Leon Kossoff

Self-Portrait. Verso: Untitled (Two Figures)


Not on display

Leon Kossoff 1926 – 2019
Charcoal on paper. Verso: charcoal on paper
Support: 763 × 556 mm
Frame: 970 × 742 × 20 mm
Presented by Jenny Stein 1986

Display caption

Throughout his career Kossoff has made portrait drawings. Usually these are of family, friends or, as in this case, himself. Kossoff was a student of David Bomberg (whose work is also on show here). Bomberg maintained that there could be no good painting without drawing. In common with Bomberg, drawing is a crucial activity for Kossoff and he draws constantly from the landscape and the figure. Here, the heavily worked surface has been repeatedly erased and re-drawn. This records the artist's many previous attempts to give form to a final definitive image, which is usually executed in one session. The portrait is thus spontaneous, but also founded on accumulated experience of the subject.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T04855 Self-Portrait 1967 Verso: Untitled (Two Figures) 1967

Charcoal on wove paper 763 × 556 (30 × 21 7/8); verso, charcoal on wove paper, same size
Inscribed ‘FOR JENNY | WITH LOVE FROM LEON’ on back board across top and ‘Marlborough (4)’ on back
Presented by Jenny Stein 1986
Prov: Given by the artist to Jenny Stein 1972
Exh: Leon Kossoff, Marlborough Fine Art, April 1968 (46, repr. [p.2]); Rocks and Flesh, Norwich School of Art Gallery tour, Norwich School of Art Gallery, Sept.–Oct. 1985, Winchester Gallery, Nov.–Dec. 1985, Newcastle Polytechnic Gallery, Jan. 1986, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, Feb.–March 1986 (11, repr. p.25)
Lit: Peter Fuller, ‘Rocks and Flesh’, Aspects, no.30, Autumn 1985, [pp.4–7], repr. [p.5]

T04855 comprises two drawings: one on each side of a single sheet of off-white wove paper, each executed in charcoal. The principal image is a self-portrait; the verso bears a drawing of two figures, male and female, embracing. The latter is a rejected drawing, though when it was brought to Kossoff's attention, he observed in a letter to the compiler dated 27 October 1994, ‘I am pleased it has survived’. Across the image is an inscription in white chalk which reads ‘Marlborough’ with the numeral ‘4’ written beneath this word. This inscription relates to the exhibition Leon Kossoff, held at Marlborough Fine Art in April 1968, in which the self-portrait drawing was shown. The artist thinks that both drawings were made around the same time, in 1967.

Drawing is central to Kossoff's art. In reply to a questionnaire of 27 September 1994 he wrote, ‘Drawing is everything. I think about it all the time. In the studio, in the street, in the National Gallery. Every morning when I wake up I resolve to teach myself to draw’. Even so, Kossoff does not necessarily intend all the drawings he makes to be finished works of art. Indeed, he destroys many of the drawings he makes. For Kossoff, drawing is the means by which he may familiarise himself with a particular subject, stripping away preconceptions through ‘looking and acting upon looking’ (conversation with the compiler, 22 July 1994). In some cases his engagement with certain subjects may continue over a period of years. A vital aspect of this process for Kossoff is its capacity to yield particular moments when ‘something else’ is seen. He has observed that ‘a moment can happen when suddenly you see something that seems to be surprising and one acts on it’ (ibid.). He may then go on to execute paintings related to this experience. The final appearance of his paintings may also be informed by drawings executed while the paintings are in progress. Kossoff thus regards drawing as a ‘form of rehearsal’ and consequently as an essential aspect of his art in general.

The artist recalled that he worked on the self-portrait for ‘perhaps six months’, adding that ‘I did about 20 drawings and kept one. Probably the wrong one’ (replies to a questionnaire, 27 September 1994). The 1968 Marlborough Fine Art exhibition which showed T04855 also included another self-portrait drawing of 1967, no.42 in the catalogue. That T04855 took so long to complete is evidence of Kossoff's working practice whereby an image is drawn, partially erased, and then redrawn. This procedure continues over the course of several sessions until a final, definitive form is attained. Of this practice Kossoff observed: ‘I start again, start again, start again’ (ibid.). Evidence of this activity is apparent in the heavily worked surface of this drawing which reveals traces of the image in previous states. In line with his usual practice, Kossoff has used charcoal which can be readily erased. The portrait has thus been executed spontaneously, but is also founded on the artist's accumulated experience of this subject. As with his portraits of other people, which are always executed in front of the model, this drawing was made in the artist's studio in Willesden, north London.

The models used by Kossoff are usually members of his family or people he knows well. Self-portraits recur less frequently, a possible reason for this being, as he has stated, ‘I do find self-portraits most difficult’ (ibid.). Nevertheless, during the course of his career he has returned to this subject on a number of occasions - ‘when I was without a model’ - and has produced a number of self-portrait paintings, notably in 1964, 1965, 1967 (two paintings), 1968 (two paintings), 1969, 1970 (two paintings), 1971 (four paintings), 1972 (four paintings), 1973 (two paintings), 1977, 1980, 1981 (two paintings), 1982 (two paintings). Many of these paintings have now been either lost or destroyed. Kossoff's self-portraits usually take one of two forms, namely a close-up study of the head occupying the entire picture space, or, as in this drawing, the head and shoulders. Although unconfirmed by the artist, this drawing appears to be related to the painting ‘Self Portrait No.1’, 1967, reproduced (no.21) in the 1968 Marlborough catalogue in which ‘Self Portrait’ was first illustrated. Kossoff noted, ‘I haven't made many [self-portraits] in recent years’ (ibid.).

This drawing was previously owned by Jenny Stein, Acting Director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in the period 1971–74. The artist recalled that, 'She opened her short period at the Whitechapel with my exhibition [Leon Kossoff Recent Paintings, 1972]. I hardly knew her at that time and had no dealer. It seemed a great risk. When I realised people were looking at the paintings I gave her the drawing' (ibid.). Jenny Stein subsequently presented the framed drawing to the Tate Gallery.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996


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