence or mayhem. The Getty's picture of a serene lake reflecting a castle and mountains stymied him. He turned to another Poussin hanging in the same room of the National Gallery, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake. Eventually, he says, the tension between the two paintings, which both depicted the same lake, inspired him to action. "All I can say is that the greater the anxiety to make something happen, the more likely it is going to happen," he said laughing.
While visiting the Getty last January, Kossoff sat on an ottoman in the gallery amid his own vigorously rendered etchings and drawings and the two scintillating Poussin landscapes that inspired them. Running his hand through his gray hair, his blue eyes appraised the landscapes. He said, I just planned to get as close as possible to the paintings, through drawing. I feel I'm experiencing the paintings in a down-to-earth way that makes (them) real for me. They keep my own drawing on the move."
As it turns out, Kossoff's practice of making transcriptions from earlier paintings began at age 9, when he saw Rembrandt van Rijn's A Woman Bathing in a Stream and decided to teach himself to draw from it.
It was only the beginning of his education. At 17, he took his first life drawing class; after military service in the late '40s, he studied in London at St. Martin's School of Art but considers his breakthrough to have been his studies with David Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic. The older painter looked at his young student and said, "Oh, so you want to be a painter. Well, the first 20 years are the worst." Kossoff laughs at this memory and says, "If I could see him now, I'd say, it's the first 50 years that are the worst."
Kossoff time and again returns to art history, drawing from Tintoretto, Hals, Cézanne, Goya and Rubens. Yet, he considers those studies "absolutely separate" from his better known paintings of his neighborhood around Willesden Green or his studies of nude models. "Any influence," he said, "is completely subliminal."
In part, it's the process that attracts him. "I don't know why," he said. "The capacity to know is what the painter hasn't got. He works in order to know. But when the work is actually happening, he still doesn't know."
When pressed, though, Kossoff will admit that his interpretations of the past are about the continuing education of the painter. "I used to see painting as some mysterious process. I no longer see it that way. I feel the gestures have to be gestures of draftsmanship. I go back to earlier painting because I've a terrific sense of feeling that I can't draw. That I have to learn all the time. Artists like Poussin were working as draftsmen with paint. They stimulate my desire to draw."
"These pictures reverberate in one's mind," he said. "It's a question of presence, really. Photography has made it difficult for us to experience the presence of painting. We see drawings as an alternative to photography, but drawing grew up as a means of expressing one's individual relationship to the outside world."
"My obsession is that I can't draw," Kossoff admits. "As a result of the feeling that I can't draw, in a way, my drawing has developed. If you think you can draw, maybe your drawing doesn't develop. If you think you can draw, it's sort of a conceit really."
Looking distressed at these insights, he concludes, "I'm sure I'm going to regret saying any of this."
"Drawn to Painting: Leon Kossoff's Drawings and Prints after Nicholas Poussin," Jan. 20-Apr. 2, 2000, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca.
"Poussin Landscapes by Leon Kossoff," Jan. 18-Apr. 16, 2000, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, Ca.
"After Nicolas Poussin: New Etchings by Leon Kossoff," Apr. 25-Aug. 13, 2000, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y.
"Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings and Drawings," Apr. 11-May 24, 2000, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 1018 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. The show subsequently appears at Annely Fine Art in London, June 1-July 22.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.
In the bookstore:
Drawn to Painting: Leon Kossoff Drawings and Prints after Nicolas Poussin
Sponsored by AXA Nordstern Art Insurance Corporation.