Paysage Aux Cyprés (c.1922)
In Le Mas Passe-Temps, Céret (c.1920-21) a house twists sideways whilst a violent storm of vegetation presses down upon it. A gallery label tells us that this shows nature ‘tooth and claw’, but David Sylvester, who curated the Tate’s 1963 Soutine show, was more accurate when he wrote: ‘Whether it is noon or dusk, whether it is rain or the wind is blowing, is of no concern’. Our awareness, he suggests, responds not to objects but ‘to rhythms, to an interplay of forces.’ A few years later, painting in Cagnes and Vence, Soutine finds that natural and human are more in balance, although absorption in either the glorious tree crown or the streets and buildings below in L’Arbre de Vence (c. 1929) makes the other disappear, evidence of the sometimes frightening absorption of a particular Soutine brushstroke.
These contortions of Soutine resembled the 1950s London of young Leon Kossoff, its sites of post-Blitz construction and demolition often subjects of his paintings. Over a metre in length and height, semi-sculptural objects with ridges, ripples and mounds of paint on board, they enact the ‘spirit in the mass’ propounded by Kossoff’s teacher David Bomberg, whilst the experience of viewing them seems closest to the full-size oil sketches of John Constable’s six-footers, where the hit of an energetic painted whole opens into a nuance of detail and palette upon closer looking.
L’Arbre de Vence (c. 1929)
Take Willesden Junction, Summer, No.2 (1966). The blue forming a sky of palette knife wedges is the same colour marking out train lines and overhead wire pylons. Although such details of this West London landscape are clear, the whole dominates with its heavy weight of paint, rather than any single brushstroke enhancing a detail or perspective into space. As in Railway Landscape Near Kings Cross, Dark Day (1967) the dynamism of the scene comes from how it is looked down upon whilst also appearing to loom above us.
Other times, as in City Building Site (1961), there is no sky. The painting seems submerged in earth and scaffold, but although swatches and lines of gold paint hold the surface together my main sense is of being lost, unable to discern form or scale, as if this (too) close attention removes legibility. A building site would certainly be an appropriate place to make such a discovery, but it seems a limit case for Kossoff. In Demolition of YMCA Building, No.4, Spring (1971) the urban landscape returns to its forms again.
Willesden Junction, Summer, No.2 (1966)
City Building Site (1961)
Like with Soutine, how to understand such handling? Kossoff’s early gallerist, Helen Lessore, writing in her 1987 book Partial Testament, thought of Kossoff in relation to Leonardo’s drawing of a deluge, the baroque flourish of Rubens. She saw in Kossoff’s City Landscape, Early Morning (1957, not shown here) a metropolis struck by apocalyptic disaster being quickly rebuilt by ant-like inhabitants, its formal language from Chinese as well as European painting. I like holding to this expanded frame of reference viewing the 167.5 x 214cm of Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon (1971), not least because its crowded celebration recalls Poussin’s The Triumph of Pan (1636) that Kossoff sketched in London’s National Gallery. It demonstrates Kossoff’s usual method, the final painting made quickly but only after many other versions have been scraped away, the composition emergent and adapted from abundant charcoal drawings made as his son swam and splashed in the pool.
The first Soutine portrait I glimpse is Le Paysan (c.1919-20), the closest in handling and sensibility to the artist’s Céret landscapes, particularly the face with its bruised tangle of reds, yellows and greens around Soutine’s grudging admittance of button eyes to the pulpy head mass. Elsewhere, Soutine’s portraits can seem quieter than his landscapes, smaller scale, with symmetrically placed sitters and more uniform areas of colour, like the red livery waistcoats of Le Valet de Chambre (c.1927) and that smoother, less expressionistic finish of Lady in Blue (1931).
Le Valet de Chambre (c.1927)
But I soon find something possessive, even cruel, about Soutine the portraitist. The tiny woman charged with holding her enormous child in Maternité (Piéta) has no arms, the hand that grips this non-baby infant appearing disconnected. Although it seems at first a polite painting, the head of that Lady in Blue is detached at the neck, whilst the suited Le Rouquin (undated) seems to be making a chair back out of his own shoulders, with a hand the same length as his torso. The bright red that bloodies faces and bodies is the one Soutine uses to sign his signature.
Soutine cannot decide if he is satirising his anonymous sitters. When the red-waistcoated Valet (Le Valet de Chamber) (c.1927) puts both hands on his hips to assert his presence, Soutine lops off his elbows, and there is something mocking about the triangle shapes his body composes. Most disconcerting of all is La Communiante (La Mariée) (c.1924), fitted into the frame like a doll in its box, a body lost in its ceremonial garbs, unclear if it is a young bride or a child at its baptism. Maybe the young woman of Le Petit Pâtisser (c.1927) is a confident, uncut presence, but Soutine’s drips and colour on the sleeve of her white uniform seem to wrestle attention away from her face, imposing his control once again. If there is a 1950s London painter influenced by Soutine’s attitude in his portraits, then it is Francis Bacon.
Turn around from this painting, then walk towards Kossoff’s Nude on a Red Bed (1972), the only portrait here with the horizontal breadth of his large landscapes. From a distance the mattress recedes into the room, the body lies naked upon it, but go close up and the now much larger body is in the foreground, the bed becomes a vertical surface catching drips off Kossoff’s fast-moving, re-loading brush. Move back again, does the body slightly levitate? I recall tricks of detail and scaling fitting holy figures into the architecture of a Byzantine church, but what this construction reveals of Kossoff’s relationship to his model - who sat two or three times a week, on and off for five or six years, until this final version was painted in fifteen minutes - I remain unsure.
Similarly, the vertical Seated Woman (1957), recalls Romanesque tomb monuments or Fayum mummy portraits, with the former’s heft and the later’s total spurning of anything anecdotal. There is a powering sense of scraping and shovelling paint, building this human form by hand as if from clay or mud, in occult collaboration with the sleeping sitter. If we know that the subject was a Jewish writer known by the pen name of N.M. Seedo, who had left Romania to escape the threat of violence, then we might ask what varieties of empathy and experience such a form in paint conveys.
She appears again: Head of Seedo (1964) is a Medusa, but one suggesting mainly the ferocity of this artist’s engagement. In her autobiographical novel In the Beginning Was Fear (1964), Seedo describes Kossoff looking at her ‘with burning wonder in his eyes’ whilst also ‘unaccountably jealous’ and ‘unaccountably angry’, then ‘falling in love with every happy stroke of the brush, and hating all the obstacles… that the canvas, paint and brush put in his way to some unknown goal’. This contrasts with the small head shots of brother and wife in Portrait of Chaïm (1988) and Small Head of Rosalind, No.1 (1970). Both offer a calmer, less troubled facture that suggests a more patient and less agitated artist attending to their forehead, cheek, spectacles and eyebrows.
Nude on a Red Bed (1972)
Seated Woman (1957)
Sometimes in Kossoff’s portraits, a ridge, ripple or streak of paint suggests a facial feature, often caricatural. An exaggerated idea of a whole personality then forms around it. This is most extreme in Two Seated Figures (1967) where black streaks of paint form a cartoon mouth or large pleading eyes. Please stop my brain forming these loony gestalts, I almost say out loud in the quiet of the gallery, when instead I should be enjoying the varied insistence of figures whose urgent presence does not stop them having to be found and formed anew each time I look at the layers, pools, kicks and grooves of paint. In the head shot of Portrait of Philip (1962) I restrain myself from forming a horror show of dissolving flesh, to constitute instead a far from comfortable humanism.
As for historical connections between the two artists: Soutine’s major introduction to British gallery goers was that 1963 exhibition at the Edinburgh Festival and Tate Gallery organised by David Sylvester, but as early as 1959 Kossoff had told The Jewish Chronicle: ‘Soutine, like all great painters, has had to destroy all the wrappings of conventional thought which were between him and the creation of the living image’. Art historian Martin Hammer - in his 2010 article Found in Translation: Chaim Soutine and English Art - traced the presence of Soutine through exhibitions in the 1940s and 50s at commercial London galleries, including Gimpel Fils, Lefevre and the Redfern, as well as in private collections.
Two Seated Figures (1967)
Portrait of Philip (1962)
Hammer’s evidence of a Soutine master-link is less concrete for Kossoff than other London painters- a 1950 MOMA New York Soutine catalogue was found in Francis Bacon’s studio, Lucien Freud had two Soutine’s to admire when he stayed at the flat of painter friend Adrian Ryan - but Hammer finds an affinity, particularly in portraiture, emphasising another comment of Kossoff’s in that 1959 interview, his remark that ‘though in the end he [Soutine] seems to reveal only his miserable Jewish self, he does so in a living atmosphere of grandeur and immortality which transcends national or religious barriers ’ . Which seems both a comment on a distant world of Old Europe, and an explanation of Kossoff’s own moment in front of a sitter.
Either on its walls or in its catalogue pages a small exhibition like this does not attempt to cover an artist’s whole career (Soutine died young in 1943, Kossoff in 2019, aged 92). Another show could have compared the tree paintings both painted in their final years, placed Kossoff’s depictions of Christ Church Spitalfields alongside Soutine’s Chartres. In these paintings of Hawksmoor’s building in East London, Kossoff was returning to the neighbourhood of his childhood, as the countryside of Soutine’s Belarusian childhood might persist in his tree paintings, or some traumatic cultural inheritance inform his later desire to track down and destroy as many of those Céret landscape paintings as possible.
Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon (1971)
Perhaps there is no equivalent in Kossoff for Soutine’s depictions of rotting carcasses, just as public transport infrastructure seems to have passed Soutine by (although not included here, Kossoff painted ticket halls and entrances of several London underground stations). Both artists copied Rembrandt’s A Woman bathing in a Stream (1654) in The National Gallery. Soutine turned the woman face on, and closer up (when he copied a painting, he re-staged it with models or props). Kossoff, who often went to Trafalgar Square to draw, took the astonishing free impasto strokes of the woman’s clothing as a method for the whole painting, even finding (I cannot help seeing this) her face somewhat similar to that of his wife and brother.
Maybe like James Russell I have largely avoided too close a comparison between these two magnificent painters. I made detailed lists but it all seemed pointless, when each painter offered such individual invitations to absorption and all I wanted to do was look and look.
David Berridge lives in Hastings, England. He is a contributor to The Fortnightly Review. A novella, The Drawer and a Pile of Bricks, is published by Ma Bibliothèque.