A wet afternoon

16th June 2006 at 01:00
The often bleak expressionism of British artist Leon Kossoff gives way to a happier portrayal of childhood and family in his swimming pool painting, writes Karen Hosack

This painting is of the London-born artist Leon Kossoff's local swimming pool, near his studio in Willesden, in the north-west of the city. He made four paintings of the pool between 1969 and 1972. It was where he taught his son to swim. Perhaps the father and son in the centre foreground of "Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon" (1971) represent the two enjoying themselves on one of their afternoons together. The crowd of children gives us a clue that it must be out of school hours. Is it after 3pm on a weekday, mid-afternoon at the weekend, or half-term? Whenever it is, it's a time to be avoided by the serious swimmer, as there isn't much chance of unimpeded exercise with all those people in the pool.

We can almost hear the noise created by the mass of voices echoing around the hard surfaces of the pool's interior. The atmosphere seems chaotic, yet each character is shown purposefully going about individual pursuits:

diving, front crawl, back crawl or just waiting in turn to leap into the water.

Some people are using their time at the pool to chat to friends. The painting comes alive when you imagine what those conversations could be.

For instance, by isolating and listening in on the couple lying face to face in the foreground, we automatically construct a narrative around who they may be, what they are doing at the pool today and what relationship they may have with one another.

We can do the same with the group towards the back of the picture on the diving board. One person is teetering precariously over the edge of the plank; another has dived a second beforehand. A small queue of figures behind the next diver are anticipating their own plunge. Again, as viewers, we decide who these individuals are. What age are they? What gender? Are they any good at diving or are belly-flops and water-bombings more likely outcomes? Because Kossoff gives us only enough information to start these enquiries, it is left to the viewer's creativity to flesh out such stories.

He drew the outline of the bodies very quickly using dark paint, which gives them a feeling of movement. The wobbly lines of the figures match the uneven surface of the water splashing about. He has painted the people and the pool as a soup of activity, infusing it with the children's excitement.

Two sketches of the same pool can be seen on the Tate Gallery website. Both show his mark-making, which describes not only the shape of the bodies, but also the direction in which they move and the energy around them. Small feathery lines, which at first may look like uncertain attempts at accurate life-drawing, make the figures appear to sweep or wade through the water, shiver under their damp towels or splash playfully around.

As well as marks and lines, Kossoff manipulates the texture of paint itself. Applying very thick paint (known as impasto) to the surface of a painting ground - board in this case - he has created an unevenness that gives a three-dimensional property to the image. As oils take a long time to dry, the thicker paint can be moved around, smudged and cut into.

It's obvious by looking at the painting that different areas have been treated in particular ways. For example, the floor tiles have been made shiny by merging several colours together, and the reflective effect of the window has been produced by painting on it a simplified watery pattern taken from the dense blue of the pool.

"Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon" has a fun, uplifting atmosphere. However, Kossoff is better known for his grey, gritty depictions of the human condition. Art historians have aligned his work with other such 20th-century European painters as Edvard Munch and Oskar Kokoschka, who used painting as an outlet to describe their bleak visions.

This emotional response, played out in pictorial form, is collectively known as expressionism, born out of a post-Holocaust world, which was also suffering from industrial blight.

When comparing Kossoff's depressing comments on society - in images such as "Building Site, Oxford Street" (1952) and "Man in a Wheelchair", (1959-62), which can also be seen on the Tate website - with his series of swimming pool paintings, the difference is stark and surprising. On the one hand, we can see his despair and outrage with the world, but on the other, his happiness with the themes of family and the familiar.

* "Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon" is part of the Passion for Paint exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, until July 9, and from July 20 to September 17 at the Sunley Room, National Gallery, London.

Passion for Paint is the first in a series of annual touring exhibitions, which use as a core the nation's collection of western European paintings alongside those from other collections to explore different themes. The exhibitions are organised in partnership with Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, and the Laing Art Gallery. They are supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Northern Rock Foundation, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Bernard Sunley Charitable Foundation.

Leon Kossoff

Born in 1926

As a child, Leon Kossoff lived in the East End of London, where his Russian Jewish immigrant parents ran a bakery. He studied in London at St Martin's School of Art (1949-53) and at the Royal College of Art (1953-56). Between 1950 and 1952 he took evening classes at Borough Polytechnic under David Bomberg, along with painter Frank Auerbach. Both developed a style using the heavy modelling of thick impasto. In 1995, Kossoff's work represented the UK in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.


The following books are out of print, but available in libraries:

Leon Kossoff

By Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, Tate Gallery (corporate author)

Thames and Hudson

Leon Kossoff: Recent paintings

By David Sylvester

The British Council, Visual Arts Publications







Karen Hosack is head of schools education at the National Gallery

Lesson ideas

Art and design

As a class, list words associated with moving water, such as "splash" and "ripple". With a tray of water, create these effects, and ask the children to record them, using various mark-making techniques with pencils, pens and pastels.

Experiment with impasto by painting with very thick paint. Try various types of paint, including oils and acrylic, and find out about their different properties. Also try mixing powder paint and ready-mix with PVA.

Practise drawing figures, either moving or in very short poses. Look at how Kossoff sketches using short feathery lines to show movement.

Kossoff's work has affinities with European expressionism. Research this group of artists and make comparisons with the themes and styles of Kossoff.


Ask the pupils to choose a group of characters in the painting to construct a narrative around. This could take the form of a play script, diary or a poem. What would the next frame of the story be if storyboarded?

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today