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, about 1635, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69), owned by the National Gallery, London. This print was never published as an edition; Tate owns the second trial proof.
Rembrandt’s depiction of the Lamentation is from a traditional story, although not one described in the Bible. It shows Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and others, weeping over His body after the Crucifixion. Christ has been laid on the ground having been taken down from His cross while the two thieves who were crucified alongside him remain suspended from theirs beneath an ominously dark sky. Kossoff’s response to this painting is grey, flat and linear. The three crosses, two of which remain occupied, form the main vertical element of the composition to balance the horizontal spread of mourners around the body of the dead Christ. The figures are drawn in outline only, with just occasionally areas of cross-hatching to indicate garments. The dark sky is suggested by several rows of loosely hatched marks. 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 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 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