Leon Kossoff, ‘Heinz Propper’, 1997, Piano Nobile

Leon Kossoff was born in 1926 to Russian-Jewish immigrant painters in the East End of London. He trained at the RCA and Central Saint Martins, and with evening classes under David Bomberg from 1950 to 1952 alongside fellow student Frank Auerbach, with whom his work has natural affinities in both subject matter and the idiosyncratic use of heavy impasto paint. Throughout his career, Kossoff has been drawn to London as his primary subject matter alongside figure paintings of friends and family, and nudes. Kossoff was elected to the London group in 1962, and in 1995 he represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. Major solo exhibitions include at the Whitechapel in 1972, at MoMA in 1981, at the Tate in 1996 and at the National Gallery, London in 2007.

Throughout his career, Leon Kossoff’s practice has been dependent on places and people; urban sites to which he frequently returns and an intimate group of friends, family and models. Within his portraits, a familiar roster of names recur: Fidelma, Pauline, Sally, John Lessore, Kossoff’s wife Helen and his brother Chaim. Heinz Propper features in portraits for Kossoff’s 2000 exhibition at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, New York, and Annely Juda Fine Art, London. Alongside this charcoal and pastel ‘Heinz Propper’, 1937 (plate 3), is a further work on paper (plate 33), and three paintings (plates 28/29, 30/31, and 34/35), all featuring Heinz Propper’s head and shoulders. Evidently an intimately known friend, Propper is also a mesmerising model. His extraordinary and intensely individual features are forcefully realised by Kossoff in ‘Heinz Propper’: bald head, prominent nose, strong, set lips, and jutting chin. Augmented by his distinctive visage, Propper’s innate charisma and immense presence radiate from the portrait. As with most of Kossoff’s portraits, Propper’s head and shoulders fill the composition, his magnetism seemingly striving to burst the confines of the traditional portrait.

Writing in the catalogue for Kossoff’s 1996 Tate exhibition, Paul Moorhouse described Kossoff’s portraiture practice: “Over a period of months and years, he returns again and again to the motif – looking, stripping away preconceptions, attempting to penetrate the contrast ebb and flow of appearance.” Time takes on a fundamental but convoluted role within Kossoff’s artistic process, a curious amalgam of multiple sittings with the model and the necessity for speed to capture a particular moment of connection with the sitter. Andrea Rose has termed this paradox “controlled spontaneity”. Bold, black, charcoal outlines delineate the profile of Heinz Propper, capturing the principal and idiosyncratic features whilst the substance of the portrait materialises through rapidly applied and loosely smudged touches of coloured charcoal and pastel. Additional pastel contours in pastel highlight the bump of the nose, the set of his mouth, the collar of his shirt. The speed of execution is emphasised by pentimenti style corrections and repeated forms – a second head, shoulder and arm are almost obliterated but still visible.

Kossoff has said of his models, “The fabric of my work through the last forty years has been dependent on those people who have so patiently sat for me, each one uniquely transforming my space by their presence.” The relationship between sitter, artist and spectator alike hang in the balance – the immediacy of Kossoff’s technique captures his experience of Propper’s captivating and commanding presence and powerfully conveys their bond to the viwer. ‘Heinz Propper’ is not just a record of a truthful likeness, but a portrait about sustained observation, about the process of sitting, and human connection.

Annely Juda Fine Art (label on reverse)
Private Collection

About Leon Kossoff

Leon Kossoff is one of Britain’s greatest living artists, best known for his impastoed figurative and cityscape paintings and his heavy emphasis on drawing, both as a medium itself and as an intrinsic part of his painting process. Alongside his friend Frank Auerbach, Kossoff developed an extremely visceral, expressive mode of capturing post-war London, in both rough in-situ drawings and heavily reworked paintings. Kossoff’s more recent work is lighter in subject matter and palette, abandoning the dark urban grays and browns for a brighter range of colors. In 2002-08, he turned his attention to the cherry tree in his yard, painting it throughout the seasons with thick strokes of paint, resulting in a celebration of life.

British, b. 1926, Islington, United Kingdom