This print is one of many etchings executed by Leon Kossoff in response to, and literally in the presence of, paintings and drawings by old masters; in this case a preparatory drawing for The Triumph of Pan, 1635-6, (National Gallery, London) by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Tate owns two prints after this Poussin drawing (Tate P11734-5) as well as four prints after the finished Poussin painting (Tate P11730-3). Kossoff’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 of this version.
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 bust of a horned deity mounted on a pillar, his face smeared red with the juice of boiled ivy stems. Kossoff’s prints in response to the preparatory drawing for this painting are rendered in a few, rapid lines, that, in their modernity bring together the most ancient and current forms. Indeed, it is reminiscent of modernist works such as Les Grandes Baigneuses, c.1900-6 (National Gallery, London) by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, 1907 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). The landscape is reduced to a few vertical lines suggesting tree trunks. There are a couple of unidentifiable round forms to the foreground. But most of the image consists of the abstracted figures of the revellers dancing. 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 drawing, 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 with 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.93 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