Leon Morrocco’s recent work includes some striking paintings done in the mountains in the south of France inland from Nice. It is a brave undertaking. The colour and configuration of this rocky landscape where the white limestone reflects the blazing blue sky inevitably recalls Cézanne’s favourite motif, Mont Saint Victoire, standing just seventy miles away at the western end of the range.
'I try not to think of Cézanne,’ Leon says, ‘or indeed of Matisse who also worked there. I guess that is what you call baggage. I don’t mind a bit of baggage, but,’ he continues, ‘I have not felt the weight of Cézanne’s legacy bearing down on me.' Nor indeed does it seem to.
His work is strikingly independent, and that independence comes, I think, from the strength of his drawing. Leon’s father, Alberto Morrocco, was a superb draughtsman. It was a gift certainly, but trained in Aberdeen, Alberto was a pupil of James Cowie. Cowie, a master-draughtsman himself, was a doughty champion of the importance of drawing. As a boy, Leon says, he learnt to draw working beside his father, especially. He describes painting beside Alberto in Italy. He would paint the view looking one way while his father painted it looking the other. Now surveying Leon’s work in the retrospective exhibition at the RSA, it is the strength of his drawing and his innate sense of structure, both visible throughout his career, that stand out.
In some of Leon’s early still-lifes, like Untitled (Still-life with Marrow and Bananas) from 1975, for instance, you can still see the legacy of Cowie behind their cool clarity. There are echoes of his father’s early work too in the gentle intimacy of domestic scenes of his wife, Jean, and their children painted or drawn in the late sixties or early seventies, such as a portrait of Jean sitting on a stool from c. 1971, for instance, or a lovely drawing of the children’s bath time from 1978.
Leon was born in Edinburgh in 1942, but spent most of his youth in Dundee where his father was head of painting at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. He went to the Slade but couldn’t get on with William Coldstream’s painstaking analytical method. He then went to Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) where Sir Robin Philipson’s theatrical bravura was equally unsympathetic. He discovered the coolly structured art of Morandi, a taste that Philipson evidently thought needed correcting. Leon did however go on to teach at ECA while William Gillies was still Principal, but then after a break in Italy, in 1969 he was invited by David Donaldson to teach at Glasgow School of Art. He stayed there for ten years, but he was out of sympathy with what he calls David Donaldson’s ‘swashbuckling’ way of painting. This was no doubt part of the reason that in 1979 he took the brave step of accepting the job of head of fine art at the Chisholm Institute in Melbourne. He and his family stayed in Australia until 1992. Latterly he had had such success there with his painting that he had been able to give up teaching, He returned to the UK without a job, but determined to paint. Staying in London he quickly established himself and he has worked independently ever since.
Leon’s decision to take a job in Australia was characteristic. He has always travelled, and travelling has constantly informed his work. There are works in the RSA exhibition painted in Italy, France, Greece, India, Morocco, Mexico, Australia and other places too. Three sketches for a night garden, from 1989, is a picture of Melbourne, for instance, Untitled (Day of the Dead) is a memory of Mexico, while the four-metre long, ‘Escape from the City (Via Golitti)’ is a scene of cyclists leaving Rome. ‘Alley in Old Marrakech’ is a painting of Morocco. In it his account of strong sunlight and coloured shadows is quite brilliant, but painting in India as in Market Women, Goa, from 2010, for instance, he found he was eventually overwhelmed by the omnipresent intensity of the colour. Returning to London he sought relief painting the greys and browns of the Thames and its boats. The result especially in his big bold pictures of barges on the Thames like Night Barge, from 2015, for instance, are particularly striking. Seen bow on, or full face as it were, and close to us, these pictures really are portraits of these massive, but friendly seeming vessels.
The way these boat portraits fill the canvas is typical of Leon’s work. He favours an all over structure often in a square or at least squarish format and there is always a real sense of the picture’s architecture. He describes how, back in the sixties, jazz was a primary enthusiasm for him and so perhaps it was also indirectly an inspiration for his painting. He rarely leads us into depth beyond the picture plane and perhaps his command of complex structures within a tight format still has something of jazz about it. Certainly, these are the things that are striking about his recent paintings of the mountains in the south of France, like Mountains near Cipières, 2021, for instance, or Village below a Mountain, near Cipiéres, 2022. In these square compositions, we are led up and up a complex vertical wall of stone articulated by strong shadows. The scene is punctuated in the lower levels by trees, terraced fields, or the red roofs of houses, or other signs human presence, but everything is integrated, as for millennia this human presence has been integrated, into these dramatic vertical landscapes. Cézanne was generally pretty taciturn, but I am sure he would have quietly nodded his approval.