This print is one of many etchings executed by Leon Kossoff in response to, and literally in the presence of, oil paintings by other artists; in this case Combing the Hair ('La Coiffure'), about 1896, by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), owned by the National Gallery, London. This print was never published as an edition; Tate owns the second trial proof which is printed in black ink on white paper.
Degas’ painting depicts a woman in a red dress sitting next to a table. She is leaning back in the chair with her eyes closed and with one hand holding the top of her head. A maid stands behind her, holding the woman’s mass of red hair in one hand and brushing it with the other. The work is rendered mostly in shades of red and pink, giving it an air of intense intimacy. Kossoff’s has responded to this painting by paring the composition down to a series of spare, flowing lines. Tonal variations come purely from the selective wiping of the plate after inking. Drypoint was used to strengthen certain contours, along with repeated strokes to darken the shadows. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Degas’ original. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Degas’ 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 Degas. 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 taken inspiration from paintings 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 Degas 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