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 Triumph of Pan, 1635-6, by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), owned by the National Gallery, London. Tate owns four prints by Kossoff after this Poussin painting (Tate P11730-3) as well as two prints after a preparatory drawing by Poussin for the same painting (Tate P11734-5). Kossoff’s ability to explore a number of separate responses while making drawings and prints from a single subject is illustrated in these etchings. This version was printed in an edition of twenty with ten artist’s proofs; Tate owns number three of the artist’s proofs.
The Poussin painting depicts men, women, children and satyrs enmeshed in a riotous embrace, accompanied by a profusion of animals, masks, food, drink and flowers. The scene represents the triumph, or worship, of the armless statue of a horned deity mounted on a pillar, his face smeared red with the juice of boiled ivy stems. Kossoff’s response to this painting was to cut back the landscape setting and most of the detail. He focused on the writhing mass of humanity and stressed the merged identity of bodily forms with earth, rocks and foliage. The figures in this print stand out from the composition as a whole through the way they are outlined heavily but not shaded internally. By contrast, the landscape around them is marked by a frenzy of cross-hatching consisting of vertical and diagonal lines against which the pale, curved bodies of the revellers stand out starkly. 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. He 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 Poussin’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.35, 37, 39, reproduced p.88 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