On Art and Images

I have never been busier. (I haven’t yet quite worked out why.) I have one-person exhibitions both imminent (September and January) and planned for further ahead. There are promised book covers for several authors and a big, as yet unannounced project for a major publisher. There’s the October exhibition I’m curating for the Royal Cambrian Academy and ongoing work on the stage production of a new chamber music work which I’m to design and direct next year. There have been and continue to be commitments to lecture at various universities and art colleges. Right now the Gawain and the Green Knight project in collaboration with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press is the most pressing occupation, as we have to finish the planned fourteen prints by end of December. I guess I’ve always been an active person in terms of planning ahead, but this… this schedule is extreme, even for me.

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Because of my increasingly busy diary, I have less time to write here at the Artlog. Occasionally I’m halfway through a piece when other matters intrude and I have to turn my attention elsewhere. But this morning I sat down to type a reply to an e-mail addressed to me via my official website, and in the writing of it I expressed something I thought I’d share here. While both unexpected and brief, I realised nevertheless that the simple idea expressed to my correspondent, was massively and personally significant in terms of how I see the world.

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‘As I get older I begin to see that all creative endeavour is linked. I may be first and foremost an easel artist, but I know that books in all their diversity have helped make me the man I am. It’s fitting that in what must by any measure be the last quarter of my working life, I have found myself being given opportunities to work in the field of books, both in the making of covers for writers I love and admire (Marly Youmans, Damian Walford Davies and Mary Ann Constantine), and more recently in the picture book of Hansel & Gretel for Random Spectacular. The book illustrations in my head – and they’re still there, carried since childhood – are as potent as any of the magnificent paintings I experienced in galleries and cathedrals that came later. So Picasso sits companionably alongside Beatrix Potter, Klee alongside Alfred Bestall and George Stubbs alongside Arthur Rackham, and it’s right that they do. My affection for the illustrators has never been displaced by my love of the great artists, and the interior of my head, if you could see in there, bears testament to that truth.’

Picasso

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Potter

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Klee

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Bestall

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Stubbs

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Rackham

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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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Illuminations

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Peter is in Edinburgh, where he’s to give the keynote address at the symposium Shaping the View: Understanding Landscape through Illustration, organised by Desdemona McCannon. Before he left we had several discussions about illustration, looking at definitions of the word.

il·lus·tra·tion (ĭl′ə-strā′shən)
n.
1. The act of illustrating or the state of being illustrated: concepts that would benefit from illustration; an idea that lends itself to illustration.
2. A picture or image that is used to decorate or clarify a text.
3. An example that is used to clarify or explain something. 
4. Obsolete Illumination.

It’s a tricky one to pin down, ‘illustrative’ having been used in modern times as a pejorative deployed by a curatorial elite set on defining boundaries that put ‘illustrators’ further down the pecking order of arts practices.

But tucked away at the foot of the list, I like the ‘obsolete’ definition, illumination. When my friend, the writer Marly Youmans asked me how I’d define myself in relation to my collaborations with her, I unhesitatingly wrote back, partly in fun, ‘illuminator’.

When growing up in the 1950s, my home, though full of books and music, had little on the walls that might be defined as art. There were mirrors and wall-lamps, and even pictures – if you include the rather unlikely though jaunty wallpaper of palm trees and desert islands that decorated our back parlour. But there were no paintings. So looking back, I begin to realise that my earliest experiences of the world as expressed in images, were through the pages of my childhood books.

The ones that stuck fast and have stayed with me over the years, are the Rupert Bear and Toby Twirl annuals. I learned to read on my father’s lap as he helped me make sense of the words under the pictures showing Rupert’s adventures with his pals. The speed with which I progressed was entirely down to wanting to know what happened next in the stories!

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The bucolic loveliness depicted by the illustrators of Rupert’s and Toby’s worlds, was simultaneously observed from life and imagined. Observed with enough tenderness and precision for me to recognise types of rural settings – my father was a wayleaves officer for the South Wales Electricity Board and often took me with him on field trips – and yet subtley different enough to open up imagination. The pine forests of the Rupert books were exactly like those I’d visited with my father, though with the added allure of being portals to other, more exciting realms, accessed by the simple means of climbing the trees, just as Jack had clambered up a beanstalk to find himself somewhere unexpected.

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Both the boy bear and the boy pig had the freedom to scamper about on their own business, and both were secure in the knowledge that ‘mum’ would have tea on the table when they returned, no matter how outlandish their adventures out of range of parental disapproval. I lived in the annuals, and later in the comics of my day, and after those in books that had no illustrations, excepting for those on their covers. Illustrations led me gently, naturally, persuasively to literature.

Landscape for me has always been where I’ve retreated to recover myself. So when my life in the theatre became too chaotic to endure, I bolted to the countryside. It was the natural place of healing, and it was where I took up brushes and began to translate my out-of-control feelings, into the painted worlds I felt safer in.

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I see now, though didn’t at the time, that the sense of comfort and balance I was trying to recapture, had its roots in those early experiences of discovering the world through the illustrations of Alfred Bestall, Sheila Hodgetts and others. And later, after I moved from landscape painting to explore further options, I came to understand enough of where my emotional responses to landscape had originated, to be able to reference the books of my childhood in paintings that openly acknowledged them. My Dream Farm is one of them.

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Perceived divisions between art and illustration are ones I’ve come to disregard. For me, the two are the same. There’s good and bad that flows from easel painters (for want of a better definition) and illustrators alike. The banal is bad regardless of whether found between the covers of a book or on the walls of a gallery, while the great is always illuminating, whether springing from the pens and brushes of Potter and Sendak, or from Hockney at his most sublime and painterly. (A man who excels at everything.) High and low are definitions I’m unmoved by. There is only excellence, and it all comes from the same source.

My picture book, Hansel & Gretel, is due out later this month. It’s taken a long time to make a book that has its roots so firmly in what I grew to love and trust as a child. The last page bears this text:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is a painter who occasionally makes images for the covers of novels, poetry collections and plays. He has always wanted to make a picture book, and this is it.

The Boy/Pig, the Handsome Chaps and the Scary Witch

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The Toby Twirl Story Book was published in 1947. I was born in 1951, and so perhaps the copy I read had been handed down to me from my older sister, Jacqui.

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Not only did the stories and images in the book capture my imagination, but the feel of it under my fingers, too. Printed simply in two colours per spread on heavy, absorbent paper, it was my love for The Toby Twirl Storybook that underpinned my approach to the illustrated edition of The Sonnets of Richard Barnfield, made in 2001 with Nicolas McDowell at The Old Stile Press.

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It was a long stretch from the adventurous Toby and his friends, to the lustrous boys of Barnfield’s homoerotic sonnets first published in 1595, but the idea of borrowing from The Toby Twirl Story Book was so fully formed in my head from the moment Nicolas suggested the project, that the edition didn’t so much as evolve, as explode with the swiftness of a Demon King in a puff of smoke out of a star-trap!

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The book took time to make, of course, as all beautiful things do, but the idea for it came to me in a moment, and I never swerved from my vision for it.

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And it would seem that the influence of The Toby Twirl Storybook in my work goes on, because it can be no accident that my first artist’s picture-book, due out this year from Random Spectacular, is to be a darkling version of that grimmest of the Grimms, Hansel & Gretel. The steeple-hatted witch of E. Jeffrey’s illustrations has always stayed with me, lurking in wait to scare another generation. She is the the stuff of my nightmares and dreams, and has clearly been biding her time, waiting for me to be ready for her re-launch!

She’s a little scarier this time around, and meaner too.

 

The Cuts that Kill

While there are myriad illustrated editions of Hansel & Gretel that explore the story in ways that remain essentially ‘Black Forest’ in tone… all picturesque woodland and iced gingerbread… few illustrators have taken up the challenge of radically reinventing the iconography of the story. An exception is the German artist Susanne Janssen, whose collage/paintings for Hänsel und Gretel, published by Hinstorff in 2007, eschew the usual gingerbread ‘gemütlich’, replacing the sugariness with a a bleak chill.

However, when I began searching for images to post online, I discovered a number at Janssen’s website that showed the original artworks in an uncropped state. Suddenly it was apparent how much of the quality of what she’d made, had been compromised by decisions to ‘tidy’ the edges of the illustrations for book.

In this image the top and bottom edges of the collage elements behind the witch, create a sense of the world skewed and out of kilter. It feels as though the stage has been shaken by an earthquake, and the scenery is buckling and falling.

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Below, in the published version, the crop has not only excised that sense of the chaotic, but it has also lopped off the witch’s feet. The result, to my eyes diminishes the disconcerting power of the original, intact image, where the irregular shape of the composition enormously enhances the sense of strangeness. Certainly the crop pushes the viewer closer to the action, but I really miss that sense of the jagged and incomplete.

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The same thing happens in this image, seen here with the edges of the composition visible…

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… and here as it appears in the book. Both Gretel and the witch have lost a foot, and I like the image a great deal less because of it.

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Despite these misgivings, Janssen’s vision of the tale is one of the most powerful I know, though I wish that the raw edges of the artworks had not been lost, and I wish too that the illustrations could have been printed onto matt paper, as I dislike the sheen of the art paper used. Nevertheless the book is one I repeatedly return to and enjoy, and the final image in it possesses such enigmatic beauty, that it’s stayed with me ever since I first saw it. The duck that will carry the children to safety on her back, floats like a ghost over a blood-red carp in the fathomless darkness beneath, its tail fluted and ruched like the dress of the witch dispatched in the oven. It leaves the viewer with a sense of something queasily unresolved, an evil that is not so much vanquished, as lying in wait. And for once, I find myself approving the crop, that in this case tightens the image and draws the viewer in to the mysteries.

 

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The Oz Toy Book

It’s no secret that since I was a boy I’ve had a passion for making things out of paint and card. I seem to have had a pair of scissors in my hand for as long as I can remember. Here on the Artlog I’ve posted about my love of the art of ‘ Toy Theatre’, and I’ve written at length about my practice of making articulated maquettes out of painted card as a part of my discipline as a painter. There’s no doubt that the two are connected. ‘Cutting-out’ was one of the great pleasures of my childhood. All I can say is that had I ever laid eyes on the book I’m about to share with you here, I would have thought I’d died and gone to Cut-Out Paradise.

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The Oz Toy Book; cut-outs for the kiddies, was published in 1915 by Reilly & Britton. The publisher used artwork drawn by regular Oz illustrator John R. Neil, though neglected to tell the author Frank L. Baum about the publication, perhaps because it was originally intended as a promotional ‘give-away’ to encourage sales of the books. Clearly it was produced with much care, and so whatever had originally been intended, it was eventually released as a pay-for-product.

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When he found out, Baum was impressed neither by the the product… he never liked Neil’s illustrations… nor by the fact that the The Oz Toy Book had been published without his knowledge or permission.

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The book consists of 16 full-color pages containing 54 cut-out paper characters from the first nine Oz books. The sheets were perforated and held in place between its covers with ribbons, so they could be removed for cutting-out with no tearing from the spine.

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Baum persistently lobbied his publisher to release Neil, and made several suggestions for a replacement. However, due to his good relationship with the publisher, Neil remained, and Baum eventually desisted.

To date only four complete and intact copies of The Oz Toybook are known to have survived. In the image below, one of those copies has been dismantled and presented framed.

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In 1994, eighty years after the publication of the original book, illustrator Eric Shanower produced his own companion piece, The Oz Toy Book Volume 2. In comparison to the sumptuous, full colour character sheets of the original, this ‘second’ volume, is essentially a ‘colouring-book’, with all the images reproduced in black and white.

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All images of the 1914 book courtesy of the Mel Birnkrant Collection.

Read about the Monster Rupert Cut-Out Book HERE.

Vojtěch Kubašta’s Hansel and Gretel

I’ve long wanted Vojtěch Kubašta’s pop-up book of Hansel & Gretel, and now, with the excuse of ‘It’s research for my own Hansel & Gretel project’, I’ve finally found and acquired a pristine copy. Here it is in all its glory.

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In the Forest.

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The Witch beckons Hansel and Gretel into the gingerbread cottage.

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A clever slider-mechanism removes Hansel & Gretel from the corner of the cottage, shutters the left-hand window, opens the door to reveal the Witch, and has the children, now inside, waving from the right-hand window.

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There are lovely details in the picturesque interior.

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Hansel caged.

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Cage door up …

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… and down!

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The children slide the Witch into the oven on a wooden baking paddle.

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They escape, crossing a river on the back of a friendly swan.

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This edition published in 1976 by Artia, Prague.

Vojtěch Kubašta, genius of pop-up books, 1914 -1992