CHAIM SOUTINE and Leon Kossoff never met, but they shared a western Russian Jewish heritage. Kossoff’s parents left Ukraine for the East End, as teenagers, around the same time as Soutine left Belarus in 1912 to train as an artist in Paris. A retrospective of Soutine’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, in 1950, influenced artists on both sides of the Atlantic, including Kossoff.
Soutine’s landscapes of Ceret in the south of France launch Hastings Contemporary’s show. After the First World War, the impoverished painter received three years’ sponsorship from a dealer to work in Ceret. In a frenzy of creativity, he produced more than 200 works. Although he is best known as a portrait painter, his rendering of the landscape as a tumble of trees, roots, and buildings shows the expressive quality of his brushwork, as if he has attacked the canvas. In Paysage aux Cypres (1922), the classical trope of a figure in the foreground welcomes the viewer into the scene, and provides scale, but the scene is a disorientating nightmare of tangled vegetation, and topsy-turvy red-roofed houses.
© Leon Kossoff EstateLeon Kossoff, Seated Woman (1957),
In Paris, Soutine haunted the Louvre, and his portraits reveal his distillation of the painters who had gone before, to heart-breaking effect. In La Communicante, or La Mariée (1924), a girl taking her first communion, or a young bride, is portrayed with the rosy round cheeks of Russian folk art. She is seated, so her height is indistinct, and the folds of her white dress are picked out in turquoise, with bands of yellow. Colour from her ochre, rust, and yellow floral headdress drips into the rest of the painting. The green fingers of her white gloves cast green shadows, as does the yellow purse at her side. Diaphanous sleeves make her arms partly visible, adding to a sense of unnerving assemblage, which becomes a mesmerisingly compelling whole. Depth is achieved with the patterned background being light on the right and darker on the left.
Maternité, or Pietà (1942), was painted the year before Soutine died, when he was hiding in Vichy France, unable to seek treatment for the stomach ulcers that would kill him. Against a featureless interior of grey and brown daubs, a mother in a sketchily outlined dark dress holds an infant on her knee. The toddler is in a light-blue romper, head lolling to one side, upturned chin catching the light, shown as splashy flecks of white along the jawline. It is unclear whether the mother is exhaustedly holding a sleeping child or mourning a dead one, but the sadness on her face is palpable.
Kossoff’s impasto landscapes of London bombsites and railway junctions are well known. But he was also a portrait painter, creating sculptural oil-on-board images of his wife Rosalind, Nude on a Red Bed (1974), the Romanian author N. M Seedo, Head of Seedo (1964), his father Wolf, Head leaning on Hand (1959) and his brother Philip, Portrait of Philip (1962). His younger brother’s head, with quiff, fills the board, larger than life and monumental, yet composed of rapid brushstrokes. One of the pleasure of this show is seeing how Kossoff’s paintings transform, as you take steps back from the work.
Christ Church, Spitalfields (1989) is a small painting: a ground-level view of the church that Kossoff, as a child, passed every day, with the portico in strokes of grey and pink towering above the viewer, emphasising the emotional and spatial impact of Hawksmoor’s masterpiece.
“Soutine/Kossoff” is at Hastings Contemporary, Rock-a-Nore Road,
Hastings, until 24 September. Phone 01424 728377. www.hastingscontemporary.org