Emma Hill on Ken Kiff's Print, The River, 1997


The River, 1997.  Etching - burnished aquatint with drypoint and roulette.  51.8 x 58.2cm

Twenty years ago I bought my small son his first picture – The River by Ken Kiff.

Kiff made many works I enjoy, but there is something in the quiet intimacy of this print I find utterly compelling. The image emerges out of darkness, as if clouds veiling the moon have momentarily lifted to reveal the fleeting vision of a small, naked creature rowing a boat through an emerald, aqueous landscape. The lone figure pulling back on the oars is but one element of an enchanted night. The rocky promontories that flag the rivers’s mouth, a clump of over-sized flowers and a single, glorious tree, are burnished by an other-worldly light, as the little skiff moves inexorably into the shadows.

The intensity of the image comes from the way Kiff’s drawing is left exposed. Picked out in drypoint from the depths of inked colour, the delicate lines vibrate with energy. Looking at the few scratches that describe the lit prow of the rowboat, or the web of tiny, feathered marks that constitute the tree’s branches, it is as if one is seeing over the artist’s shoulder, tracing the movements of his hand as, with each stroke, the needle lifts the image from the copperplate’s waxy ground.

The River was commissioned by David Case, then Director of Marlborough Graphics, London.

An astute and intelligent publisher, Case had Kiff working with the artist-couple Mark Balakjian and

Dorothea White. In the hands of these accomplished, serious printers, many artists of the time were able to achieve their very best in etching and aquatint. White, in particular, understood how to invest the colour black with deep and nuanced depth.

The image has much in it that is ‘signature’ Kiff. It is profound and absurd, sophisticated, yet childlike. Years on it still touches me, so succinctly does it seem to express how individual is the journey of life towards death, we all must make. Kiff’s little Charon is filled with reverie. He rows, face to the moon – a corporeal form caught at the moment of disappearing.

Emma Hill, 2017

© All images copyright of Ken Kiff Associates.  Unauthorised reproduction of any image is prohibited.