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 Brazen Serpent, 1635-40, by Peter Rubens (1577-1640), owned by the National Gallery, London. Tate owns three prints by Kossoff after this Rubens painting (Tate P11710-12). 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.
The Rubens painting depicts a scene from the Old Testament. As a result of their sinfulness, the Israelites were visited with a plague of serpents. A mother holds her baby up for safety while nude figures writhe in terror on the ground. In contrast to the fallen figures at the right, Moses stands with Eleazar to the left of the composition, and points upwards, directing the Israelites’ attention to a bronze serpent erected on a pole. (A consequence of the printing process is that this structure is reversed in Kossoff’s etching.) Moses tells the Israelites that if they look at the serpent they will be saved. Kossoff’s response to this painting is a spare, sensuous print. At moments Kossoff’s print varies from the original composition; changing the angle of a face, an arm or a torso. But the overall effect is to emphasise the structure of the earlier work. The Israelites as a body lean towards Moses in despair. In Kossoff’s etching the hatching around their bodies as well as the bodies themselves emphasise this diagonal direction. The figure of Moses is more strongly drawn than those of the sufferers. 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.222 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