Mary Bullington and the Anglo-Saxon Riddle

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Above: making stencils for The Exchange, No 10 in the Gawain series of prints

The wonderful Mary Bullington contacted me at Facebook offering this Anglo-Saxon riddle as a thrillingly mystical descriptive of what I do as an artist.
Riddle 40 
I saw four things in beautiful fashion
journeying together. Dark were their tracks,
the path very black. Swift was its moving,
faster than birds it flew through the air,
dove under the wave. Labored unresting
the fighting warrior who showed them the way,
all of the four, over plated gold. / Ic seah wrætlice wuhte feower
samed siþian swearte · wæran lastas
swaþu swiþe blacu swift wæs on fore
fulgum framra fleotgan lyfte
deaf under yþe dreag unstille
winnende wiga se him wægas tæcneþ
ofer fæted gold feower eallū

The answer is Quill Pen, and the explanation is as follows.

The ‘four things’ are two fingers, a thumb, and quill, working as a unit. And while it can’t be said that the quill moves ‘faster than birds’, it’s forgivable hyperbole, or perhaps even a humorous reference to the slowness of scribes working with painstaking deliberation. (In which case it’s even more like me, because I crawl over the densely detailed stencils for the Gawain series like a snail on a mission to circumnavigate the globe!) The ‘fighting warrior’ is the guiding arm of the scribe. The ‘plated gold’ is more obscure, and is probably a reference to the gold mount of the ink-horn.

While inks may no longer be dipped from gold-mounted ink-horns, in my mission to create the series of fourteen images to illustrate the magnificent narrative poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I feel the connection across time with the anonymous practitioners celebrated in the riddle.

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Above: completed stack of stencils ready to be sent to Dan Bugg at Penfold Press

Mary is a painter and a friend of Marly Youmans, and we know each other through Marly’s blog and through Facebook. I am so touched that she sent such a lovely thought to me, spurred by an appreciation of what I make. Thank you, Mary.

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Hansel & Gretel Q&A

 

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I did a question & answer for the main newspaper of north Wales, The Daily Post. Peter went to get a haircut at the barber shop in Aberystwyth, and our friends there had very kindly set aside a copy for us. I answered the questions so long ago that I’d almost forgotten what I’d said. Here’s the transcript:

Your name:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

How old are you?

Sixty-six.

Where are you from?

Newport, Gwent.

Tell us about your family

My father was a wayleaves officer with the South Wales Electricity Board. He was responsible for brokering contracts between SWEB and the landowners/farmers whose acreage needed to be crossed by power lines. But because he was a countryman and loved the landscape, he was an artist when it came to placing them where they’d least be visible, hiding them in valleys and along the edges of woodlands. My mother was a hairdresser. She loved films and from an early age she took me every Saturday afternoon to the cinema. Never to see kids’ films though. She loved more dramatic fare, and so my tastes were quite unusual. I don’t know how she bucked the certificate system. She probably knew the local cinema manager and bargained haircuts against him turning a blind eye to a seven year old watching Bette Davies melodramas!

What are you best known for?

Probably my Mari Lwyd-themed series of 2000-2001, The Mare’s Tale. I had an exhibition of that name, and it made quite a splash. There was a book of poetry by the late Catriona Urquhart that accompanied it, and in 2013 the composer Mark Bowden and the poet Damian Walford Davies made a chamber work of the same name, based on the underlying narrative of a psychological haunting.

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Tell us about your exhibition (what’s it called, what’s it on/where is it being held?)

The exhibition is at Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge, and it’s the result of four years of exploration on the theme of Hansel & Gretel.

When is it running from/to?

Sept 1st – Sept 24th.

What can people expect?

Last year the publisher Random Spectacular commissioned a picture book from me that was based on the fairy tale. As my version is very dark it’s been marketed as being more suitable for adults. (It’s been described as ‘George Romero meets the Brothers Grimm!)

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Simultaneously I was commissioned by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden to design a toy theatre assembly kit of Hansel & Gretel. This has been quite a thrill. I played with a Benjamin Pollock toy theatre when I was a child, and so it’s a great privilege to be asked to make a new one to bear his name. Published this summer, in contrast to the picture book it’s a sunnier affair, quite suitable for children. Even so I put my own visual spin on it. You won’t have seen a Hansel & Gretel quite like it.

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The Tegfryn Gallery exhibition consists of all the artworks made for the picture book and the toy theatre, plus illustrations for Hansel & Gretel alphabet primers that I made several years ago. Prepare for a Hansel & Gretel Fest!

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Tell us five things which make your exhibition great?

1) Scary and beautiful is an alluring mix!

2) I can guarantee it’s not going to be like anything you’ve ever experienced at Oriel Tegfryn.

3) What’s not to love about art in which family dysfunction, unhealthy appetites and manslaughter are the principal themes? This is a fairytale for the soap generation.

4) There are Liquorice Allsorts deployed as weapons and gingerbread men that bite back!

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5) If you want to know what horrors lie beneath a witch’s prosthetic nose, then this is the exhibition you’ve been waiting for!

Tell us what’s good about the venue

It’s a warm and welcoming gallery with wonderful staff. Visiting Oriel Tegfryn is like calling on friends who are always pleased to see you.

Who is your favourite artist and why?

The ‘who’ is George Stubbs, and the ‘why’ is because he painted animals with unparalleled compassion. His Hambletonian, Rubbing Down may be numbered among the world’s greatest equestrian artworks.

What piece of work are you most proud of and why?

Green George. It’s in a private collection here in Wales. If you type the title and my name into a search engine, you can see it. I paint only for myself and I never think about who might purchase. I made Green George as a painting I’d like to live with, though in fact I never did. It was finished only days before being shipped to the gallery, and it sold immediately. I knew even as I painted it that I was riding the wind. I couldn’t have bettered it.

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Tell us a little known fact about yourself:

I once played Batman’s nemesis, the Riddler, in an American musical.

What are your best and worst habits?

I’m a fiercely loyal and loving friend. But I’m also implacably unforgiving when betrayed. It’s an unattractive trait.

What’s next for you? What are you currently working on, or what do you plan to work on?

I’m on the last lap of a fourteen print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in collaboration with Daniel Bugg at the Penfold Press. The press has been publishing the series sequentially. The art historian James Russell has been writing accompanying texts. It’s been a wonderful experience.  The Martin Tinney Gallery is having an exhibition of the work in January.

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Then I go into rehearsals for a new music theatre work of Hansel & Gretel that I’m designing and directing. The production opens in London before embarking on a year long tour.

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Finding Beauty

I’m in the throes of preparing number nine in my series of fourteen screenprints for the Penfold Press, inspired by Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published by Faber & Faber in 2007.

Gawain, weary from his journey, has come upon the beautiful – and until that moment unknown to him – Fair Castle, where he hopes to find hospitality.

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Above: making stencils for Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle

On entering he’s warmly greeted by the Lord, his Lady and their retainers. The Lord receives Gawain’s story with great interest, and in return is an affectionate and generous host. He calls his visitor by name, though strangely, his own is not offered. Nevertheless his status is clear from the magnificence of his home and household. Fine garments are gifted to Gawain and he’s arrayed like a prince in costly fabrics and furs.

During Gawain’s stay the Lord goes out three times to hunt, though Gawain remains in the Castle. On each occasion the Lady comes early to Gawain’s bed to wake him. She initiates conversations that play on notions of ‘courtly love’, though they’re loaded with flirtatious banter that quickly raise the temperature. The visceral descriptive passages of the three hunts, for stag, boar and fox, are threaded through with the tensions of the Lady’s compromising early-morning visits to her guest’s bed-chamber, during which she presses Gawain for gifts of affection, embraces and kisses, while he valiantly attempts to defend himself from committing any breach of trust against the hospitality of his absent host.

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Above: detail from a colour study for The Three Hunts

Simon Armitage wrote to me of these passages:

‘I can never think about those “bedroom scenes” without the hunted and butchered animals being there in the room, the way they’re interleaved through the text. Not just as Gawain’s suppressed lust, but as his subconscious images of what goes on between the lord and the lady. There’s a sense of Gawain’s inadequacy in those episodes as well, or at least his lack of experience (we assume he’s a virgin) compared with the lord’s victorious masculinity and the lady’s apparent sexual knowing. The lord’s actions are invasive and exposing of all kinds of interiors – Gawain knows only the cortex of life, its rind and its appearance.’

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The bedroom scenes are nerve-racking to read. Gawain is at the mercy of a powerful and practised coquette, and their encounters become a duel in which her desire, pressed upon him, must be skilfully parried in order to avoid compromise or offence. He pretends sleep when she stealthily approaches him – as though that would stop her. Then he pleads for privacy to dress, but she counters:

‘Not so’, beautiful sir,’ the sweet lady said.
‘Bide in your bed – my own plan is better.
I’ll tuck in your covers corner to corner,
then playfully parley with the man I have pinned.’

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Much is made of Gawain’s disadvantage of being in bed. The Lady doesn’t balk at physical affection, despite the fact that the young man is naked under the covers. She presses him for gifts, even though she knows he has little save himself to offer. It’s heated and tension inducing.

‘I come
to learn of love and more,
a lady all alone.
Perform for me before
my husband heads for home.’

 

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The poem is so full of references to the allure of young Gawain and the Lady of Fair Castle that it would be possible in any representation to become overwrought with the flesh on display and the heat under the surfaces. I have to curb my tendency to overly-refine images of beauty and stop before the vitality of an idea becomes compromised by overworking. I’ve tried many different compositional devices with this sequence of the poem, and it’s emerged that when the Lady is foregrounded, I work a tad too hard to capture her. (See the couple of too-sweet images above.)

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But a scrappy thumbnail sketch that placed her as a full-length figure sitting in the upper left of the composition (below) has a dynamic that pleases me –

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– and so I’ve pursued the idea and it’s the one that right now I’m moved to go with. Next I need to work up a full compositional study and see if I feel the same way. But as a precursor to that, here’s a small sketch defining her outline in the available space. I like it because the simplicity eschews the need for detail. Costume can become a burden in images, capturing too much of the energy and distracting attention from the meaning. This little drawing captures the dropped shoulders and tight sleeves of the period, but without feeling ‘historical’. It might be either her gown or her shift.

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The diagonal framing device at the right is where the foreground bed-curtain cuts across, giving me the opportunity to run riot with the decorative patterning that’s become something of a theme in the series, from the Green Knight’s foliate tattoos (an invention that isn’t in the text) to the peacocks and vines embroidered on the caparison of his horse. (More invention.) For the bed-hangings I plan a fevered idyll, all turbulent vegetation and frolicking rabbits.

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Above: detail from the colour study for The Green Knight’s Head Lives

When I began making prints on the theme of the poem I was clear about not getting enmeshed in the descriptive passages. They are so sumptuous and detailed that attempting to reproduce them would be visually overwhelming. Instead my inspiration has been filtered through my familiarity with the text. The prints were intended to capture some of what I feel about Gawain and his Green Knight.

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Above: stencils for The Green Knight Arrives

Occasionally I’ve returned to re-examine a passage of the poem only to discover that I’ve recalled it incorrectly in my image. But that, after all, is the nature of memory, and so I’ve not made revisions on discovering misalignments between what’s written and what I’ve made.

My thanks to Simon Armitage for his insights. The quotes from his translation are by kind permission of Faber & Faber.

 

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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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‘l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps’

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Sequential images of a drawing in progress, one of three that will accompany a concert of Oliver Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at the 2017 Música en Segura festival in Andalusia. In this one an angel with a trumpet is carried by a winged lion.

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“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.”

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My thanks to festival director, Daniel Broncano Aguilera, for this fascinating and challenging commission.

Drawing the Music: preparing for Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor de la Fin du Temps’

 

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This Summer at Música en Segura in Andalusia, a performance of Oliver Messiaen’s Quatuor de la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) will be given, accompanied by some projected images that festival director, Daniel Broncano, has commissioned me to make.

In June 1940 Messiaen was captured by the German army and imprisoned in the prisoner of war camp, Stalag VIII-A. Some sketches for Quartet for the End of Time had been begun before the composer was incarcerated, but the work was completed during his captivity, and rehearsed and performed in front of an audience of about 400 inmates and guards on 15 January 1941. The instruments were poor and rain fell on the musicians and the audience. The composer later recalled: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension”.

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Messiaen wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by a text from The Book of Revelation (Rev 10:1–2, 5–7, King James Version):

“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….”

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The eight movements are:

i) Liturgie de cristal

ii) Vocalise pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps

iii) Abîme des oiseaux

iv) Interméde

v) Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus

vi) Danse de la fureur pour les sept trompettes

vii) Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps

viii) Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus

Daniel and I first had conversations about the use of some of my existing work from the Mari Lwyd series. But as the conversations went on it became apparent that he favoured the idea of me producing new paintings, using Messiaen’s notes on the work as a guide.

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Daniel wrote in an e-mail to me:

“Messiaen was a notable synesthetic composer. Sound triggered colour in his mind. He often mentions colours on his scores and was an admirer of stained glass church windows.

In the preface of the work he lists the birds, angels, rainbows, Jesus, trumpets, and also blue-orange chords in the 2nd movement.”

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Daniel requested four artworks, images of which will be projected alongside four photographs of the Stalag VIII camp. My iconography for the compositions draws on the traditions of Romanesque art and has been boiled down to images of birds, foliate scrolling, a fight between mythic animals, the Angel who announces The End of Time and a portrait of Jesus Christ. The latter, a traditional representation, is a first for me. I’ve only painted Christ once before, and then the image was contemporary. Here I’ve immersed myself in something I would usually balk at: marks of the scourge, crucifixion and spear wounds, thorn perforations and death’s lividity.

The images are formal, densely patterned, intended to be contemplative. I’m at the drawing stage as I wanted to complete the four compositions before beginning to paint, the better to work quickly with my brushes. Time is short.

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Nick’s Ink

 

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I’ve had a long-standing plan to work with a number of collaborators who’d agreed to be tattooed with images produced by me from ideas supplied by them. The original plan was to make an exhibition of my scale-drawings, together with ‘selfies’ of the collaborators being inked. The final part of the exhibition was to be a series of small, intense portraits I planned to paint of my subjects and their completed tattoos.

The exhibition was always going to be a logistic nightmare of scheduling, in part because of the number of subjects and the availability of the ink artists. It was to be down to each ‘collaborator’ to research and then book an ink artist of his or her choice and to manage the process of the inking. As it became increasingly clear to me that it was going to be almost impossible to make a stab at a project completion date in order to bring on board a gallery committed to an exhibition, I found myself drifting away to other, less problematic subjects. In time I realised that, good idea though it had been, I’d effectively ‘set aside’ the exhibition, moving it into the lumber room at the back of my mind labelled ‘Future Projects’.

Alone of all the collaborators, Nick Yarr was the one who persistently enquired about his design and when it would be finished. Perhaps this was to do with the fact that we’re friends and see each other regularly, so the subject has often come up in conversations. I’m afraid I kept him waiting a long time because of other commitments, though I can’t discount my hesitation as being in part down to the anxiety that whatever I produced could not, once transferred to Nick’s skin, be walked away from in the same way as he might walk away from a painting that he grew tired of. I guess that ink artists are familiar with the responsibilities inherent in their practice. But for me all this is new, and it has made me slow. Though the design has been on the go for some time, it’s now been finished, making it my first completed work of 2017.

Nick wants a full-sleeve inking. He’d requested a design featuring a clematis ‘orientalis’. It’s a beautiful plant that I’ve painted several times, and Nick and his partner Martin own a small still-life featuring an orientalis that I made in 2006.

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Here, then, a detail of Nick’s design, with the the bell-shaped flowers and silky, fronded seedheads of clematis orientalis and a scattering of oak leaves blowing through. The drawing references the stylised, foliate diapering of Elizabethan embroidery and the botanical decorations found in Books of Hours. I’ve laboured long over it. I wanted the drawing to be as beautiful as I could make it.

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I’ve heavily shadowed the design to add illusory depth to the intentional flatness. To make sure my made-to-scale drawing would exactly fit when transferred to his body, I instructed Nick to bandage his arm with kitchen wrap until a flexible shell was formed. The shell was sliced through in order to remove it, then boxed and delivered to me. Flattened out, it’s provided the template on which to create the design. (See image at top of post.) Nick did the work well. I guess what I requested was a little like plastering a broken arm, and so as a GP he was well placed for making a neat job of it!

Nick will now take the design to the tattoo artist of his choice so that the process of inking can begin. I’ve frequently been asked to design tattoos, but to my knowledge, this will be the first artwork of mine to make it onto skin! The responsibility weighs heavily and I don’t expect my underlying anxiety to let up until the work of inking has been completed to everyone’s satisfaction.

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Of course there’s some possibility this might reinvigorate the tattoo project. Some of the original collaborators may return, or new ones emerge. But I think that I’d defer commitment to an exhibition until a group of the designs had been completed and executed, and in this way remove the scheduling pressures that had dogged the project in its earlier incarnation.