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 Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 1656-8, by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), owned by the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Tate owns two prints by Kossoff after this Poussin painting (Tate P11721-2). 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. Tate owns the only artist’s proof of this version.
In the Poussin painting a group of mourning figures kneel and gesture above the prone body of the dead Christ. Mary stands above them looking down at her son. The compositional structure is spare, with the main elements being vertical and horizontal lines formed by the landscape and the figures. The rhythms of the original work are emphasised by Kossoff through his repeated use of horizontal lines to mark out the space around the characters. The figure of the Virgin Mary standing over the body of her son is depicted in little more than a collection of vertical lines. These are mirrored by the vertical structure of the wall to the left of the characters. The rich, jewel-like colours of the painting have been transformed by Kossoff into monochrome linearity. It is more lightly etched, with the figures being worked as little more than outlines. There is a strong compositional connection between the faces of Mary and Jesus, with them both being marked out with diagonals leading from one to the other. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Poussin’s original. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Poussin’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 Poussin. 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 described the moment of intense elation, which occurred some forty years ago, when he first established a vital connection with Poussin’s art. As a youth and then as a student in London, he had become familiar with the rich historical collections of the National Gallery. One day he had a transformative experience while looking at Poussin’s Cephalus and Aurora, 1629-30 (National Gallery, London):
It seemed as though I was experiencing the work for the first time. I suppose there is a difference between looking and experiencing. Paintings of this quality, in which the subject is endlessly glowing with luminosity, can, in an unexpected moment, surprise the viewer, revealing unexplored areas of self.
The recent prints made by Kossoff after paintings by Poussin therefore emerge from almost half a century of involvement in the older artist’s oeuvre, initially stimulated by this moment of insight at the National Gallery but more immediately by the 1995 retrospective exhibition, Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
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, p.31, 37, reproduced p.64 in colour
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, pp.27-30
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Council, Venice 1995