Leon Kossoff

From Poussin: Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake


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Not on display
Leon Kossoff born 1926
Etching and aquatint on paper
424 x 589 mm
Presented by the artist 2007


This print

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

from the National Gallery, London, in this case, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). P20299 is one of a large body of work by the artist connected with the study at first hand of Poussin’s work. Kossoff etched these works in front of the paintings in question and a quality of spontaneity is characteristic of the finished prints. This print combines the techniques of etching and soft ground etching on white wove paper.

In the course of Kossoff’s career, a commitment to drawing has been a guiding principle: ‘I think of everything I do as a form of drawing’, he has explained (quoted in Kendall, p.19). This commitment has resulted in a decades-long dialogue with Poussin and others, enacted particularly through regular visits to the National Gallery to draw in front of Old Master paintings. For Kossoff, drawing has been a way of getting closer to the subject and, in studying and interpreting images by older artists in new ways, he has bonded more closely with the works and deepened his understanding of the dynamics at play in their compositions. He is not concerned with copying a painting by an Old Master, but with gaining a level of knowledge that will allow him the freedom to ‘move about in its imaginative spaces’ (quoted in Kendall, p.19). Kossoff has commented: ‘[M]y attitude to these works has always been to teach myself to draw from them, and, by repeated visits, to try to understand why certain pictures have a transforming effect on my mind.’ (Quoted in Morphet, p.225.)

Kossoff’s composition follows Poussin’s image to some the extent, even though the scene is inevitably reversed through the print-making process. In Poussin’s work, an idyllic landscape is the setting for an unexplained human drama that requires close scrutiny to unravel. A male figure on the far right turns to run in horror at the sight a dead body in the left foreground with a snake entwined around it. A woman in the middle ground is startled to see the running man but cannot see the dead figure. The three figures are identifiable in Kossoff’s interpretation, but they are loosely drawn and their appearance is abstracted. Kossoff collaborated with the artist Ann Dowker on the actual production of the prints. By biting the plate with acid and successively working on the plate and adding aquatinted layers, a shadowed and melancholy landscape is created, which captures the essence of Poussin’s original: the sinister intrusion into an otherwise idyllic world.

This work is from a group of thirty-four prints (P20296P20329) given to Tate by the artist in 2007. It is a unique print.

Further reading:
Richard Kendall, Drawn to Painting: Leon Kossoff Drawings and Prints After Nicolas Poussin, London 2000.

Richard Morphet, Encounters: New Art From Old, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London 2000, pp.214–35.
Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London 2007.

Alice Sanger
September 2009

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