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 Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (‘Peace and War’), 1629-30, by Peter Rubens (1577-1640), owned by the National Gallery, London. Tate owns five prints by Kossoff after this Rubens painting (Tate P11700-4). 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 print was never published as an edition; Tate owns the second trial proof.
In Rubens’s painting, an allegory of war and peace, Pax (Peace) is a bountiful nude, offering her breast to Plutus, the child god of wealth. At her feet a satyr examines an overflowing horn of plenty. A winged Cupid and the goddess of marriage, Hymen, take the children to the horn of plenty. Two nymphs are approaching on the left; one of them bearing riches; another one dancing to the sound of a tambourine. To the right of Pax, Minerva, goddess of wisdom, is holding back Mars, god of war, and Alecto, the fury of war, from destroying this scene of abundance. Kossoff’s response to this painting traces dynamics between the principal players. In this version he has added tone to create a mass of lines and dappled shadows in the background, against which the pale, unshaded figures stand out in stark relief. This effect was created by partial stopping out (covering with varnish to arrest the action of the acid), and by drypoint to strengthen the marks delineating the figures. The use of aquatint creates deep shadows and stark highlights that linear etching alone cannot do. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Rubens’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 his forerunner. 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 old master 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 Rubens 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 Morphet, Encounters: New Art From Old, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London 2000, pp.214-35, reproduced p.221 in colour
Past & Present: Contemporary Artists Drawing from the Masters, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1987-8, p.38
Richard Kendall, Drawn to Painting, London 2000