‘We were like two mountain climbers roped together’ —F. AUERBACH ON L. KOSSOFF
‘Auerbach’s heads of Kossoff, painted and drawn, indicate precisely what he was doing: landscape into portraiture and portraiture into landscape, tangible spaces, intimacy and distance reconciled … it was a striving for lyrical authenticity’ —W. FEAVER
‘The only true guide in this search is the special relationship the artist has with the person or landscape from which he is working. Finally, in spite of all this activity of absorption and internalization the images emerge in an atmosphere of freedom’ —L. KOSSOFF
‘I think [Leon Kossoff] and I were perhaps a bit rougher and more rebellious than the other students. We wanted something a little less urbane, a little less tea-time, a little less limited. And not so linear and illustrative’ —F. AUERBACH
‘Auerbach and Kossoff … worked companionably with parallel ambition. They were seen in the life room together emitting clouds of red chalk as they drew’ —W. FEAVER
With its thick terrain of impasto piled high, Frank Auerbach’s Head of Leon Kossoff is an intimate, jewel-like testament to one of the twentieth century’s most important artistic relationships. From a dense topography of molten pigment, physically moulded to near-sculptural proportions, the face of Leon Kossoff emerges in profile, his eyes downcast. Visceral flesh tones and mottled swathes of shadow punctuate the gleaming visage, animating its three-dimensional presence against a blanket of darkness. Executed in 1956, the present work is one of eight early oil paintings by Auerbach depicting his friend and comrade. Painted between 1950 and 1956, these works are highly sought after with two in museum collections: the first, dating to 1950, now resides in Tate, London, with a further portrait from 1955 currently housed in the Yale Center for British Art. Following their first meeting in 1948, the two artists formed a close bond under the radical tutelage of David Bomberg, united by their shared disregard for the conservative teachings of the academy. Between roaming the streets of war-torn London and poring over Rembrandt in the National Gallery, they would take it in turns to capture one another’s likeness in their studios. For Auerbach, who had his breakthrough exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London that year, his depictions of Kossoff were among the first decisive expressions of his artistic language. They were portraits that quivered like geological landscapes: paintings that bordered on reliefs. They offered a new, instinctive mode of representation that sought – as Bomberg instructed – to reveal ‘the spirit in the mass’ (D. Bomberg, quoted in Leon Kossoff, exh. cat., Tate, London, 1996, p. 12). As with Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, or Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso before them, the fruitful dialogue between the two artists had a transformative effect on the development of figurative painting in the twentieth century. ‘We were like two mountain climbers roped together’ said Braque of Picasso. It was a statement Auerbach would later use to characterise his early relationship with Kossoff (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London 2015, p. 62).
Whilst studying at St Martin’s School of Art in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Auerbach and Kossoff found an outlet for their shared anti-institutionalism in Bomberg’s evening classes. ‘I think Leon and I were perhaps a bit rougher and more rebellious than the other students’, recalls Auerbach. ‘We wanted something a little less urbane, a little less tea-time, a little less limited. And not so linear and illustrative’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 29). Bomberg, who championed physical intuition over studied precision, encouraged them to ‘define their experience of matter’: to ‘apprehend the weight, the twist, the stance, of a human being anchored by gravity: to produce a souvenir of that’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 31). From manning the Kossoff family bakery on Brick Lane to sketching on Hampstead Heath, the two artists became increasingly entwined in each other’s lives. When Kossoff married in 1953, he passed the tenancy of his studio to Auerbach: a north-facing room near Mornington Crescent, where he would remain for the rest of his career. Together, they watched as a devastated city attempted to rebuild itself, spending time at construction sites and using lead white paint sourced from a local builder’s merchant. The influence of the urban post-War landscape, as well as the teachings of Bomberg, resounded in their ears as they took it in turns to capture one another, alternating hourly over extended periods of time. ‘Auerbach’s heads of Kossoff, painted and drawn, indicate precisely what he was doing’, asserts William Feaver: ‘landscape into portraiture and portraiture into landscape, tangible spaces, intimacy and distance reconciled’ (W. Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, p. 10). Embedded in the painterly rubble like a fossil, the present work is simultaneously a portrait of a young man and a skull-like momento mori, with darkened orbits rising to the peak of white cheekbones. It is a meditation on the passage of time and a tribute to the human spirit, illuminated like a beacon amidst the granular darkness.
Head of Leon Kossoff is situated at the culmination of this early period. In contrast to his first paintings of Kossoff, the present work bears witness to Auerbach’s increasingly focused study of the Old Masters: a passion shared by his sitter. ‘Frank and I are the only people in England who really understand Rembrandt’, Kossoff once asserted; Auerbach, for his part, enthused, ‘[his] handling is so rapid and responsive, but the mind is that of a conceptualising architect, making coherent geometries in space’ (L. Kossof and F. Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 87). Here, Auerbach weaves these observations into his own work, manipulating the pigment with a tactile combination of paintbrushes and his own fingers. An ‘architectural’ approach is borne out in the work’s stacked strata of impasto: up close, they dissolve into abstract fragments of matter, whilst from a distance they resolve into anatomical segments. The development of Auerbach’s language, by 1956, had earnt him glowing critical acclaim, buoyed by the success of his debut solo show at Beaux Arts Gallery in January that year. Reviewing the exhibition, which included two portraits of Kossoff, David Sylvester wrote ‘[Auerbach] has given us, at the age of twenty-four, what seems to me the most exciting and impressive one-man show by an English painter since Francis Bacon’s in 1949 … these paintings reveal the qualities that make for greatness in a painter – fearlessness, a profound originality: a total absorption in what obsessed him; and, above all, a certain authority and originality in his forms and colours. Here at last is a young painter who has extended the power of paint to remake reality’ (D. Sylvester, quoted in C. Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London 2015, p. 67). Completed later that year, the present work immortalises in paint a relationship that Auerbach would later describe as one of his most important inspirations: a friendship that would effectively change the face of figurative portraiture.