With its thick, visceral surface spanning two metres in height and width, the present painting is one of the largest in Leon Kossoff’s celebrated series depicting Kilburn Underground Station. Begun in the mid-1970s and pursued for much of the following decade, these works stand among the finest visions of the artist’s north-west London neighbourhood, with examples held in the Tate, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester. Piled high with near-sculptural strands of impasto, the present painting captures the ebb and flow of commuters outside the station, located ten minutes’ walk from the Willesden studio that Kossoff has occupied since 1966. Painted in 1984, it demonstrates the increasingly fluid painterly language that came to define the later works in the series: figures, architecture and pavement blur into a single undulating mass, animated by pockets of light and shadow. Kossoff’s depictions of London’s railway system are central to his oeuvre, encompassing Willesden Junction, Willesden Green, Dalston Junction, Mornington Crescent and the disused land behind King’s Cross. Charting the constant flux of these places across changing weather conditions, seasons and times of day, works such as the present infuse their everyday subject matter with a kind of transcendental beauty. In the ‘ordinariness’ of Kilburn Underground Station, writes Paul Moorhouse, ‘Kossoff divined a focus for the lifeblood of the city; in the coming and going of its travellers he found a place rich in human experience; and through his progressive dialogue with the changing rhythms and atmosphere of the subject he perceived a motif which reverberated with personal meaning’ (P. Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1996, p. 24).
Running parallel to his portrait practice, Kossoff’s depictions of London attest to his deep affinity with the city. Born in Shoreditch, where his family owned a bakery, he was evacuated during the Second World War. Upon his return, inspired by the teachings of his mentor David Bomberg, he began to scour the city, seeking inspiration in its desolate bombsites as much as in its museums. Along with fellow student Frank Auerbach, he set out to capture what Bomberg had described as ‘the spirit in the mass’: the raw physical essence of the world around him, as opposed to its external likeness. Prioritising physical intuition over precise observation, Kossoff relied heavily on drawing, creating rapid sketches which he would then translate into paint in the studio. Working like an archaeologist, he would routinely excavate and rebuild his surfaces, scraping off layers of colour and reworking them over long periods. For Kossoff, London’s ever-changing topography was matched by the fluid properties of pigment: in bringing the two together, he sought to momentarily halt their transience, sealing the flux of the city in near-fossilised strata of paint. In the Kilburn Underground Station paintings, writes Moorhouse, this process yields sublimity and grandeur from the most quotidian of subjects. ‘Heads down, [the figures] come and go, confined within their own thoughts’, he explains. ‘Yet in each picture the bridge arches over these figures towards the sky. Rising above the scene it strikes an affirmative note: a symbol of life, movement, destination and the joining of people and places’ (P. Moorhouse, ibid., p. 24). Bathed in golden light, the present work is a powerful illustration of this statement.