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 Judgement of Paris, probably 1632-5, by Peter Rubens (1577-1640), owned by the National Gallery, London. Tate owns two prints by Kossoff after this Rubens painting (Tate P11719-20). 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 of this version, which is rendered in brown ink on cream paper.
Rubens’ painting depicts one of the most famous stories from Antiquity, that of the beauty contest between the three goddesses, Juno, Minerva and Venus which the Trojan prince, Paris, was called upon to judge. The three goddesses, scantily clad, stand before Paris and Mercury, who holds the prize of a golden apple. Venus is the central goddess, with Juno to her left and Minerva to the right. In the sky above rages Alecta, the Fury of War. Paris is presenting the apple to Venus, who steps forward to accept it. Kossoff’s response to this painting is spare. The figures of the three goddesses are the most defined elements of the composition. Paris and Minerva, Alecta and the landscape around them are seemingly unresolved and sketchily drawn. Following the original painting, the plate has been wiped to emphasis the pale bodies of the goddesses, especially that of Venus. Elsewhere, ink has been left unevenly on the plate to create a delicate tonal variation. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Ruben’s original. 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 Rubens. 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 by Rubens and other old masters 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.
Past & Present: Contemporary Artists Drawing from the Masters, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1987-8, p.38
Richard Morphet, Encounters: New Art From Old, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London 2000, pp.214-35, reproduced p.219 in colour
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, pp.27-30