‘London, like the paint I use, seems to be in my blood stream. It's always moving – the skies, the streets, the buildings, the people who walk past me when I draw have become part of my life’ (L. Kossoff, quoted in exhibition catalogue, Leon Kossoff, London, Tate Gallery, 1996, p. 36).
Willesden Junction - Autumn Afternoon is one of the most dynamic renderings of his favourite London scene, depicted in great swathes of thick impasto paint and vivid colours. The station represents a key theme in his oeuvre and one he regularly revisited over the course of his career.
Kossoff begun painting building sites and shells of buildings in the early 1960s, quickly moving on to paint larger urban scenes, such as the present work. Willesden Junction was the first and most prominent of these, with the artist initially painting the busy rail site in 1961. The scene represented a change in his work, with Kossoff deploying a lighter palette and longer uninterrupted brushstrokes, to create a more animated and dynamic composition that was less muddy than his earlier output, and imbued with a sense of energy and power.
After working onsite on numerous drawings, he amalgamated his studies into larger charcoal renderings back in his studio just around the corner. Works on canvas soon followed and were executed quickly after visits to the site, ensuring the canvas was imbued with the sensations he experienced there. The Junction became a classic motif, defining his urban landscapes. Unlike his depictions of King’s Cross and Dalston Junction, there is a direct dynamism in Willesden; the composition is balanced, less cluttered and immediately identifiable. This is evident in the present work with the train tracks dramatically surging forwards towards the viewer, confronting them directly with Kossoff’s urban scene. The network of tracks and railways bridges, with the high-rise towers punctuating the skyline, serving to enhance the sense of drama and the business of his urban environs.
The view in Willesden Junction - Autumn Afternoon is taken from the south looking north towards the cooling towers at Acton Lane Power Station, which in 1993 was demolished and the station closed. The composition is bought to life by the luminous yellows of the generator building, which contrast with the indanthrene blues of the overhead structures that provide a graceful horizontal perspective field as they recede one after another into the vista.
Willesden Junction - Autumn Afternoon is testament to Kossoff’s handling of paint, mastery of colour and volumetric compositions. The painting radiates the hum of what it is to live and breathe in an urban hub. The jewel like colours, so perfectly paired with darker fields of paint, breathe life into this corner of the city. Kossoff’s understanding of light is evident throughout, with robust lines in the foreground giving way to swathes of lighter tones in the sky. One can sense the turn of the seasons as the ominous blacks in the sky challenge the bright sunlight-dappled structures, rich with autumnal hues.
‘Kossoff celebrates the everyday – the haphazard, even unstable community of urban street life. And while he addresses his native city, Kossoff’s masterful understanding of light and atmosphere orchestrates the seasonal changes his subjects undergo’ (K. Kertess).
Born in Shoreditch, where his family owned a bakery, Kossoff was evacuated from the city during the Second World War. On his return, inspired by the teachings of David Bomberg during a series of evening classes, at the Borough Polytechnic, Kossoff immersed himself in the gritty reality of London’s fractured landscape. Along with his friend and fellow student Frank Auerbach, he scoured the city’s streets for suitable subjects, seeking to reveal what Bomberg described as ‘the spirit in the mass’ (D. Bomberg, quoted in ibid., p. 12). Championing physical intuition over studied precision, Kossoff captured the living essence of his London haunts such as Willesden. Frequently returning to the same subjects through the changing seasons, the artist would obsessively revisit his pictures, excavating and rebuilding them like archaeological fragments. ‘My studio is like a field, a field in a house’, he explained. ‘Muddy hillocks of paint-sodden newspapers cover the floor, burying scraped off images … The subject, person or landscape, reverberate, in my head unleashing a compelling need to destroy and restate. Drawing is a springing to life in the presence of the friend in the studio or in the sunlit summer streets of London from this excavated state and painting is a deepening of this process until, moved by unpremeditated visual excitement, the painting, like a flame, flares up in spite of oneself, and, when the sparks begin to fly, you let it be’ (L. Kossoff, 1986, quoted in exhibition catalogue, Leon Kossoff, London, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 1988, n.p.). With its visceral painterly charge, Willesden Junction - Autumn afternoon is a powerful illustration of this statement.