Essays by James Hyman

The Prints of Leon Kossoff

The Prints of Leon Kossoff


James Hyman
Print Quarterly


The purpose of this essay is to draw attention to a substantial, though almost unknown, body of prints by the British painter and draughtsman Leon Kossoff (born London, 1926).

The recent editioning of some new etchings and drypoints provides a welcome opportunity to consider Kossoff's approach to printmaking, and the prints that accompany this text are all reproduced for the first time.

I begin with a consideration of their place within Kossoff's oeuvre as a whole, and their relationship to paintings and drawings, before considering how recent prints relate to Kossoff's earlier, somewhat spasmodic, activity as a printmaker. This gives way to the heart of the essay: a consideration of Kossoff's extensive printmaking since the mid- 1980s. In discussing these prints I consider not just printed editions but also a number of uneditioned prints and proofs, and argue that, in many cases, these should be accorded the same status as the editioned prints.

The subject-matter of Kossoff's prints, in common with that of his paintings and drawings, is dominated by the streets and neighbourhoods of inner London and by a small circle of family and friends, and is often closely related to particular paintings and drawings. Prints made since the mid-i 9705 include scenes in and around the Underground station in Kilburn, a particular street in Willesden, and the church of Christ Church, Spitalflelds, around the corner from Kossoff's East End childhood home, Brick Lane. Portraits of the late 19705 and early 1980s include prints of the artist's father and mother; Rosalind (Peggy), the artist's wife; and Fidelma, after Kossoff's wife, his longest serving model. Later prints have portrayed Chaim, the artist's brother; Pilar and Jacinto, two of his recent models; the artistJohn Lessore and his wife, Paule; and Fidelma and her baby, Eion.

Kossoff's prints serve an auto-didactic function, similar to that of his numerous preparatory drawings: the process of printmaking, like that of drawing, contributes to the artist's understanding of his own subject, and this makes a study of Kossoff's prints particularly useful. For, while he destroys countless drawings for every one he keeps, all the proofs of his prints have been preserved, thus providing us with a unique opportunity to discover how Kossoff builds up his images. The numerous state proofs testify to the fact that there is more taking place than technical experimentation: as with the artist's approach to drawing, an endless dissatisfaction spurs him to work and rework the subject. As a result, even many of Kossoff's editioned prints can be considered as provisional solutions rather than definitive statements, because the artist even reworks plates after an edition has been printed. In this respect he echoes the approach of Degas, who worked and reworked plates through state after state, seldom editioned a state for to do so implied it was definitive and marketed his prints as unique impressions.

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