'Brimming with incident, agitated or laconic by turn, the surfaces of Leon Kossoff's paintings are like fast-moving rivers, catching and reflecting light, alive to the slightest movement. Their rapidity is arresting, the way the paint is kept constantly on the go, defining and clarifying along the way. At the same time, the weight and density of the paint acts as a drag or undertow, adding volume and structural depth to the images as they form'.
Andrea Rose, Preface, XLVI Venice Biennale, exhibition catalogue, 1995, p.9.
The richly expressive present work depicts the artist's brother, who from 1983 through the late 1990s was one of Kossoff's most frequently recurring subjects, the only rival in output during this period being his landscapes in oil and charcoal of Christchurch, Spitalfields. While they constitute some of his most striking and powerful portraits, paintings of Chaim have rarely appeared at auction. The last was offered in these rooms in 1997 (27th June, lot 218), and the present work is certainly the finest of the series to ever be offered.
Kossoff discovered a life drawing class whilst a young man in East London. This chance happening fuelled his increasing interest in working from the human figure and he began producing single figure portraits in the 1950s. While his chosen models are neither grand nor recognizable beyond the artist's own personal reference, Kossoff's family and close friends' perhaps ordinary countenances become remarkable through the artist's ability to push beyond conventional representation. They combine Kossoff's evident warmth towards the sitter with the gestural excitement of creation, thereby conveying to the viewer the artist's deep awareness of, and immediate personal response to, the individual portrayed.
Chaim, like all Kossoff's models, spent long hours diligently sitting for the artist in his studio, as the portraits are rooted in close observation and in his faith to drawing from life. As is almost always the case with Kossoff, this close studied observation resulted in intricately worked drawings, such as Head of Chaim No.1 (1987, Private Collection, fig. 1.), from which the paintings are then created. Kossoff tends to labour over his built up surfaces, scraping away the paint with a knife or dabbing the surface with bits of newspaper until there is little left on the board. He then starts over entirely from scratch. While the painting may be toiled over for several months, the final creation, the thick layers of paint with which the viewer finally becomes familiar, is applied hurriedly in a matter of hours. This rapid creation is contrasted with the prolonged engagement with the subject, and indeed following the completion of one painting, Kossoff would often produce another image from the same drawing of the same subject.
The first major exhibition featuring Kossoff's portraits of Chaim was held at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in 1993. A review of this exhibition specifically highlighted the Chaim series, alighting on Kossoff's ability to communicate a certain composed grandeur and intimacy through his idiosyncratic portraiture style:
'On entering the exhibition, the first sight was a series of heads of Chaim. Solid and over life size, these drawings dominated the gallery. In each the head fills almost the whole jumbo-size sheet of paper. Their immediacy emphasises the artist's attempt to close the gap between himself and his subject by stripping away intercession. With each successive picture, Chaim appears more massive and the drawing more Baroque' (Review, 'Leon Kossoff: Drawings', Modern Painters, Spring 1993, pp. 95-6).
The precursors to the Chaim works were a series of portraits of Kossoff's father, whom he painted up until his death in 1983. Portrait of Father (1978, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) shares both formal and compositional links with the present work. Both are executed using reduced earthy colour palettes, which evoke the monochromatism of Rembrandt and also emphasize the thick yet sensitive paint application. In each the sitters' forms fill the space allowing little comfortable distance between the subject and viewer, yet the bold almost geometric outlines in Portrait of Father give way in Chaim to rounded shapes and forms that are loosely articulated, seeming to shimmer on the brink of movement.
In Head of Chaim a divide exists between those elements which reference the figural subject, and those taffy like drips of paint, which seem to act out of a sort of separate volition. Kossoff's paintings constantly highlight the presence of the material. Not only is the impasto piled upon itself asserting the paint's autonomy, but he vigorously works the surface, pulling, smearing and letting the paint splatter and fall seemingly as it may. The mobility of the surface, this uneasy balance between the motif and the nervous brushwork, becomes hypnotizing and intoxicating. The viewer's eye is drawn away from the compositional whole and eventually seeks to examine each complex and intricate square inch of the pictorial surface. It is perhaps most especially in this balance between emotive portraiture and the expressive abstracted surface which informs it, that Kossoff's creations find their own particular value and worth.
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