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 Christ After the Flagellation Contemplated by the Christian Soul, probably 1628-9, by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), owned by the National Gallery, London. Tate owns three prints by Kossoff after this Velazquez painting (Tate P11694-6). 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. This print was never published as an edition; Tate owns the second trial proof.
As its title suggests, Velazquez’s painting depicts Christ after the Flagellation. The flagellation, or scourging, of Christ was ordered by Pilate prior to the Crucifixion. Christ is shown tied by His hands to a column. The blood-stained instruments of flagellation lie before Him, in the foreground of the composition. On the right of the painting, at the bidding of the Guardian Angel, the Christian Soul, personified as a kneeling child, contemplates the suffering of Christ. In Kossoff’s print the space that surrounds the three figures is almost entirely filled with cross-hatching. Drypoint has been added and the plate has been selectively wiped, giving the appearance of eraser-marks partially expunging the cross-hatching. The resulting agitated, even frenzied, appearance of the work is in keeping with the subject matter. It also serves to emphasise Christ’s face, which is executed with more clarity than any other area of the print. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Velazquez’s original. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Velazquez’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 Velazquez. Kossoff has described the value of this kind of draughtsmanship as a means to building up an acquaintance with the subject of a picture made by another artist until he feels free to ‘move about in its imaginative spaces’ (Kendall, p.19).
Kossoff has made drawings after paintings by Velazquez and other old masters at The National Gallery for most of his life, since first visiting it in the late 1940s. His commitment to drawing has resulted in a decades-long dialogue with Velazquez and others. For Kossoff, drawing is rooted in close observation of, and is a way of getting closer to, the subject being drawn. It involves going beyond the observed: forming a relation with the motif at a deeper level, a process involving the growth of understanding and sympathy. He sees the act of drawing as a reciprocal process; thus making graphic transcriptions of images by older artists is his way of bonding more closely with them, exploring their mysteries and celebrating their power.
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
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, pp.27-30
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Council, Venice 1995