Leon Kossoff



Not on display

Leon Kossoff 1926 – 2019
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 560 × 405 mm
frame: 762 × 606 × 50 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1996


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.

Further reading
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.

Hana Leaper
June 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

Kossoff attended Bomberg’s evening classes from 1950–2. He found them a revelation after the formality of St Martin’s School of Art. ‘Although I had painted most of my life’ he said, ‘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’.

Here, Kossoff’s definition of form through thick plains and strokes of colour is characteristic of Borough Group artists. The way the face fills the frame adds a psychological intensity while giving no clues to the sitter’s identity, social status or profession.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of slightly open-weave linen canvas attached to a four-membered softwood expandable stretcher with ferrous tacks along all four edges. The canvas was primed with a thin layer of white oil-based primer, which may have been applied over an initial application of animal glue size, although this is not visible.

The paint was applied exclusively by brush, with some use made of the brush handle in scraping back through paint layers, for example the strong diagonal line in the neck. The paint essentially covers the stretched face of the canvas, although it does extend around the edges and even onto the back of the stretcher in certain places, in particular along the left tacking edge which is all painted white. The paint would have had a paste-like consistency and in most areas was probably used straight from the tube, with minimal use of diluent to thin down the colour. The surface quality of the paint layers is varied and in the much drier places Kossoff may have removed the excess oil binder from the paint before it was applied. The colours used are predominantly opaque and most areas have been built up with multiple layers of paint to produce a high overall paint thickness and some appreciable impasto. However, in some areas the paint is much thinner and in these areas the canvas weave texture is still apparent, for example in the area just to the right of Kossoff's chin. Many of these layers were applied before the underlying paint had dried properly, so that the two colours are mixed within the brush stroke.

The work is not varnished. The frame is not original and was made in 1996 by John Jones Frames prior to the work's acquisition. The painting is now in a reasonable condition. Although the fabric feels quite brittle, it is still taut providing adequate support for the paint layers. The presence of large areas of wax impregnated into the canvas (and visible from the back) indicates that the painting has been treated at least once for a separation between two layers, most probably between the priming and the canvas. However, there is no sign of any further delamination and with the current frame providing a stable environment this condition should now remain unaltered.

Tom Learner
November 1997

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