At the Prado: The Lamentation of the Dead Christ by Maestro de Virgo inter Virgines

760MasteroftheVirgointerVirgines-2LamentacioacutensobreelcuerpodeCristomuerto-1480MPrado_zps5210c9e8.jpgFrom my notebook, Prado Museum, Madrid, Tues 23rd May, 2017.

‘In an exquisite arrangement for an emotionally draining painting, the four figures are linked in a composition that restlessly carries the gaze around it. A woman to the left holds a pose straight out of a Martha Graham ballet, her elbows raised and her fingers interlocked. Hers is an oddly large face, the most prominent of the three mourners, and however I view the painting, she’s always the starting point. The problem is that she’s a tad too conventionally pretty, and as such very nearly undermines everything with her sweetness. In contrast the Virgin and St John evidence palpable grief, their faces dully anguished, their bodies broken, bowed and frozen, as though they will never recover from the horror.

Then there’s the brutalised figure of Christ, sallow, shadowed and unmistakably dead. His high forehead and features are taut, as though the flesh has shrunk back to cleave even more closely to the skull. His joints are pronounced, ribcage visible and collar-bones sharp. The face is ageless, simultaneously childlike and old, the way the dead so often appear. The nails of his punishment have not just torn and bruised the skin, but have made the ligaments spasm. His ruined hands are frozen, clawed as they rest on what seems less an unravelling loincloth than an elaborately scrolled strip of parchment.

It’s agonising to look at. This artist won’t have witnessed a crucifixion, but he certainly knew what a dead body looked like. His painting is brutally honest about the horrors men have wrought on man. He’s thought hard about how the beating of a nail through a foot will make the flesh swell around the wound. As my eye travels upwards from the sumptuous green pool of fabric around Christ’s head to the dramatic, self conscious pose of the woman whose skirt is his pillow, I think I know at last why her face is so sweet. It’s a punctuation mark, a place to rest and catch the breath and hold onto life for a moment, before the restless journey continues, down into grief again, to the pitiable and the broken.

When I paint, I always try to imagine the sensations that I’m depicting. This painter has imagined too, and his imagination has led him to a dark place. Whether you have great faith or no faith, the honesty of what he has imagined makes for stark viewing. This painting shows us the evidence of brutality and suffering. We recognise what it tells us, because because brutality and suffering are as present in the world today, as they were when the Maestro de Virgo painted this unforgettable image in 1487.’

 

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What I’m not

I’m often asked what kind of art I make. I know my face clouds over when the question comes, because the answer isn’t simple. Easier, perhaps, to say what I’m not.

I’m not a landscape or a still-life artist …

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… though earlier in my career I painted both.

I’m not a portrait painter and never have been, though everyone tells me they recognise Peter in my drawing and paintings.

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I’m not an abstract painter, though I love abstraction.

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My painting doesn’t aspire to realism, but rather to inner truth.

I’m not an illustrator though I make covers for novels and poetry.

Recently I’ve made my first picture book, though it’s not a children’s picture book.

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I’m not a print-maker, though I’m currently making a fourteen print series of screenprints with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Based on the translation by Simon Armitage.)

Penfold C cmyk-2While I’m an atheist, my work often explores biblical and faith based themes.

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I’m not an animator, though I made the animations for the 2013 stage production of The Mare’s Tale (composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies)…

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… I was commissioned to make an animated film to accompany a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival…

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…. and last year in collaboration with artist/model-maker Phil Cooper, film-maker Pete Telfer and composer Kate Romano, I created an animation as the online trailer for my picture book Hansel & Gretel. (Published by Random Spectacular.)

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Sometimes it’s not possible to make a simple answer.

 

 

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Two of Everything

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2017 is my year of Hansel and Gretel. Two projects on the theme are now completed, printed and available for purchase. The picture book published by Random Spectacular is available from the publisher, while the toy theatre kit published by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop is available both from the shop in Covent Garden and online.

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They share common elements, though have separate characters and serve quite different purposes. The Random Spectacular publication was always intended as an ‘artist’s book’. In it I had the freedom to be as dark as I liked in my expression of the story.

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By contrast the Pollock’s project took a more playful approach, inspired by the traditions of the toy theatre as practiced by the great publisher of paper stages and the plays produced for them, Benjamin Pollock.

The two projects developed pretty much in tandem, as the arrangement with Pollock’s followed closely on my discussions about the book with Simon Lewin. And while there was no requirement from either publisher that the book and the toy theatre should in any way link, for my own part I wanted there to be a bridge between the two.

The Pollock’s toy theatre wasn’t conceived as an adaptation of the picture book. Rather my thinking on it was that the children of the picture book had survived their travails and moved on, travelling to London where a theatrical producer with an eye to the main chance had persuaded them to appear in a stage version of their own story. This ‘back-story’ was not something that needed to be stated in the sales material for the theatre, but was more by way of what I needed in order to better serve the subject. Just as an actor needs to create a history for a character in order to better play the role, so I needed to create a plausible route for Hansel and Gretel from the book that recounts their story, to the toy theatre that presents it in a changed form.

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Publisher Simon Lewin was incredibly generous in his support of the picture book. He was patient with the time it took for me to produce the images, nurturing the project to completion without making any compromises on the quality we both saw as being essential to our joint vision. The design of the book required a lot of attention to detail, not least because of the several fold-out pages that had to align exactly when in the closed position. It was essential, too, that the book lay flat when open, so that none of the image details were lost in the ‘gutter’, which is the valley caused by the stapling together of pages.

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At Pollock’s, Louise Heard and her team were equally painstaking in seeing through the production of the toy theatre kit. The project called for meticulous realisation because three of the six construction sheets were illustrated on both sides, which required precise alignment at the printing stage. Although small in scale I had ambitions for the model to be a fully functioning toy theatre, with 6 backcloths, 2 side-wings and all the characters and props necessary for a performance of the play.

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I wrote a script to be included with the model, and painted a theatre poster for the production.

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I know that all this provided considerable challenges for everyone concerned, and yet Louise never for a moment balked at the extra work involved. The little stage had to be proofed and trialled over and over to ensure the instructions were accurate and that every aspect of the model worked.

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As the idea behind the toy theatre was that it should represent a ‘stage’ version of the ‘real’ story as expressed in the picture book, I made the children the same in both, though they’re dressed rather more picturesquely for their stage adventures than the neat school uniforms they wear in the book.

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The book’s angry mother, with her slovenly appearance and her face pulled taut by the too-tightly fastened rollers in her hair, is portrayed on stage by a plump and mumsy peasant in a headscarf, deeply concerned that her children are missing in the wood, while the visceral horror of the cannibal witch with her prosthetic nose that she rips aside to better smell Hansel with her wormy nasal cavity, in the play is a less disturbing, more traditional fairy tale crone.

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I like the idea that the stage version wipes away the nightmare of what the children in reality endured, transforming it with glitter and evasions into an acceptable entertainment.

It’s interesting to compare the imagery. The palette is far more vivid and toy-like in the Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel, whereas the book takes a more delicate approach to colour.

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The Witch’s house is similar in both versions, though the stage version comes garnished with icing-sugar decorations.

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In the book Hansel is thrown into a cage by a lumbering, zombie-like gingerbread monster, and locked in to be fattened up for the cooking-pot. He suffers the same fate in the stage version, though there the gingerbread men are small and distinctly less threatening.

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While the Witch is grotesque in both versions, for the stage she is less extreme.

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The friendly Duck is yellow in the book, and pink in the toy theatre…

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… while the oven turns from blue in the book to red for the stage, and leaves out the skull and flames of the former.

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It’s not possible to get away from the fact that the original Hansel & Gretel by the Grimm Brothers is deeply disturbing. Hansel’s fate is to be cooked and eaten, but opportunist Gretel shoves the cannibal Witch into an oven first, slams the door and leaves her to be burned to cinders. No matter how much you gussy up the tale with gingerbread and icing-sugar, it has murder, or at the very least, manslaughter, at its heart. In the picture book I tinkered with the details and ratcheted up the horror. For the toy theatre version I toned down the monstrousness and conjured a picturesque world more suitable for a plaything. The two nevertheless remain linked, and for those in-the-know, they’re intended as companion pieces.

You may purchase the toy theatre

HERE

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and the book, HERE

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Out of these twin publications, picture-book and toy theatre, a third Hansel & Gretel project has been born that will carry the ideas explored so far into new and exciting territories and collaborations. I’ll write about it here when I am able. But you should know that the story is not over yet!

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the Origins of ‘Startled Peacocks’

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The painting has its roots in earlier work and interests. I’ve always been drawn to images of animals, and Stubbs is the master. His Horse Attacked by a Lion of 1769 has lodged in my mind since first I saw it, and it stays there still, appalling and sublime.

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Stubbs was working from classical models, as artists throughout history have done. The herbivore brought down by a carnivore is a potent metaphor for power unleashed upon the vulnerable, recognised and understood across cultures.

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In my painting The Barbarian Brought Down by a Lioness (collection of MoMA Mach), based on an episode drawn from the fragments of a Renaissance altarpiece at Christ Church Picture Gallery depicting the Lives of the Desert Fathers, I showed a man being mauled by a lioness, his limbs broken. Here’s a detail of her claws raking as she embeds her teeth in his abdomen. Her back is knotted with muscles. She’s as elemental as the heaving waves in Amlwch Harbour behind her.

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I drew on many models that had caught my eye, particularly Romanesque carved capitals of beasts attacking men.

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Lions have featured extensively in my work, though never in terms of studies from life. I’m interested in their forms and how they fill the spaces of compositions, and of course in what they can represent. Here’s a painting titled The Lion in Winter, made when lions were densely populating my imagination and sketchbooks. He stands on a pedestal in a snowbound landscape, the ruins of a Welsh slate mill behind him.

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The drawing for Startled Peacocks began with the Stubbs image so deeply etched in my imagination. Those wide jaws clamped down hard, haunt me.

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I listened to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time throughout the process of making the painting. The horror of my subject matter, a metaphor. Beauty and strength (the winged horse) brought down by brute force. Christ scourged and crucified.

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I worked by daylight with the large sash-window to my left thrown open, and after dark by lamplight. The images of the work in progress vary in colour because of the light conditions, though the photograph at the top of the post shows the painting as it appears when viewed in person. It was scanned for me in the photography department of the National Library of Wales, and the reproduction of its colour is spot on.

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I enjoy the images of the work in progress in all their variation, from the blue cast loaned by dusk to the gold washed across from the anglepoise  lamp I use after dark. Paintings, once framed and out in the world will be seen in light conditions beyond my control, so I like to see for myself how the effects of light of many types affect the images.

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Painting Made for Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.

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Daniel Broncano, who’d invited me to work on the Messiaen project, had written to me about the prisoner-of-war camp in which the composer had been incarcerated while he wrote the piece. The music had been first performed in the camp by inmates, and so I began my initial work by expressively exploring the physical environment and conditions of the music’s making. I worked in black and white. But then Daniel wrote again, this time suggesting that I read the biblical texts Messiaen had been inspired by. He also explained why he thought I should work in colour. I stopped what I’d been doing, took some time to think through Daniel’s ideas. and started afresh.

I often find that an earlier piece of work can kick start a new process of creativity. On this occasion I looked to my print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’d made a design of foliate scrolling and peacocks as an embrodery pattern for the caparison of Gawain’s horse, Gringolet. That became my starting point for Quartet for the End of Time.

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The composition advanced quickly from there. I thought not so much in terms of solid colour, as building a picture from textures, transparencies and the prismatic effects sometimes see in the sheen of insects’ wings. I used maquettes of a winged horse and a cat-like beast to build the composition.

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I’ve frequently used cats both wild and domesticated in my compositions, and this one became a hybrid, built from a lion, a tiger and a leopard. Its tail sprang leaves, blossom and fruit. Massed and layered textures swarmed over the composition. The beasts’ pelts writhed with mark-making and the background became an inky sea of gouache, the matt density a pleasing contrast to the polish of the heavily worked pencil rendering of flora and fauna. I played with the joints of the maquettes, emphasising them to suggest layers of making. There’s a sense of imminent dissolution, as though all the pieces are about to drift away. I like the borderlands where representation collides with the artificiality of a construct. Increasingly in my work it’s where I’m most comfortable.

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Flow

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Progress on my painting based on the movement Louang à l’immortalité de Jesus from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. However, for the purposes of exhibiting the work in a gallery, I’m titling it Flow.

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The work is on paper that isn’t absolutely flat, and is consequently almost impossible to photograph well. On Wednesday I’m taking the painting to be scanned, after which I’ll be able to post a full image of it here.

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Catriona on May Day Morning

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I remember my friend Ian telling me that he and Catriona had risen in the dark of May Day and driven from their home in Caerleon to Oxford to be present in time to hear the choristers of Magdalen College choir singing Hymnus Eucharisticus from the Great Tower. The adventure would have been a seed sown by Catriona and made into a reality by Ian, her champion, life companion, lover and organiser. The journey would have been carried out in the spirit of delight and celebration for all things green and renewing. But the weather was not great, and Catriona later recounted that far from the rapturous experience she’d imagined, all youthful voices ringing through the crystalline spring air in the city of dreaming spires, instead a desultory crowd huddled against the damp grey morning, straining to hear the distant, muffled and not terribly enthusiastic account of the music given by the sleepy boys, dragged from their beds and herded up the tower to signally fail to sing out glory. All a bit of a damp squib, she mocked, and hardly worth the bother.

This was the Catriona I loved and admired. She was a romantic in spirit but she wouldn’t make a pretence when things failed to measure up. The notion of the Magdalen Tower tradition, she claimed, was so much better than the event. It was this refusal to pretend that made her such entertaining and bracing company. That said, she would delight in small things, gilding the everyday with insight and her ability to appreciate. While the May Morning recollection made her scornful, she could wonderfully describe her memory of taking a nap in the crogloft of our cottage one peerless summer afternoon, drifting in and out of sleep to the distant sound of children playing and dogs barking on the beach, and stirring herself to the noises of preparation in the kitchen below. She said there was no sound sweeter than waking to the low murmur of voices she loved, and the tinkle of china cups and spoons being laid for tea.

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In her final year, when the illness that would take her from us had her in retreat and yet she was still well enough for Ian to bring her to join Peter and me at Aberporth, Catriona and I – plus Jack – would sit on the bench in front of the low, whitewashed cottage, and listen to the birds, observe and greet passers by and wax lyrical over the burgeoning garden, so many plants of which she and Ian had brought to us and planted. Intolerant of puff or any form of self aggrandisement in herself or others – and she could be merciless in her lambast when roused – yet she could make you see the transcendent in ordinary things. The old bathtub at the cottage that I’d determined to change because of a dislike of coloured baths, was forever transformed for me when Catriona cast her eye over it for the first time, exclaiming on the beauty of its pale, washed-away blue, ‘Oh how lovely. Taking a bath in here will be like taking a bath in the sky!’ And so it’s there still, and is still as blue as a sky washed after rain.

Catriona died on May Day 2005. She came into my life when I was lost, and held me fast until the moment had passed. She changed the way I see the world. I miss her still, every day.

Catriona Urquhart was the author of The Mare’s Tale, a series of poems that she wrote about my father, Trevor, who she knew and loved in his later life. At the core of the series is Trevor’s childhood encounter with an apparition that terrified and thereafter haunted him intermittently for a lifetime. The book was published in a numbered edition by the Old Stile Press in 2001, designed and printed by Nicolas McDowall and with illustrations by me. It was the only book of poems by the writer published in her lifetime. Copies are still available from the Old Stile Press, signed by us both in pencil on the colophon page. You may find it:

HERE

Catriona Urquhart, 1953 -2005.

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