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 Family of Darius before Alexander, 1565-70, by Paulo Veronese (c.1528-1588), owned by the National Gallery, London. Tate owns three prints by Kossoff after this Veronese painting (Tate P11715-17). 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.
Veronese’s colourful painting illustrates the story of the mistake made by the family of Darius, the defeated Persian Emperor, in identifying Alexander after the Battle of Issus. Alexander and his friend Hephaestion visited Darius's tent. The mother of Darius, misled by Hephaestion's splendour and bearing, offered him the obeisance due to the victorious monarch; Alexander forgave her for this error. Kossoff’s print is delicately etched in black ink on white paper. Movement is suggested through rhythmic line and modulated tone. The rounded forms of the figures in the foreground are contrasted by the linear structures of the buildings behind. 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 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 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