Beginning in the 1950s and continuing throughout the duration of his career, Leon Kossoff’s work was the outcome of his surroundings – London and portraits of family, friends and models. He explored around his north London studio, painting the streets, churches and stations that populated the city or worked in his studio with a small circle of sitters that re-appear again and again in his drawings and paintings. Leon Kossoff was born in 1926 in London to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, the only member of the ‘School of London’ painters with whom he came to be associated – Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, R.B. Kitaj, Michael Andrews – to be actually born in London. Kossoff studied first at the Royal College of Art and then St Martin’s College of Art but his most important training was evening classes under the tutelage of David Bomberg and alongside Frank Auerbach at the Borough Polytechnic. 'What David did for me,' Kossoff later recalled, 'which was more important than any technique he could have taught me, was he made me feel I could do it. I came to him with no belief in myself whatsoever and he treated my work with respect.’ (Leon Kossoff quoted in Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1996, p.12).
In the early 1960s, when Kossoff painted this portrait, he was a young, relatively unknown artist and yet the confidence and bravura of the portrait is palpable. The sitter is his brother, Philip, an amateur artist in his own right, and this is the second of just two versions of this portrait. Kossoff saw his portraits as a collaboration between artist and sitter, particularly intimate between family members, requiring immense commitment from the subject. Sittings were extensive, every week for numerous months, and Kossoff would scrape everything off the board after each sitting, beginning again until the final work was achieved. ‘Every time the model sits everything has changed. […] The light has changed, the balance has changed. The directions you try to remember are no longer there and, whether working from the model or landscape drawings, everything has to be reconstructed daily, many many times. A painter is engaged in a working process and the work is concerned with making the paint relate to his experience of seeing and being in the world.’ (Leon Kossoff, ‘Everything is Ever the Same’ in Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, (exh. cat.) XlVI Venice Biennale, British Pavilion, 1995, p.25). Three-quarter length and near life-size, the painting is a monumental statement of intent. As with many of the early works, Kossoff’s paint is applied so thickly it takes on sculptural qualities. The board is absolutely layered with impasto paint that is gouged, scrapped, worked, swirled and grooved, the entirety worked with a vigour and animation. At the start of the 1960s, Kossoff moved away from his extremely dark palette and began to introduce colour into his paintings – Portrait of Philip No. 2 is a riot of vermillion red, teal blue, greens, yellows and oranges that are intermingled and woven together, the vivid luminosity a rarity in Kossoff’s output. Whilst many of Kossoff’s portraits seem particularly introspective and melancholic, the present work seems to have been created in a jubilant atmosphere, a celebration of creativity and familial bonds.
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