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 Blinding of Sampson, 1636, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69), owned by Das Städelmuseum, Frankfurt. This print was never published as an edition; Tate owns the second trial proof.
In addition to the blinding of Samson, Rembrandt’s painting depicts the triumph of Delilah, who revealed the secret of her lover’s superhuman strength to the Philistines. Sampson is shown at the moment of attack, falling backwards towards the observer from a brightly lit space to a darkened one. The painting pays close attention to the effects of light and shadow and to the emotional state of its subjects. Kossoff’s response to this painting is pale and sparely-drawn. A light patina of ink has been left on the plate to add depth and tone to the composition, which is somewhat darker at the edges to suggest the cave-like space in which the drama is unfolding. The soldiers are the characters rendered in most detail. They appear almost careful in their attack on the protagonist. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Rembrandt’s original. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Rembrandt’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. Indeed, while still a child, he had an early encounter with Rembrandt’s A Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654. He has said that at the age of nine he felt that he could learn to draw from this painting. (Kendall p.12) Kossoff’s commitment to drawing has resulted in a decades-long dialogue with Rembrandt and others. For him, 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 Kendall, Drawn to Painting, London 2000
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.27-30
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Council, Venice 1995