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 Ecco Homo, 1634, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), owned by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. This print was never published as an edition; Tate owns the second trial proof.
The Latin title of Rembrandt’s painting, Ecco Homo, is taken from the Bible, and means 'Behold the man!' These words were said by Pontius Pilate during the trial of Jesus, as it is told in the Gospel of Saint John (19: 5). Pilate presents Christ to the people, who, urged on by their priests, demand his execution, insisting that they have no king but Caesar. In the painting the clock is at the sixth hour. There is a bust of Caesar that represents the Roman state. The priests, who press the staff of judgement upon Pilate, are caricatured by Rembrandt as contemptible characters. Kossoff’s response to this painting is a densely worked, detailed drawing. The artist has used cross-hatching to give depth and definition to the work. Aquatint has been applied and the plate has been inked darkly in some areas with others being wiped virtually clean to demarcate the bodies of the principal characters. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Rembrandt’s original. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Rembrandt’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 Rembrandt. He 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 Rembrandt and other old masters at The National Gallery for most of his life, since first visiting it in the late 1940s. Kossoff has taken inspiration from old master paintings at The National Gallery for most of his life, since first visiting it in the late 1940s. Indeed, while still a child, he had an early encounter with Rembrandt’s A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654 (National Gallery, London). He has said that at the age of nine he felt that he could learn to draw from this painting. (Kendall p.12) Kossoff’s commitment to drawing has resulted in a decades-long dialogue with Rembrandt 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