Saturday, March 17, 2007

Leon Kossof at the National Gallery

After my lunch in Notting Hill I meandered my way back southwards via the National Gallery to have a quick peek. The free national collections are a major bonus to living in London - it's a pleasure to suddenly get the urge to say hello to the Titians and just pop in for 15 minutes or so.

Leon Kossof first visited the National Gallery on his own at the age of 10 in 1936. He made his way from his home in Hackney. Later, he said that for him, all roads in London led to the National Gallery. Wow.

A reproduction of his painting Spitalfields in one of the papers prompted me to have a look at the original. It has a wonderfully robust, almost sculptural presence of its own. Layers of oil paint are heaped up on the board and swirl luxuriantly across the surface. It's a mountainous landscape of gloopy impasto, especially visible at the edges of the painting from which, as it is unframed, the gallery lights project extraordinary shadows on the walls.

But this muscular abstractionism is delicately balanced by the representation of Christ Church Spitalfields. It is just there, in all its precipitous perspective. The creamy greys, blues and greens do correspond - almost tangentally - to the reality of architecture, trees and sky. The painting asks us to take it as an object, then conjures up a representation of something else.

The stream of ambiguity is deepened by Kossof's preferred Baroque sources in this exhibition - Poussin, Rubens and Hawksmoor. In his etchings Kossof renders the classical Poussinesque compositions clearly but within an expressive flickering framework of abstract marks. And it is notable how ambiguous these Baroque artists themselves all are - they all hover daringly on the border between classicism and outright expressiveness. Hawksmoor's towering pile is more expressive than a full-blown Gothic Cathedral; Poussin is surreptitiously partial to stretching figures and playing games with light for effect.

Leon Kossof: Drawing from Painting
14th March - 1 July 2007
Sunley Room
National Gallery
Trafalgar Square

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