This print is one of many etchings executed by Leon Kossoff in response to, and literally in the presence of, oil paintings by old masters; in this case Bacchanal Before a Herm, 1632-3 (National Gallery, London) by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Tate owns two prints by Kossoff after this Poussin painting (Tate P11687-8). The artist’s ability to explore a number of separate responses while making drawings and prints from a single subject is illustrated in these etchings. It was printed in an edition of twenty with ten artist’s proofs; Tate owns number three of the artist’s proofs.
In the Poussin painting Arcadian revellers drink and dance before a herm - a square pillar crowned with a torso and head - of an ancient god, here either Pan or Priapus, both associated with fertility, rustic dance and drunkenness. The dancing figures, despite their frantic activity, have been carefully posed to form a structured, flowing design. Kossoff distilled the principal figures in Poussin’s composition into clear, unadorned lines, adding only touches of cross-hatching to indicate fabrics and the roughness of leaves and foreground. Drypoint was used to strengthen certain contours, along with repeated strokes to darken the shadows. Before printing, the plate was cleaned of ink, leaving only a haze of tone across the woodland and a deeper foreground to anchor the revellers above. There is a strong sense of movement in the work engendered by the way the etched marks move around the plate. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Poussin’s painting, nor does it seek to transcribe, copy or paraphrase it. Rather, it acknowledges the gulf that separates it from the pictorial culture of former times and reveals his desire to find points of contact with his forerunner. Kossoff has described the value of this kind of draughtsmanship as a means to building up an acquaintance with the subject of, in his words, ‘getting into’ a picture made by another artist until he feels free to ‘move about in its imaginative spaces’ (Kendall, p.19).
Kossoff has described the moment of intense elation, which occurred some forty years ago, when he first established a vital connection with Poussin’s art. As a youth and then as a student in London, he had become familiar with the rich historical collections of the National Gallery. One day he had a transformative experience while looking at Poussin’s Cephalus and Aurora (1629-30):
It seemed as though I was experiencing the work for the first time. I suppose there is a difference between looking and experiencing. Paintings of this quality, in which the subject is endlessly glowing with luminosity, can, in an unexpected moment, surprise the viewer, revealing unexplored areas of self.
The recent prints made by Kossoff after paintings by Poussin therefore emerge from almost half a century of involvement in the older artist’s oeuvre, initially stimulated by this moment of insight at the National Gallery but more immediately by the 1995 retrospective exhibition, Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
The etching plates were prepared by Ann Dowker, a London artist who later collaborated with Kossoff on biting the plates with acid, wiping them before printing, and making trial proofs. In some cases, areas of the etchings were washed with aquatint; in others, lines were emphasised by drypoint. The etchings were printed by Mark Balakjian at Studio Prints, London.
Richard Kendall, Drawn to Painting, London 2000, pp.37-8, reproduced p.83 in colour
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.27-30
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Council, Venice 1995