The Grey World of Leon Kossoff, Englishman, Hirschl Adler Modern (1983)



 The moving, powerful images of London-born expressionist painter Leon Kossoff well up from the deepest levels of personal need. Related as much to the early impasto paintings of Cezanne as to Van Gogh, and obviously reflecting 20th Century expressionist tendencies, Kossoff's extremely thick paint and greyed color, reminding of Alberto Giacometti, speak of the heaviest, grimmest suffering and alienation. De Kooning seems joyous, hearty and apple-cheeked healthy by comparison.


 Expressionist painting in the 20th Century, in one of its aspects, can be the result of individual helplessness or outrage in the face of societal depersonalization and dehumanization, creating an exacerbated emotional response that can only be expressed by extreme aesthetic measures. If we think no one (God included) respects humanity's needs, we shout, shriek and scream.


 Kossoff's people are hollow-eyed survivors of holocaust. Nearly murdered emotionally and spiritually by their experiences, they inhabit wilting husks of bodies waiting to be carried off by physical death, like still-squirming beetles impaled on specimen mounting boards.


 In "Outside the Booking Hall, Kilburn Underground Station," 1980, and other paintings from this subway series begun in 1976, mankind is alone, nearly floating at odd angles, feet stuck in grey tar (but souls unrooted), bodies encased in a slathered stew of grey paint as viscous and entrapping as the muck of life and human circumstance in Rodin's "Gates of Hell."


 Humanity is entombed, unable to reach the light and air, as if fallen into the gullet of the leviathan of modern life. Unlike Ahab, they are aimless, broken, seemingly purposeless automatons ... mere plankton strained through the tusks of Moby Dick. Who can say, in a world threatened by catastrophe, that Kossoff's vision is not, or will not be, true?


 His paintings of Dalston Lane in Hackney are among the grimmest revelations of industrial blight in the annals of modern art. Van Gogh's early efforts in the Borinage, the destitute coal mining district in Belgium, pale before the dark scream of urban pain in Kossoff's works. Kokoschka is light-hearted and gay; Munch mortally wounded but clinging to life; Utrillo lonely, but hopeful; Soutine in chaos, but his life's blood still surging; Hopper creating an urban paradise compared to Leon Kossoff's bleak vision.


 If a photograph is any indication, the artist works in a burrow-like studio unbelievably layered with substantial shreds and tatters of paint, growing thicker over the years like Miss Havisham's dust-festooned retreat from life in "Great Expectations." In his apparent alienation, Kossoff clings to familiar, local, introverted things: parents, father, underground, water (swimming pool paintings) and complex, unsexual female nudes with the melancholy aura of Greek funeral stelae.


 The fact that his color is greyed rather than intense suggests emotional drain or repression, though this is seemingly belied by the frenetic intensity of his brushwork. However, it seems possible that his repression or burying of hopeful feeling ultimately forces pent-up emotionality to the surface resulting in sometimes excessive stirring of the paint, a compensation for emotional deprivation. Kossoff's expressionist style seems an attempt to make contact with his own buried feelings, to overcome his sense of emotional unrelatedness, his hopelessness.


 The artist's series of the "Children's Swimming Pool," begun in 1969, is more exuberant in the movement of multiple, sketchily indicated figures. While in some instances they convey a horrible feeling of immersion in concentration camp slaughters, in others the writhing, nearly flame-like movements suggest a rebirth of life and feeling out of the fundamental substance of water.


 Kossoff's charcoal drawings of multi-figure compositions, the Kilburn Underground and a partly demolished warehouse are of a very high artistic level. The savage impact of black and white, and his passionate style have a powerful, clean directness that is tremendously expressive.


 Though the time may be at hand when mankind is owed by its artists, and other intellectual leaders, a more hopeful, substantively positive view of life and humanity's ultimate spiritual destiny, how can one fail to respond to the sheer desperation of these works, created as if in some ghastly void? And, who would deny a significant artist the right to his view of life, and the fact that the world has, indeed, become a void?


 Poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, writing at the turn of the century after discovering some Van Gogh paintings in a small shop -- and supposing the still unknown artist to be alive -- described them in admiration as those created by a man with grave doubts about the world. This applies in spades to Leon Kossoff.


Copyright by Don Gray


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