'Every time the model sits everything has changed. […] The light has changed, the balance has changed. The directions you try to remember are no longer there and, whether working from the model or landscape drawings, everything has to be reconstructed daily, many many times. A painter is engaged in a working process and the work is concerned with making the paint relate to his experience of seeing and being in the world.’
- Leon Kossoff
Leon Kossoff’s work is inherently autobiographical. Constantly influenced by his surroundings, friends and family, the familiarity of Kossoff’s subjects are crucial to the artist’s practice of close-looking. Kossoff explored around his north London studio, painting streets, churches and stations, along with a small circle of sitters that reappear again and again in his works. The artist was born in London to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, and is the only member of the ‘School of London’ painters– Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, R.B. Kitaj and Michael Andrews – to have actually been born in London.
Maybe due to the personal nature of his subjects and the emotional investment in the physical act of creation, Kossoff laboured with the artistic process, reflecting that 'I try to recreate the pictorial image. I struggle for truth... How hard it is to paint! I can spend years on a painting and months on a drawing... Nothing comes easily to me. I go on until the picture becomes a mutation, a miracle, something unexpected, even by me. Then it is finished.' (Leon Kossoff cited in interview with N.G. Stone, in: 'The Artist & the Community', The Jewish Chronicle, 27 November 1959). However, the present work belies this artistic struggle and exudes a fluid confidence and a refined and original style.
The work portrays one of Kossoff’s most interesting and regular sitters – the Romanian refugee and political writer Sonia Husid. In the Beginning was Fear, 1964 and They Sacrifice to Moloch, 1967 were both written by Husid under the pseudonym N.M. Seedo. Dating from 1965, this extraordinary and evocative portrait was acquired directly from the artist by Heinz Propper, who was a close friend of Leon for over seventy years. Heinz Propper sat for the artist over three decades, and Kossoff produced many portraits showing the changing and developing observations of his friend, though Kossoff once said that no matter many times he painted Heinz, he was never quite able to catch his likeness.
With his fellow student and friend Frank Auerbach, Kossoff developed a painterly style employing thickly applied layers of paint that are extensively reworked to reveal the closely observed facial features of his subjects. Consequently, the formal elements of Head of Seedo seem to writhe and move in the light as the viewer moves across the rough, undulating surface. Kossoff’s masterful handling of paint toes the line between sculpture and painting, the board is thick with impasto paint that has been scraped, whirled and gouged into, creating a surface rich with animation and feeling. Kossoff’s portraits required immense commitment from both artist and sitter, with the whole process taking months at a time. Kossoff would scrape everything off the board after each sitting, repeating the whole process over and over again until the final product was achieved.
Intimate and up-close, Head of Seedo is simultaneously introspective and atmospheric. Up close, any facial features appear indistinguishable from the complex swirls of oil paint. Kossoff intermingles black and maroon, creating a sense of rich depth and shadow reminiscent of Caravaggio’s employment of chiaroscuro. This close scale is indicative of Kossoff’s work, and produces an intimate, beguiling and almost disorientating visual description of a face that Kossoff clearly knew so well.