Leon Kossoff

From Poussin: Cephalus and Aurora


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In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Leon Kossoff born 1926
Etching on paper
458 x 549 mm
Presented by the artist 2007


This print

is one of many works executed by the London-based artist Leon Kossoff in response to paintings

from the National Gallery, London, in this case, Cephalus and Aurora 1629–30 by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). Kossoff etched these works in front of the paintings in question and a quality of spontaneity is characteristic of the finished prints. He collaborated on the production of the prints with the artist Ann Dowker.

Tate’s collection includes five of the prints relating to this painting: P11690–2, acquired in 1999; and P20322 and P20328, which are from the same plate as P11690. They are part of a group of thirty-four prints (P20296P20329) given to Tate by the artist in 2007. P20328 is an etching on off-white wove paper. It was printed in an edition of twenty with ten artist’s proofs; this work is number four of the artist’s proofs.

Kossoff’s interest in the painting of Poussin is long standing and explored in numerous works including the print, From Poussin: Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake 1999 (P20299), also part of the 2007 gift. He traced a profound sense of connection with Poussin’s work to a transformative experience while looking at Cephalus and Aurora: ‘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.’ (Quoted in Kendall, p.10.)

The artist’s principal concerns in his interpretations of Poussin’s Cephalus and Aurora are with the dynamics of the composition and the interplay of figures, as he understood it to be ‘a painting about love’ (quoted in Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting, p.93.) In the original, Poussin placed the scene’s protagonists to the right: the seated figure of Aurora, goddess of the dawn, clings to the waist of Cephalus, an Athenian hero, who is struggling to move away from her. In the central foreground, a winged infant holds up a portrait of Cephalus’s beloved wife, Procris. It is the portrait that lures Cephalus away from Aurora. A male figure, probably the god Oceanus, lies sleeping to the left of the protagonists, while behind them is Pegasus, the winged horse. Kossoff’s composition follows that of the original quite closely, although it is inevitably reversed through the print-making process. There is little shading, with most of the forms being rendered solely in outline. Unlike the painting, this print marks out the landscape as much as the figures in the foreground.

For Kossoff, drawing from Old Master paintings has provided a means of deepening his understanding the way the works are constructed and of the emotions they produce. Poussin’s paintings seemed to compel him to study them: ‘they make me want to draw’ he has explained (quoted in Kendall p.38).

Further reading:
Richard Kendall, Drawn to Painting: Leon Kossoff Drawings and Prints After Nicolas Poussin, London 2000.
Richard Wollheim, ‘Learning from Poussin’, Modern Painters, vol.13, no.1, spring 2000, pp.24–9.
Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London 2007.

Alice Sanger
September 2009

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