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 Testament of Eudamidas, circa 1645-50, by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), owned by the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. Tate owns two prints by Kossoff after this Poussin painting (P11728-9). 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.
The subject of the painting is taken from Toxaris, (friendship), a classical story by the Greek writer Lucian. On his deathbed the poor but noble Eudamidas leaves the care of his mother and daughter (to the left of Kossoff’s print) in the hands of his two nearest friends, who accept the responsibility without demur. The moral of the story is rooted in the classical philosophy of stoicism and posits that a true friend will always take on necessary obligations even at the cost of their own material interests.
The Poussin painting is dark and sombre, with occasional highlights coming from the window to the left of the composition. In Poussin’s representation of this narrative the dying man dictates his wishes as a doctor counts his last heartbeats. The mother and daughter sit sorrowfully at the end of Eudamidas’ deathbed. Kossoff’s response to this painting is spare, with almost all of the tonal character of this print being generated by surface inking. His etching is comprised of an arrangement of light, sympathetically-drawn lines with which to summarise the drama of Poussin’s composition. At the proofing stage, a thin film of imperfectly wiped reddish-brown ink was left on the plate, while most of the principal features, figures, furniture and windows, were gently cleaned to suggest the room’s ambient light. Texture and space are conjured up through the use of surface inking. 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 Kossoff’s 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. On one particular day there 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.37, reproduced p.79 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