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 Adoration of the Kings, 1573, by Paulo Veronese (c.1528-1588), owned by the National Gallery, London. This print was never published as an edition; Tate owns the second trial proof of this etching.
In Veronese’s painting the Three Kings have sought out the Child Jesus in the stable where He was born. They bear gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) and have journeyed from the East. The stable at Bethlehem is attached to the ruins of a great classical building with a triumphal arch in the background. In the foreground the kings and their attendants are presented with grandeur. Angels appear in the sky, along the ray of light by the side of the arch. Kossoff’s print emphasises the strong architectural lines of the barn and the classical building behind. A dominant diagonal shaft of heavenly light falls from the top right of the print onto the Virgin holding Jesus. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Veronese’s original. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Veronese’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 Veronese. Kossoff 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 made drawings after paintings at The National Gallery for most of his life. His commitment to drawing has resulted in a decades-long dialogue with Veronese 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.
Past & Present: Contemporary Artists Drawing from the Masters, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1987-8, pp.38-41
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, pp.27-30
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Council, Venice 1995