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 The Judgment of Solomon, 1649 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Tate owns two prints by Kossoff after this Poussin painting (P11698-9). 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 version was published in an edition of twenty with ten artist’s proofs; Tate owns number three of the artist’s proofs.
The biblical story of the Judgement of Solomon appears in the First Book of Kings. Two women living in one house each gave birth to a child. One of the infants died and the mother claimed the baby of the other woman. They asked Solomon to decide to whom the child belonged. Solomon asked for a sword, announcing that he would divide the child into two parts and give one part to each of them. One of the women begged him not to kill the child but to give him to her opponent, at which Solomon realised that she was the real mother. In Poussin’s painting the two women, one on each side of the throne, plead their cases. The king is visually framed by a circular plinth on which his throne stands and two round pillars, one to either side of him. He is placed at the centre of the composition and, although he is sitting, the plinth ensures that he looks down on all of his attendants. The structure of the composition is pyramidal, with the king’s head forming the apex of the pyramid and his arms pointing downwards and outwards emphasising this configuration. Kossoff’s etching follows the stark pyramidal composition of Poussin’s painting. This version is the smaller of the two prints held by Tate. The plate has been inked in such a way as to enhance the illusion of three-dimensional space within the chamber. The women gesture towards each other, with one of them holding the baby upside down. The composition is formed largely of vertical and horizontal lines, except for Solomon’s arms which are diagonal, as is the ribbon over his chest. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Poussin’s original. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Poussin’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 Poussin. 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 described the moment of intense elation, which occurred some forty years ago, when he first established a vital connection with Poussin’s art. As a youth and then as a student in London, he had become familiar with the rich historical collections of the National Gallery. One day he had a transformative experience while looking at Poussin’s Cephalus and Aurora, 1629-30 (National Gallery, London):
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.
The recent prints made by Kossoff after paintings by Poussin therefore emerge from almost half a century of involvement with Poussin’s oeuvre, initially stimulated by this moment of insight at the National Gallery but more immediately by the 1995 retrospective exhibition, Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
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, pp.32, 37, reproduced p.69 in colour
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, pp.27-30
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Council, Venice 1995