The Green Knight Arrives, by Aleksy Cichoń
As Dan Bugg and I work over the summer on prints two-to-seven in the Gawain and the Green Knight series, in Poland, Aleksy Cichoń is going to keep pace, making a corresponding drawing for each print, conjuring his own vision of images based on the text. As the work unfolds, we’ll discuss the various ways in which we approach the themes of Gawain and the Green Knight. Here the conversations begin.
Aleksy, what a wonderful image to find in my inbox this morning. This is a beauty.
I was trying to think of a word to describe how you draw, and fluency is the word that keeps coming to mind because it expresses the quality of being at ease in a language, and you draw with exceptional ease. Compositionally it is enticing and mysterious. The Green Knight doesn’t emerge through the door sitting high in the saddle, blazing with energy. This feels like old magic, something that starts slowly in darkness, stirs, rises and grows in strength, uncoiling into the light. I’m drawn by his averted gaze, the slumped body, his arm outstretched with palm uppermost, the sprig of holly held lightly between his fingers, and the energy in the horse’s stance, balking at the threshold and the throng of the Christmas revellers out of sight of the viewer. All these are unexpected choices that work wonderfully well. But particularly strange is the fact that he sits sideways on his mount, rather than astride. It’s entirely unexpected, visually arresting and psychologically intriguing. This green man doesn’t have to master his green horse the way mortal men master their beasts, between strong thighs and with commanding hands. These two, are as one, and whatever passes between them requires no signals or physical control. I’m touched that you made and shared this drawing with me.
One of the reasons that I wanted to be a painter rather than an illustrator, was because I feared illustration might turn out to be a job where I would only gain employment if I produced to order, which I felt I had neither the skills nor temperament for. So I made my way as a painter who exhibits and sells in galleries. But now, perhaps because of my profile as a painter, I occasionally get asked to make book covers. I’m quite sure I couldn’t make a living at it, but I like that my work as an artist has reached out and created these opportunities, because I have always enjoyed the art of the paperback book cover, particularly in the European tradition.
The poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is full of descriptions. Pages and pages of them. The poet offers forensically detailed accounts of what people wear, and the Green Knight’s appearance is described down to the the embroideries on his garters. So as I work on the print series, I avert my eyes from those descriptions, because the words make evocative images in the imagination that don’t need realising in the illustrations. Instead I make accompanying images to the text that prompt different trains of thought, opening unexpected ways of seeing.
In your drawing, you have done the same thing. You’ve created an image to make the reader turn his eyes away from the text, and toward something inward looking. It’s emotionally powerful in the way that a description of the Knight’s wardrobe, is not. This, for me, is the great skill of the artist/illustrator confident and skilled enough to rise to the challenge. I would love to see you express further ideas based on this text. Judging from your first drawing, you would find surprising solutions!
Do you know the work of Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), who was a painter, illustrator and muralist? Your drawings remind me a little of his.
Frank Brangwyn drawing of a leadworker
You have the same ease with a pencil, making lines flow across the paper with mesmerising energy. I can see connections, too, with the great illustrator Arthur Rackham. (1867-1939)
Arthur Rackham illustration for Aesop’s Fables
Your proposition of The-Green-Knight-Challenge is so great! I’ll participate in it with pleasure! It’ll be an antidote to my laziness in drawing. This is an amazing theme to explore. Furthermore, my last readings’ll not go to waste. What a good news.
I hope you’re well and many thanks for nice words about my knight. (You might know what my reaction was.) Sadly I had only shitty Xerox paper, but it was very relaxing for me – I hope that I’ll paint something bigger and better based on this sketch.
Brangwyn! (funny thing – I was thinking about adding some ink to this pencil piece) I know some of his paintings – especially the one with shirtless workers. I like his applying of paint: thick and bold but without fatal manner of Leyendecker, for example. Leyendecker stuck in “everything satin” style of painting, extremely fashionable in his time. Certainly he would be something like Sargent in illustration but without success and … without talent. Leyendecker is wildly weak and still idolized by crowds of contemporary illustrators – let’s try to guess why. Just terrible example of popular artist.
I understand very well your dilemmas about being illustrator, especially when you starting career straight as illustrator – you’re required to do job just like more advanced storyboard maker. In Poland this is daily situation and it looks like you’re not professional who knows what to do – you’re only man-machine doing exactly what they want. No risk, only conformist form of everything. Few years ago I was working as illustrator for Cracow’s University of Agriculture – some pictures illustrated collection of polish agricultural proverbs. One of them was about goat killed by wolf. Right, interesting for every draughtsman. So I did one inky picture and author of book refused to publish it. “Too sexual!” she said. Haha, OK, your loss! By the way – the bigger copy of this piece is hanging in the office of the director of publishing house. Too sexual for book but not quite for the office.
Detail of a screenprint stencil in progress for The Green Knight Arrives, by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
So, you’re ‘approved’ painter and you’re becoming an illustrator… OK, hold on – I know nothing about it but when I’m looking at examples of covers made by you – I’m impressed. And I’m happy that you’re doing exactly what you want to draw/cut/paint. Because of that, these books are unique, well-designed and beautiful as objects.
Yesterday I showed your works friend of mine – in one word: she was chuffed! She’s studying fashion and business (really terrible mixture) in Denmark and she day by day write to me that she suffer because of all contemporary things. Not only rags, but art at all. So I’m some kind of super hero who brings cure for her pain – great pictures. This time the great ones were yours. She greets you and she told me that she’s happy because good painters are rarity. Especially with that power of colour!
And about your prints – are they lithographs? I’ve never did anything ‘really graphic’, expect one linocut – so you must forgive my question. I ask because the colours are extremely vivid. I associate litho with gentle palette.
The Penfold Press specialises in screenprints. However, I’m making the separations on True-Grain, which is a transparent, granulated plastic film that was invented to replace unwieldy lithography stone. I work on the grainy surface with lithography crayon, which is why you might mistake the prints for lithographs.
Detail from Christmas at Camelot by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, editioned by Daniel Bugg at the Penfold Press.
Below: working on True-Grain film at the Penfold Press.