Summary

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 Syndics of the Clothmaker's Guild (The Staalmeesters), 1662, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69), owned by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. This print was never published as an edition; Tate owns the only trial proof.

Rembrandt’s painting depicts a group portrait of six men around a table. Five are officials and one is a servant. The group are united compositionally through the used of three horizontals; the edge of the table, the prevailing level of the heads and the edge of the wainscoting to the top edge of the painting. The colours are predominantly warm and harmonious, with the men’s’ white collars presenting a stark contrast to the mostly dark tones. Kossoff’s response to this painting follows the horizontal structure of the original; however he places more emphasis on the hats of the five syndics. The plate has been left partially inked, leaving a fairly uniform grey background tone to the print. The composition consists of mostly straight lines and marks, with the only exception to this being the heads and hats of the characters depicted. 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.

Further reading:
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

Anna Bright
September 2005