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 Rape of the Sabines, 1637, by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Tate owns two prints by Kossoff after this Poussin painting (Tate P11725-6). 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 published in an edition of twenty with ten artist’s proofs; Tate owns number three of the artist’s proofs.
The Poussin painting depicts an episode from the early history of ancient Rome. The Romans, unable to obtain wives peacefully, staged a festival and invited the neighbouring Sabines. At a signal from the Emperor Romulus, each violently seized a Sabine woman. Several Romans have drawn their swords; some chase, grab, or hold the women. The Sabines' expressions are anguished. They kick, struggle, and endeavour to escape. Other figures underline the terror of the event: infants lie abandoned on the bare earth and two distraught old women kneel in distress. In his interpretation of this incident, Kossoff compressed the scene, eliminating detail and subsidiary action while heightening the role of the central protagonists. It is a painterly etching, where movement is suggested by rhythmic line and modulated tone. The maelstrom of figures in the foreground is contrasted by the linear structures of the buildings behind. Kossoff added aquatint to create a rich tonal variation that recalls Poussin’s austere image. The use of aquatint creates deep shadows and stark highlights that linear etching alone cannot do. In this print the shadows of and within the buildings and the highlights on human limbs or parts of a rearing horse accentuate the horrific ambience. 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, pp.28-9, p.37, reproduced p.65 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