Self-Portrait is a medium-size portrait on canvas that is thickly painted in oils in predominant tones of yellow, red and black. The work is a self-portrait showing the British artist Leon Kossoff as a young man, aged approximately twenty-six years old. Kossoff’s head and neck fill the entire canvas, although he is not immediately recognisable from the work largely due to the loose handling of the brushwork that has resulted in the features appearing blurred and distorted. As such the painting is less a portrait in a conventional sense than an intense evocation of a young man’s expression and emotion, devoid of any social contact or context.
This painting was created by Kossoff in London in c.1952. It is painted on a slightly open-weave linen canvas, the texture of which Kossoff has employed as part of the surface of the work. In most areas the paint has been applied straight from the tube in multiple layers using a wet-on-wet technique to create visible impasto and a blending of pictorial forms. However, this effect is not uniform, and in some places the paint is much thinner, for instance in the area just to the right of Kossoff's chin. Kossoff also made use of the brush handle to scrape back through paint layers, as in the strong diagonal line visible in the neck area.
Kossoff made Self-Portrait when he was undertaking art classes at St Martin’s School of Art, London. Between 1950 and 1952 Kossoff also attended evening classes at Borough Polytechnic in London under the tutelage of the British painter David Bomberg. Kossoff found the emphasis on looser brushwork and composition in Bomberg’s lessons a revelation in comparison to the academic formality at St Martin’s, stating in 1995 that ‘Although I had painted most of my life, it was through my contact with Bomberg that I felt I might actually function as a painter. Coming to Bomberg’s class was like coming home’ (quoted in Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.12).
Kossoff made several self-portraits during his career, as well as paintings of other sitters, and was himself painted by his close friend and contemporary, the British painter Frank Auerbach (see Portrait of Leon Kossoff 1951, Tate L02669). Auerbach and Kossoff first met in the Antique Room at St Martin’s in 1948 and became lifelong friends and colleagues. They moved on to study together at London’s Royal College of Art and continued to work closely, observing London street scenes, studying paintings at the National Gallery and becoming associated with the loosely defined group of artists known as the School of London. Auerbach’s Portrait of Leon Kossoff has a similar composition to Self-Portrait in the way that it enlarges and focuses on Kossoff’s head, and was painted from life around the time that the two artists were attending Bomberg’s classes. The brushwork in both paintings is indicative of the young artists’ developing expressionist style, including the sculptural layering of loaded brushstrokes. Furthermore, the close-up composition that excludes contextual detail in Self-Portrait and is seen in Kossoff’s work more generally has led critic and curator Poul Eric Tøjner to comment that the world shown in Kossoff’s canvases ‘is wrenched free of its origin and quite simply becomes the universe. There is nothing outside. There is nothing behind, before or after … Kossoff’s work insists on its own time and its own space.’ (Tøjner in Juul and Kold (eds.) 2004, p.5.)
Kossoff has often painted the same subjects, people and places repeatedly throughout his career. Following an interview with the artist at his studio in 2000, the curator Klaus Kertess recorded that:
charcoal drawings precede each painting and continue during the course of his working; it is through drawing that the subject achieves presence and place. Kossoff refers to his act of painting as ‘enriched drawing’.
(Kertess 2000, p.10.)
The relationship between Self-Portrait and an early Kossoff charcoal portrait Head c.1957 (Tate T06985) could be seen to demonstrate this concept of ‘enriched drawing’. Here, as in Self-Portrait, the subject’s face and neck are the sole focus and the resemblance to the sitter is of secondary importance to the material handling of the charcoal – an emphasis that manifests itself in paintings such as Self-Portrait through the thick presence of the paint on the canvas as the result of impasto application.
Klaus Kertess, ‘I know only one city in the world…’, in Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings and Drawings, London and New York: Annely Juda Fine Art and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 2000.
Michael Juul Holm and Anders Kold (eds.), Leon Kossoff: Selected Paintings, 1956–2000, trans. by James Manley, exhibition catalogue, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek 2004.
Supported by Christie’s.