Soutine Kossoff Hastings Contemporary – A Relatable Pairing by Jude Montague

Soutine Kossoff,Hastings Contemporary

When a major exhibition of such significant artists as Chaim Soutine and Leon Kossoff, with such a comprehensive display of important paintings, comes to a seaside town like Hastings, the excitement begins to echo out into so many conversations and locations. Texts arrive on the mobile – ‘there’s a must-see exhibition in your town at the Hastings Contemporary’. People I meet on the street talk about the opening, how they are going to return and the thrill of seeing such a major show in this provincially located Sussex gallery. And wonderful though the building in which Hastings Contemporary is located, I feel the curator James Russell and the director Elizabeth Gilmore and their teams have achieved something remarkable here.

I want to see the School of London travel beyond London.

Remarkable because this is such a significant exhibition. The works on display here have been sourced from international collections. This is the largest group of Soutines shown together in the UK since 1982. Portraits and landscapes are both not only represented but examined, and as for Kossoff, well his works can be seen close up, and that thick abundance of oil paint which Kossoff is infamous for can be looked at closely, so closely the subject completely disappears and it’s necessary to take one, two, three steps back away to see what’s inside that rugged texture. For visitors, this is an incredible chance to get close up to some of his groundbreaking emotive dances with the medium and see how he attempts to transcend the subject through pigment, gesture and plain doggedness.

I was confused as to why the two painters were being shown together. It’s very much a two-hand show. What was the relationship between Soutine and Kossoff? Yes, they are both what I classify as expressionist painters, taking observed scenes and lifting them or struggling to lift them through the application of paint to canvas and board into another realm of observation, sublimating the moment. Yes, they both have Eastern European Jewish backgrounds living in Europe in the art scene. Soutine came from Belarus and went to Paris, becoming part of the French impressionist legacy, Kossoff is the child of Ukraine parents but was born in Islington, and his subject was London. They both take landscape and portrait seriously in ways we can compare one to another. But they lived at different times, working in different locations.

James Russell, the curator, explained to me that although there is no direct connection that links the painters, Kossoff’s generation of London artists, sometimes called the School of London, were taken with an exhibition of Soutine’s paintings at the time. This group of influential artists who returned from abstract and conceptualism to interpret figurative and observed scenes included Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Howard Hodgkin, R. B. Kitaj and other painters, and they would wrestle not only with the production of their works to tease meaning out of the act of daubing and brushing but also with words and ideas between themselves. Pugilistic, ambitious and in battle with themselves and existential reality, Kossoff and his contemporaries found something they could relate to in Soutine’s canvasses.

Soutine’s early expressionist visions of the town of Céret in the Pyrenees are collapsing in on themselves. The buildings, lit in the sunlight, are warped, processed by a mental filter into earthquake-like disaster zones. Through these storms of crumpled architecture and landscape, trees wind and spiral through, and I interpret an assertion of nature over the buildings, the green charge pushing up through the pavements and houses of the human landscape, disrupting the town, fighting back against construction and structure. The colours have a decorative unity compressed; some give me the feeling of a plant in bud, ready to spring out in glory with the power of a new life. His paintings have an attractive blue-green and orange-red duality, but through it all, the white is so important. Mostly buildings, but his bumpy white buildings push out through, reaching out, obscured behind trees. Does Soutine have sympathy for their plight? I’m really trying to convey something of the emotion that the paintings make me feel. Soutine is truly an expressionist painter at this point.

Soutine, Hastings Contemporary
Chaim Soutine, Le Valet de Chambre 1927

Later, we encounter Soutine’s portraits which enter a different period of work. I think of Picasso’s blue period, but this is far less romantic, and James Russell points out that Soutine was very influenced by Rembrandt at this time, studying his expert use of marks to make faces light out of the gloom with their fleshy forms. ‘Le petit pâtissier’ (1927) stands with hands on hips, eyeing the painter through droopy asymmetric eyes, not a passive sitter. James Russell has drawn attention to Soutine’s use of the pose of a Renaissance prince here and also to the emasculating effect of the cropping of the pose in a more twentieth-century photographic idiom. This effect occurs more in some of the fellow portraits surrounding this little pastry chef. These portraits are less obviously turbulent than the Céret landscape, but nonetheless, something is happening here in Soutine’s treatment of these figures. What I personally like is, apart from the compelling brushwork and choice of colours, that his sitters seem to have an agency. Not aggressive but perhaps a bit suspicious of the artist. They have their own character, and I feel their character is present in the painting, that their inner mind is being expressed here.

A general conclusion I have come to is that Soutine, like many poets I admire, has a respect for their inner world of the mind that translates and experiences the world alongside the factual existence of things. He seems constantly aware of the internal processes that constantly interpret, clarify, filter, and make up human experience alongside the stimulus of the actual world. He takes on the impossible task of painting not only his own inner activity but that of his subjects. I have a different feeling about Kossoff’s artist character, but first to rewind and talk about his landscapes.

Kossoff’s first impression must simply be the amount of paint he applies. He uses it like a rockstar uses his performance, impressively and expressively. The sheer quantity smeared and scraped on the boards (canvases would buckle and give, says James Russell) illustrates a painter who takes not only their work seriously but themselves. I get a shamanistic vibe from him. He wants desperately to find something philosophically important to make present through paint, can paint achieve this? Maybe it can’t. What is the answer? More paint, more paint, more paint.

Kossoff’s colour palette is generally grimier than Soutine’s. It’s earthy, oxide-ish and a bit depressing, like the wet sooty London he lived in. It has an effect on some who reject the industrial city that we are putting behind us now. When I grew up, I remember the black-soot buildings and how surprising it was to clean them off and see the paler sandstone original without that covering. Like many, I thought it was customary to just give it time, and all buildings would gradually become covered with such a dark colour. That was the legacy of coal. That was the London that Kossoff knew. That London itself was depressing, could be depressing, and Kossoff lived in central London, in the East End, where there was work, wages, the advantage and opportunity of living with money but also a great deal of poverty and crowded conditions, poor quality housing and public health pressures.

Kossoff,Hastings Contemporary
Leon Kossoff, City Building Site 1961

I am attracted to Kossoff’s painting of industrial features. He liked bridges. He liked the containers in which we live – views of buildings jostling together in the awkward proximity of the city, neighbouring structures forced on each other. After he moved to Willesden, he painted many railways. He did not paint like an engineer; he was not interested in understanding the physics and mechanics of machinery but in the expression of its landscape, angles, and joints. I spent some of my early experiments illustrating cranes, warehouses and industrial machinery and found my lack of knowledge of how these operated made me frustrated and criticised myself. Kossoff’s answer to frustration? More paint.

Kossoff’s sitters take me aback. They have a great deal of time spent on them but not in a consistent way. They are remade every moment. Then in the end, it is as if he is doing a quick Picasso-esque line drawing on the top. He spent a long time with the subject, building up the painting, trying to catch some kind of essence that described or paralleled what he was seeing/feeling. Then finally, they are finished with a quick black line expressing the features. Squizz a quick slide of paint on brush then that’s it. Confusing? His figure of his naked wife is quite ridiculous. It reminds me of my own daft attempts in life drawing class to draw over time. I love doing quick drawings and too wanted to draw over and over again, repeatedly trying to catch that figure and what it means to me from moment to moment rather than dig into a long figure over time which changes every second. This is what that ‘Nude on a Red Bed’ (November-December 1972) brings to my mind.

But I have a different response to Kossoff’s ‘Head of Seedo’ (1964). This impasto portrait seems to capture the mood, essence, the character of the writer. The way the deep layer of swirled paint works with colour to convey some dark yearning psyche, the bags of the eyes that carry life’s horrors and survival lessons, really get to me. These are studies of the writer N. M. Seedo or Sonia Husid, and I wonder if Kossoff feels the urgency and import of this subject more than he did when painting his wife, Rosalind. Perhaps there is a complacency present in his attitude to his wife, whose personality I cannot feel in that painting. I’m not sure why, but I am so moved by his portraits of Seedo; the impasto technique works so well I am knocked over inside, and I know I could spend a long time contemplating these works as well.

The Soutine-Kossoff exhibition is so well displayed. It creates such a journey I am so privileged to witness in my new hometown of Hastings. A writing colleague says to me, ‘Why not London?’ they express the very natural concern that Kossoff’s paintings should be seen in London as they are ‘so London’! As someone brought up in the North-West, my sensibility is grown through Manchester art galleries with their effort to bring together international works as well as celebrate great provincial art. Why London? I want to see the School of London travel beyond London. Why not to Hastings, where this gallery has such fantastic ambition and space to create exhibitions we can appreciate? There are so many artists here; there’s such a hunger to see work locally, and bring London art here. The Londoners themselves are coming to Hastings, just like people from Sussex have always gone to work in London and returned. There is such a connection in population between here and the capital that – well, I just don’t really understand why all the great objects should be kept in London, let them tour. I like it here.

Words by Jude Montague Photos P C Robinson ©Artlyst 2023

Soutine / Kossoff, Hastings Contemporary 1 April – 24 September 2023

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