Leon Kossoff

Two Seated Figures No. 2


Not on display

Leon Kossoff 1926 – 2019
Oil paint on board
Support: 2438 × 1828 mm
frame: 2628 × 1997 × 95 mm
Purchased 1983

Display caption

This painting is a unique departure from Kossoff's usual methods. Normally he works on paintings for months and even years, continually scraping back and repainting the image. Instead, Kossoff completed this work 'in two or three hours. There are no other attempts on this board'. He sees it as 'a direct urgent extension' of two drawings made earlier the same day. The thread-like traces of paint resulted from the brush dripping onto the painting's surface while it was in a horizontal position. Its subject is Kossoff's parents - Jewish immigrants from Russia - who arrived in England as children early this century. Kossoff has painted his parents 'all my painting life'.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Leon Kossoff born 1926

T03680 Two Seated Figures No.2 1980

Oil on hardboard 2438 x 1828 (96 x 72)
Not inscribed
Purchased from Fischer Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Exh: Leon Kossoff: Paintings from a Decade 1970-1980, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, May-July 1981, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, July-Aug. 1981 (43, repr. in col.); The Hard-Won Image, Tate Gallery, July-Sept. 1984 (85, repr. in col.)
Lit: Paul Overy, `The Passing Throng', Listener, vol.105, June 1981, p.826; Peter Fuller, `Visions from E8 Landscape', New Society, vol.57, Aug. 1981, pp.272-3; Richard Shone, `Oxford, Sheffield & Plymouth: Kossoff, Lanyon, Hockney', Burlington Magazine, vol.123, Aug. 1981, pp.505-6; Richard Morphet, The Hard-Won Image, exh. broadsheet, Tate Gallery, 1984 [p.4] repr; Peter Fuller, `Leon Kossoff', The British Show, exh. cat. BC tour, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Feb.-March 1985, pp.87-90, repr. Also repr: London Magazine, vol.24, Oct. 1984, on the cover; Leon Kossoff Recent Work, exh. cat., Fischer Fine Art, March-April 1984, on the cover; Arts Review, vol.33, June 1981, p.263; Art in America, vol.71, Oct. 1983, p.84 (col.);

Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are taken from the artist's answers to a questionnaire posed by the compiler in June 1988 and from a letter to the compiler dated 27 August 1988.

According to the artist, T03680 was painted in Spring 1980. In terms of the nature of its execution, the work represents a unique departure from Kossoff's usual painting practice which Marina Vaizey has described as follows:

Each painting has been worked on for months, perhaps years, but what we see is not the result of a careful, build-up, slowly drying out layer upon layer of paint applied over a considerable length of time. Rather each painting is finally painted in a day. What happens is rather like a continual, unceasing dress rehearsal - and then the final performance, opening night. Each time Kossoff works on a painting he paints it entire. Then, not satisfied (and he rarely is) the paint is entirely scraped off ... This process of start, finish, obliterate, begin again may go on for months. One day the image will emerge as near to what this ardent perfectionist wants as he feels possible and then that particular dance, that special choreography, will be stopped and the painting created. The image has emerged in a process of reclamation (`Leon Kossoff', Art International, vol.23, Sept. 1972, p.104).
This way of working is in stark contrast with Kossoff's description of how `Two Seated Figures No. 2' was executed: `I completed it in a short time, perhaps two or three hours. There are no other attempts on this board. It is perhaps the only time I have done a painting this way'. The execution of the work was thus relatively rapid, although this in itself does not make `Two Seated Figures No.2' an exception: as Peter Fuller has noted, Kossoff's images often take shape `in a matter of hours' (The British Show, exh. cat. BC tour 1985, p.88). What is unusual is that the image was realised at the first attempt and the artist has accounted for this in the following way: `Though the Tate picture was painted very quickly it had very much to do with other previously destroyed similar versions. The reason that this picture emerged in this way was due to two drawings I made on the morning of the same day from my parents. The painting was a direct urgent extension of these drawings.' Thus, `Seated Figures No.2' did not evolve in the same way as Kossoff's other paintings, a characteristic pattern of events of which the artist has written: `Always, the moment before finishing, the painting disappears, sometimes into greyness for ever, or sometimes into a huge heap on the floor to be reclaimed, redrawn and committed to an image which makes itself' (quoted in ibid.).

In terms of the way the paint was actually applied, however, the Tate's work is typical and, like his other paintings, its surface is a record of the physical processes which combined to make it. The artist has described how `the paintings are upright when I begin, they ... finish up on the floor [i.e. in a horizontal position] when the paint threatens to slide off before I am ready to stop'. Peter Fuller has also noted that `the disposition of the paint across the surface owes much to rapidly performed bodily movements'. (BC tour 1985, p.88). Consequently, the picture plane of `Two Seated Figures No.2' is a synthesis of broad masses of thickly applied pigment and also thread-like traces of paint which are the result of a heavily loaded brush passing above the surface and dripping during the course of its movement. Although the work was painted quickly, Kossoff's preparation of the support was protracted. Replying to a questionnaire issued by the Tate's Conservation Department, the artist gave the following account of the procedure he employed: `A mixture of size and chalk [was] generously applied (one coat). On top of this I applied a coat of best quality white lead primer ... after many months drying time I applied a coat of titanium white ... When I have the time I take care over the preparation of the board.' Shortly after the work was completed, a curator from the Tate Gallery Modern Collection visited the artist in his studio and noted that, due to the unusual thickness of the paint layer, the work would have to remain in a horizontal position while drying and that it would not be possible to move the painting for three months. Moreover, the artist anticipates that as the painting continues to dry, its appearance may change. He has made the following observation: `The underlying titanium white is very fortunate for two reasons. The first is that it was supplied by the same paint manufacturer who supplied the paint used for the painting [Stokes of Sheffield], the second is that, as the painting dries out the titanium white will tend to glow through (I hope)'.

The human figure is a dominant theme in Kossoff's oeuvre and the artist has described how he has constantly painted those `close to me who were able to persevere with the sittings' (Vaizey 1972, p.103). The subject of T03680 is Kossoff's parents, both of whom were Jewish immigrants. Kossoff senior was born in 1893, in Russia near Kiev, and came to England in 1908. A baker by trade, he commenced his working life in England by pushing a barrow through the streets of East London and subsequently opened up a small chain of shops. He died in 1982. The artist's mother was born in 1902, also near Kiev, and arrived in England in 1910. She is still alive. Kossoff's parents are a recurrent subject and the artist has stated that `I have been obsessed with this idea ever since I can remember', and that `I have been working on versions of this subject ever since the 1950s'. In this way, T03680 belongs to a sequence of related images of Kossoff's parents of which there are two main types: those which depict his parents together, and those which depict his mother and father separately.

In regard to those works which show his parents as a couple, Kossoff has explained that `I have made a small group of paintings of this subject. - The first in 1962 was grabbed out of internal darkness and confusion'. The work in question, the large (1828 x 1524, 72 x 60) painting `Two Seated Figures' (repr. Leon Kossoff Recent Paintings, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1972, p.49 no.44), has been described by Helen Lessore as follows: `It shows Kossoff's father and mother seated side by side, like a King and Queen: a picture of interdependence and faithfulness, perhaps employing some feelings about the parental and filial relationship; and while it recognisably portrays two individuals, it lifts them into the universal situation of ancestors, almost of primitive idols' (A Partial Testament, 1986, p.150). The second painting of this subject has been identified by the artist as `Two Seated Figures' 1967 (oil on board, 1524 x 1524, 60 x 60, repr. Leon Kossoff, exh. cat., Marlborough Fine Art, 1968, no.30). As Helen Lessore indicates, this work represents a significant development from the earlier work: `here his parents no longer sit side by side, but appear engulfed in an emotional situation - stressed by this unified landscape handling. The father, seated nearer the front, hunched over, seems to cower, or rest, Oedipus-like, half-child, half-consort, while the mother though seated, towers over him, maternally, consolingly, enfolding and supporting him. Perhaps the earlier composition was a picture of parents, of ancestors, and this is a picture of marriage' (ibid., pp.151-2). Kossoff has stated that paintings of this subject were begun and subsequently abandoned `all my painting life', so that, in addition to `the other small versions I have lost trace of', there are three other versions of his parents depicted as a couple. These are `Two Seated Figures No.1 1980' (oil on board, 1220 x 1524, 48 x 60 repr. The British Show, 1986, p.90 no number), which was completed in early Spring 1980; the Tate's work `Two Seated Figures No.2 1980', (2438 x 1828, 96 x 72), completed slightly later and `the last version': `Breakfast' (oil on board, 1220 x 1830, 48 x 72 repr. Fischer Fine Art exh. cat. 1984, p.28 no number).

The pair of paintings painted in 1980 bearing the title `Two Seated Figures' differ in a number of ways. `Two Seated Figures No.1' is smaller than the later painting; also it employs a landscape format as opposed to the portrait configuration of `Two Seated Figures No.2'. In the earlier work the figures are depicted parallel to the picture plane and are represented either asleep or in a contemplative attitude. In the Tate's work the viewpoint is from the right hand side of the figures, thus introducing recession into the composition, and the figures, particularly that of the artist's father, appear to be more alert. The final painting, `Breakfast' 1981, is a different treatment of the subject altogether. It depicts the artist's parents facing each other on either side of their breakfast table and, in the artist's words, is `more about them and their last days together in their own home with the garden they loved beyond'.

There are also a number of related works in other media. Kossoff has stated that `I have made many, many drawings of this subject, some in my studio when my parents were both able to come and sit together and some at their home'. Notable examples are: `Two Seated Figures I' 1978 (charcoal, 540 x 794, 21 1/4 x 31 1/4 repr. Leon Kossoff, Recent Drawings, exh. cat., Riverside Studios, 1980, no.6) and `Two Seated Figures II' 1980 (charcoal, 692 x 794, 27 1/4 x 31 1/4 repr. ibid., no.14). The latter drawing is one of the two working drawings for the Tate's painting, noted above, which Kossoff has indicated were `made on the morning of the same day in my parents' house'. He has explained that of course there were many other drawings of the same subject about the studio' at the time that he painted `Two Seated Figures No.2'. Two further examples: `Two Seated Figures V' 1980 (charcoal, 597 x 660, 23 1/2 x 26) and `Two Seated Figures VI' 1980 (charcoal, 838 x 635, 33 x 25), were shown with the charcoal drawing `Two Seated Figures II' at the Riverside Studios exhibition (Dec. 1980-Jan 1981). Kossoff has also made an etching of this subject, `Two Seated Figures' 1982, which, according to the artist, `has gone through various stages, all finished in their own way but the print is not, as yet, finally resolved'. A stage proof was exhibited at Smith's Galleries, in the exhibition Robin Campbell CBE DS0 1912-1985 A Commemorative Exhibition in January 1986 (no number). The drawing entitled `The Window' 1983 (charcoal, 584 x 781, 23 x 30 3/4 repr. Fischer Fine Art Catalogue 1984, p.29 no number) relates directly to the painting `Breakfast' 1981, on which Kossoff was working at the time he completed `Two Seated Figures No.2'.

Kossoff has depicted his mother and father separately in numerous paintings and drawings. The artist has stated that `the most important early painting of my mother is called `Rachel Seated in an Armchair' 1965' (1536 x 1130, 60 1/2 x 41 1/2, repr. Marlborough Fine Art 1968, no.10). Also notable is the earlier painting, `Portrait of Mother Asleep' 1963 (1600 x 1220, 63 x 48, repr. Whitechapel Art Gallery exh. cat. 1972, p.51 no.46). Kossoff has commented that he has drawn and painted his father `ever since I can remember' and this subject exists in a number of different versions. In `Father Seated in Armchair' 1960 (oil on board, 1524 x 1118, 60 x 44, repr. Oxford exh. cat. 1981, p.42 no.46) and `Father Asleep in Armchair' 1964 (oil on board, 1524 x 1600, 60 x 63 repr. Whitechapel Art Gallery exh. cat. 1972, p.48 no.43), the sitter, as in `Portrait of Mother Asleep', is shown sleeping while modelling for the artist. Notable examples of the numerous portrait studies of his father which Kossoff has made are: `Father as a Young Man' 1971 (oil on board, 1220 x 1524, 48 x 60 repr. Whitechapel Art Gallery exh. cat. 1972, p.22 no.2), `Portrait of Father Nos. 1-3' (all oil on board, 1220 x 914, 48 x 36; 1524 x 914, 60 x 36; 1524 x 1220, 60 x 48 respectively, repr. Fischer Fine Art exh. cat. 1974, p.6 no.13: A School of London: Six Figurative Painters, exh. cat., B.C. Tour, Kunsnernes Hus, Oslo 1987-8, p.86 no.61; and Oxford exh. cat. 1981, p.17 no.8 in col.). Kossoff has also made a number of smaller portraits and studies of his father's head including: `Small Portrait of Father Nos 1 & 2', 1978 (both oil on board, 787 x 629, 31 x 24 3/4 and 781 x 628, 30 3/4 x 24 3/4 respectively repr. Fischer Fine Art exh. cat. 1974, nos. 34 and 35), `Head of Father Nos. 1-3' (charcoal, 482 x 698, 19 x 27 1/2; 749 x 549, 29 1/2 x 21 5/8; 787 x 559, 31 x 22 respectively repr. Fischer Fine Art exh. cat. 1979, nos 60 and 62) and `Head of Father' 1978 (oil on board, 318 x 210, 12 1/2 x 8 1/4 repr. Oxford exh. cat. 1981, p.34 no.33). Other versions of this subject include: `Father Looking Up' 1978 (oil on board, 1220 x 978, 48 x 38 1/2 repr. Oxford exh. cat. 1981, p.35 no.28), `Hands of Father' 1978 (oil on board, 450 x 578, 17 3/4 x 22 3/4 repr. ibid., p.38 no. 35) and `Father Resting in Armchair' 1978 (charcoal, 1054 x 750, 41 1/2 x 29 1/2 repr. Fischer Fine Art exh. cat. 1979, no.63).

The artist has declined to comment upon the meaning of `Two Figures No.2' in terms of its iconography. However, he has made the following observation: `If the painting works everything is significant. I cannot say any more at this time'.

The above entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.519-22

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