Mud and Fog on Canvas: Kossoff and Lucian Freud

Has anyone ever made a study of the influence of London fog and air pollution on the evolution of modern English painting? Remember the once-famous lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”?

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

That was published in 1917. Five years later, when Eliot published The Waste Land , he returned to the subject: ” Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,” and so on. Earlier, in his essay “London” (1888), Henry James brilliantly recalled this atmosphere of fog and grime, and the early pages of The Princess Casamassima (1886) are permeated by the same imagery. Dickens, too, is full of it, including an unforgettable passage on “mud and fog” that I once saw used on a personalized license plate on a station wagon on the Maine coast, where in certain seasons of the year mud and fog are also a familiar presence.

Among English painters, Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) seemed at times to have derived his entire palette from this atmosphere of fog, mud and grime and made something very poetic out of it. There is a good example of late Sickert–his painting of Sir Thomas Beecham Conducting (circa1935)–in the current Making Choices exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Also on view at the moment are shows devoted to two highly esteemed English painters of the older generation–Leon Kossoff (born 1926) and Lucian Freud (born 1922)–whose palettes seem similarly compounded of mud and fog.

Mr. Kossoff’s work, which is not as familiar to New Yorkers as Mr. Freud’s, is currently the subject of two exhibitions: paintings and drawings at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery, and prints based on the paintings of Nicolas Poussin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We are thus being offered an opportunity to “discover” a talent that many well-informed people in London believe to be of major importance. Kossoff’s is an Expressionist talent, especially in the paintings, where, with both indoor and outdoor London subjects, the world is seen to be in a constant state of emotional turbulence.

It is the kind of turbulence that has more to do with an impatient overloaded paintbrush than with anything inherent in the artist’s subjects, which range from portrait heads and nude models in the studio to crowd scenes outside the King’s Cross railway station. Whatever his subjects may be and whatever the season, Mr. Kossoff’s heavily painted pictures do indeed give us glimpses of an “Unreal City,/ Under the brown fog of a winter dawn.” To support such overloads of pigment, the artist paints on boards, which are heavily encrusted to their very edges. Yet, for all of this painterly turbulence, Mr. Kossoff is a rather genteel, well-mannered Expressionist whose paintings pose no threat to established taste.

The drawings in the Mitchell-Innes & Nash show, mainly executed in charcoal and pastel, are far more interesting, especially the portrait heads. The physicality of the artist’s subjects has an impact in the drawings that is entirely missing–or lost–in the presence of all that paint, under the pressure of which every subject suffers an irreversible meltdown.

The show at the Met, which is called After Nicolas Poussin: New Etchings by Leon Kossoff , is a curiosity of another sort. We are invited to think of it as “a visual dialogue” between “an artist of turbulent Expressionistic paintings of daily life” and “the restrained, learned classicism of Poussin’s mythological and religious scenes,” but it strikes me as more of a monologue. For there isn’t much left of Poussin’s classicism in Mr. Kossoff’s response to it. Subjects like The Triumph of Pan , The Rape of the Sabines and Bacchanal Before a Herm are simply beyond the range of Mr. Kossoff’s imaginative affinities. Some of the female figures in the etchings based on Poussin’s Bacchanal Before a Herm bear a distressing resemblance to Abraham Walkowitz’s drawings of Isadora Duncan, and the etchings based on The Rape of the Sabines reduce that classic subject to the level of a Woodstock love-in when they do not remind us of those crowd scenes at King’s Cross. It may be that, like certain wines, Mr. Kossoff’s work doesn’t travel well. In London, after all, he remains a much admired figure.

There has never been any question about the ability of Lucian Freud’s work to travel well. Today, on this side of the Atlantic, he is everybody’s favorite English painter–and with good reason, too. He is a virtuosic performer as a painter and a draftsman, and it has done his reputation no harm, either, that he has made offending established taste something of a specialty. If his palette, too, is largely dominated by mud and fog–which is to say, earth colors and grays ranging from the murky to the silvery–he has nonetheless made of that limitation a source of strength. It has allowed him to concentrate on the few things that really interest him.

One of those things is, of course, the depiction of unlovely naked figures, both male and female, in unconventional poses, and there is certainly a sufficiency of such paintings in the artist’s current exhibition, which is called Lucian Freud: Recent Work 1997-2000 , at Acquavella Contemporary Art. There is nothing here quite as overripe as Mr. Freud’s 1990′s paintings of the performance artist Leigh Bowery, the depiction of whose mountainous physique many of the painter’s admirers profess to find enchanting. Still, there is enough unappetizing flesh here to offend the fastidious and enough blotchy skin to satisfy the artist’s fans.

No Lucian Freud exhibition would be complete without its requisite weirdnesses, and the most piquant in this show is the figure of the naked adult male suckling an infant child in the painting called Large Interior, Notting Hill (1998). Still, there is much to admire in this large work, particularly the view of the street through the window just behind the naked figure.

What is especially interesting in this Recent Work exhibition, however, is the sheer number of paintings and etchings in which the artist has taken a furlough from his customary weirdness in order to produce some very conventional and very beautiful portraits. Inside this often eccentric and perverse talent there appears to have been a more traditional talent struggling to escape, and it is in this exhibition that this more traditional talent makes its debut in such paintings as Louisa (1998), the most beautiful painting of a woman Mr. Freud has ever created, and in the portraits of fully clothed male figures, especially Man in a Silver Suit (1998) and the Head of an Irishman (1999). There is also a tiny, masterly portrait head of John Richardson (1998)–it measures 6 by 4 inches–in which the subject is seen in a moment of anguish, that is quite unforgettable. Add to this two masterly oil studies based on Chardin’s The Young Schoolmistress from London’s National Gallery, one of them only slightly larger than the Richardson portrait. The portrait etchings, too, are a salutary reminder that Mr. Freud has always been a superior graphic artist.

Does any of this signal a change in direction for the paintings of Lucian Freud? I wouldn’t hazard a guess on that, but I will offer an observation. For artists who cultivate a taste for the weird over a long term, it may be that the only thing they find truly shocking as they age is the kind of traditional beauty they spurned in their youth. It is in this sense that what is most weird in this exhibition turns out to be the most conventional, and what is most traditional is the only thing left in Mr. Freud’s work that has the power to shock us. It’s almost enough to make one believe in a just universe.

Lucian Freud: Recent Work 1997-2000 remains on view at Acquavella Contemporary Art, 18 East 79th Street, through May 19. The Leon Kossoff exhibition at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 1018 Madison Avenue at 78th Street, is on view through May 20, and the show of etchings based on Poussin is at the Met through Aug. 13.