meri and the flayed beast

Green George. 2007 – 153 x 122 cms – acrylic on panel. Private Collection.

In 2007 the central painting of my exhibition Saints and their Beasts at MoMA Wales was titled Green George. It was based directly on a painting of Saint George slaying a dragon by Bernat Martorell, a work I had only seen in reproduction. But so captivated had I been by the composition of Martorell’s painting and by the beauty of it, that I decided to make a version of it using the same arrangement of figures and landscape. Martorell places the town/citadel in the upper left corner, George wielding a lance gallops in from the left, the princess kneels at the upper right accompanied by a sheep (the Agnus Dei, perhaps) and the dragon fills the lower quarter of the painting.

This juxtaposition of elements was to remain roughly similar in my own version of the subject. Indeed Martorell was not the only artist to have used the same arrangement. It can be found pretty consistently in thousands of icons and paintings of the saint, though to my eyes Martorell works the ideas to the most satisfying pictorial conclusion. The interlocking of shapes in his composition…  the pale horse against the rich gold and amber of the killing field, the rose of the woman’s cloak, George’s elegant black armour and the dark green of the dragon… all combine to keep the eye moving around and through the painting.

I fashioned a maquette for the figure of Saint George and another for the horse. I made a series of rough drawings of the young woman. However from the outset I had no clear idea of how to proceed with the dragon. I put together a file of imagery, but although there are literally thousands of dragons out there in the paintings and artefacts of almost any culture you care to name, nothing seemed to work for me. The trouble with dragons is that apart from such animals as Komodo dragons, crocodiles and alligators, there’s nothing in the real world I could reference in order to be able start at the beginning and then build. I wanted to paint a dragon that came from the recesses of my imagination, rather than one copied from another painter or sculptor.

Then I went to an exhibition of work by Meri Wells, and on a wall was a series of ceramics she’d made that were based on the notion of skins flayed from beasts. A few were self-evidently wolf-like, with separate heads and paws arranged with the pelts, though one stood out from the others because of its strangeness. A thick slab of skin with sharp three-sided spines protruding from it, a carapace that in life I could imagine being both armour and a lethal weapon. The remnant of a rough beast.

I purchased the ceramic and made off with it, and it has hung at Ty Isaf ever since, a mystery to all who see it. I had my dragon. It grew from Meri’s flayed fragment of a spiny beast, rather like cloning an entire creature from a single cell. Her ceramic inspired a cardboard maquette and later this study.

Thank you Meri.

And thank you Bernat.

Bernat Martorell. Saint George Killing the Dragon, 1430-35, Tempera on panel, 61 1/8x 38 9/16 (155 x 98 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Richard E. Danielson and Mrs. Chauncey McCormick.


7 thoughts on “meri and the flayed beast

  1. Pingback: foliate skin | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. oooh! that dragon study is a show-stopper! i love this kind of post, following a painting through its stages. thank you for this insight.
    and i never knew that about shark’s teeth; how bizarre to think of bone in that way.

  3. Always interesting to see how things seem to come to one’s hand when working on something–that there’s a set of needs and desires that seeks out and snares various sorts of matches and rightnesses.

    And that would make an interesting show, you and Meri.

    Hope Jack is all well again…

  4. It’s always fascinating to read about your mental and artistic process, Clive, and this is one of the more convoluted ones you’ve written about — how wonderful to see how Meri’s work was the key to your puzzle! Another thing I’ve wondered about is how you evolved the teeth of your monsters. They are quite terrifying!

    • One day I think that Meri and I must have an exhibition together. Her ceramics and my paintings would work well in the same space. I’ve certainly included her smaller figures in a number of still-life paintings, and her recent Rock-hopping Imps and Angels have me entranced to the point where they’re almost bound to evolve into my own work!

      Teeth, yes. I was thinking of sharks, and how their teeth grow in rows from the back of the gums, moving forward ready to replace worn or broken ones. Odd to think of teeth being constantly on the move. I wonder if they ever get to a point where the process stops or slows down.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s