The Green Knight versus Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: the 2021 film and its literary source

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Above: Gawain prepares to decapitate the Green Knight in my print series, and below, the poster for David Lowery’s 2021 film

In 2016 I was already partway through a planned fourteen print series exploring the themes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when the poet Simon Armitage unexpectedly appeared and asked whether the prints, when completed, might be available to illustrate a forthcoming ‘revision’ of his translation, due out from Faber & Faber in 2018. My print collaborator, Dan Bugg of Penfold Press who was publishing the series, was as keen as I to take this heaven-sent opportunity, even though it meant we’d have to get our skates on, as the original intention had been to publish just two prints a year for seven years. It was Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation that had been our inspiration for the series, and a dog-eared copy of it had been at my side throughout the work completed to that point.

Simon was a thoughtful collaborator. He let me have my head, and although my emphasis in many of the images was different to how he saw things, he was invariably gracious and allowed me leeway. There were aspects of the poem I’d been wayward with in my translations to images. Before the agreement with him and Faber, I’d been freely interpreting the poem as I wished. For reasons too numerous to bore you with here, I’d changed the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield to a Star of David. The print had already been made, showing a six-pointed star rather than the five-pointed one described – at length – in the poem.

Gawain as he appears in the Penfold Print edition, with a six-pointed star on his shield.

Simon listened carefully to my reasons for the change. He said that if I were determined to stick to my guns, he would support me in my decision, but that I should know it would cause problems among academics and readers who would notice. I admired him for that, and without hesitation agreed to make the change. I couldn’t make it to the edition of seventy-five prints already out in the world, but I could digitally adjust the image that appeared in the new book. I say I, but in fact I have no digital skills, and so the work was undertaken as a favour by my friend, digital printmaker, Mark Brown. Mark also re-coloured Gawain’s sash green in another image, where I’d bleached the green in a twilight setting. Simon lobbied for a greener sash, and he got it.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

David Lowery has taken liberties, too, in his film interpretation of the story. That’s not a bad thing. Artists and directors need to be free to ‘adapt’ literary sources. A poem is far from a film, or even a painting – or a print. The film has to work entirely through its visuals. There are the words too, of course, but the way a film looks is what it will stand or fall by.

Clearly I’m not the only one to have a problem with the colour green. Lowery and his designers have bleached their eponymous Knight to an ashen grey/blue with barely a vestige of green. What works for me when he appears, is less his appearance than the truly spectacular sound editing that so compellingly and viscerally announces his presence. (I can’t recall anything in previous films even close to the artistry achieved with the clop of hooves, creak of leather and the belching breath of the horse in this scene.)

David Lowery directing his Green Knight and Gawain on set

My anxieties about the colour green were all about avoiding any possibility of the Green Knight looking silly. The descriptions of him in the poem are unequivocal. He is both a man:

a fearful form appeared framed in the door: a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human from head to hips, so long and thick in his loins and limbs I should genuinely judge him to be half giant, or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.”

but also, green:

Amazement seized their minds, no soul had ever seen a Knight of such a kind – entirely emerald green.”

So not even plain green, but ’emerald green’, which is a hard thing to pull off in a world where the Jolly Green Giant and the Wicked Witch of the West have set a precedent in bright green that’s common currency today, though would not have been for the original readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in their medieval world.

Lowery’s Green Knight is splendidly filmic, man-shaped, but not in the slightest bit fleshy, more of a mash-up of the Winter King and and the Forest Giants of the Lord of the Rings films. Twiggy and somewhat desiccated, you sense he’d bleed not blood, but sap. This distances us from him. He doesn’t have the vulnerability of a man’s flesh and blood, that too-slender fragile neck-stem of skin, muscle and bone awaiting the decapitating blow of an axe. By turning the Green Knight into a character that appears entirely un-fleshy, the inhumanity of decapitation as a wager is less powerfully repellent than were he a man.

The Green Knight as a forest spirit

Decapitation is pretty much an unsurmountable problem, for film-makers and artists. In a world where terrorists perform such atrocities for the dark web, execution by decapitation remains the thing that is too dreadful to show on news channels or in documentaries, and rightly so. It can be inept and agonising when performed by hand, far from the swift efficiency of the guillotine. Even in drama, where CGI makes all things possible, decapitations are the events from which, for the most part – the schlockier film-makers aside – the camera averts its implacable eye. I was relieved beyond expression when in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, the execution of Anne Boleyn was off-screen. Claire Foy’s horror alone was knee-trembling enough to make me lose sleep for nights thereafter. In the poem the axe-blow to the Green Knight is described in detail, as is what follows, when the headless yet still-standing Green Knight retrieves what has been lopped from his shoulders:

For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist; to the noblest at the table he turned the face and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead and spoke this speech, which you’ll hear for yourselves:”

So, another element which though fresh in its day, has since been rendered a cliché by every film in which some Viking/Roman/Barbarian/Troll, strides to camera bearing a head swinging by its hair from a clenched fist, and it was one I went twelve times around the block to avoid in my illustration of the moment. This is how, after much trial and error, I showed the Green Knight bearing his own head, counterbalancing him with his caparisoned horse, ears back and eye rolling in terror. The poem describes the great spurt of blood from the wound, but that too felt clichéd when I attempted it, and so I abandoned the description and made instead a strange, unfurling organic blood-cloud, like a fungi springing from his truncated neck.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

Arthur’s Court, in the poem, is young and vibrant. The rot we know is coming – in later accounts of the Arthurian myth – has yet to get underway:

All these fair folk in their first age, together in the hall: most fortunate under heaven, with Arthur, that man of high will; no bolder hand could ever be found on field or hill.

Gawain is a privileged and yet, up until now, untried youth. We discover he is pure of heart and steeped in the chivalric code of medieval Knights. He is undoubtedly a virgin, and the only woman who has him, body and soul, is the Queen of Heaven to whom he dedicates himself. When armed for his quest, his shield-lining bears an image of the Virgin and Christ child.

Penfold Press print of The Armouring of Gawain

I like the premise in the film, so different to the poem, that the court of Camelot is ageing. Lowery gives us a King bone-weary from a hard life, and a grizzled Guinevere, ramrod straight and glitteringly armoured with tiny metallic talismans worn like a breastplate against harm. Unexpectedly Arthur speaks in dialect. The pair look sick and tired, like weary saints in icons, complete with halo-like devices fastened to their crowns that gleam in the half-light.

When reading from the slip of parchment deposited on the round table by the Green Knight, Guinevere, like a medium channeling the dead, delivers the challenge in a voice not her own. In response, Arthur admits he is too old to face down the Green Knight, and appeals to his court for a champion. Steps forward Gawain, his nephew. Everything to this point is engaging. Afterwards, not so much. When the Green Knight takes the fatal blow, it doesn’t amount to anything, because he’s not really a man, and so there’s no fragility in him and therefore no tragedy. Behind Gawain’s back, the corpse stirs and lurches to its feet, a moment that might make the flesh creep, but doesn’t. There’s no sense of dread, or more critically, of impossibility. Nothing is surprising here, because the Green Knight is so patently unreal.

A year later, Gawain steps out to meet the Green Knight’s challenge, to accept a blow the equal of the one he gave, no matter the consequences. In the poem he’s armoured by the King, magnificently encased in engraved and jewelled plate metal. His trials are not described in detail in the poem, though we know they entail battles with serpents (dragons), ogres and ‘woodwoses’ (wild men). With no ‘squire’ attendant to unfasten him from his elaborate armour, he’s effectively sealed into it, travelling, sleeping, fighting, sweating and steaming in the equivalent of a pressure cooker. In the film he is not so encumbered. Neither is he the lithe and practised fighter of the poem, and when he has run-in with the wonderfully creepy feral-boy, Scavenger (Barry Keoghan pitch-prefect in the role), Gawain comes off the worst, and loses his weapons, his shield, his money and his horse, Gringolet.

Barry Keoghan. mesmerising as the feral Scavenger

There is a GGI fox which mercifully talks only briefly, but departs without leaving any impression on the story. (A real fox would have worked so much better. Foxes are infinitely stranger and more beautiful than anything cooked up in a computer animation programme.)

Eventually Gawain seeks respite from his journey at a sumptuous castle where an un-named Lord and Lady welcome and shower him with affection and favours. The Lady (Alicia Vikander) gets jiggly with Gawain in his bedchamber, and the encounter has none of the almost unendurable sexual tension of the poem, where her verbal duelling with the sleep-befuddled and embarrassed young man is so dazzling that every time I read it I find myself holding my breath in anxiety that her husband might burst in. (Or get wind of the shenanigans.) In the poem Gawain is aware – and ashamed of – his nakedness, covered only by a bedsheet in the presence of the Lady, though he is unaware of his own beauty, described so alluringly by the poet. So we can picture clearly, in imagination, the gulf between her worldliness and sexual teasing, and his vulnerability and confusion. (Mrs Robinson and Benjamin in The Graduate.)

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

Counterpointing these exchanges, verses describing the hunting, killing and butchering of animals by the Lord of the castle add a bloody and steaming physicality, as he too appears to be intent on sexual games, demanding from his young houseguest the gifts (kisses) his wife has elicited from Gawain while he was cornered beneath his flimsy bedsheet. (We’ve witnessed that there was rather more than kisses exchanged, but the film ducks that.) In the poem the episode of the castle where Gawain is wooed is full of unease because he is a sexually innocent and deeply honourable young man endeavouring to be polite in the face of predatory behaviour. By contrast in the film we know him to be sexually experienced, so there’s no tension when Lady Bertilak mounts him in his bed and we get the swift, unnecessary shot of ejaculate on the hand with which he grasps the green belt that’s the token of her ‘affection’.

Penfold Press print of The Exchange

Chivalry is the foundation on which everything in the poem is built. But in the film the codes of chivalry don’t exist, and without them, everything that transpires is meaningless and unanchored. It’s glacial in pace, which initially invests it with a sense of gravitas, though that palls as we realise the meandering narrative is yielding little to keep us engaged. Gawain meets giants plodding in slow motion across a misty landscape, but nothing happens. He has an odd meeting with the ghost of St Winifred, martyred by decapitation but still hanging around asking for her head to be retrieved from a nearby pond/stream/sinkhole and reunited with her decomposed corpse, laid out on a bed. Gawain obliges.

At the Green Chapel we arrive at the encounter toward which the entire trajectory of the narrative has led. The poem gives us another spectacular entrance by the Green Knight, Gawain bowing his head to receive the axe blow to his neck, and all the threads of the tale coming together in the revelation of what underlay the Green Knight’s challenge at Camelot and who was responsible for it. In the film we know from the start that Gawain’s mother conjured the Green Knight, and so all that remains at the chapel is for the challenge to be completed. Gawain discovers his nemesis sleeping, and has to wait patiently for him to revive. It’s deadly dull, a damp squib and ends with an ungainly scrabble of an escape. A cluttered, decades-leaping montage later, we learn that we were not shown all that transpired at the Green Chapel, but by then I’d stopped caring. Odd that in the twenty-first century, this film-maker has produced a second, much-anticipated meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight, that is decidedly less cinematic than the account offered by the medieval poet.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

My misgivings don’t extend to the performances. Dev Patel, Sean Harris, Alicia Vikander and Barry Keoghan are excellent. (Sean Harris’s King is infinitely more interesting than the Arthur of the poem, who seems a cardboard cut-out by comparison – though of course that was intended by the poet.) If Patel seems to me to be too mature for the role, that’s because I have the fixed view of Gawain as an innocent, physically tough though barely out of boyhood. But that’s what I get from the poem, and it’s not how the character is presented here, where he’s dissolute and an untrustworthy lover from the start of the film. Throughout The Green Knight we’re offered intriguing scenes and visual treats, though there are worrying and atmosphere-destroying errors of judgement. The Lady at the un-named castle inventing the pinhole camera in the Middle Ages, and the Green Knight exiting Camelot cackling like a Disney villain, are frankly wince-making moments.

Jade Healy’s production design is bleak though beguiling, and costume work by Malgosia Turzanska is great right up to the moment when suddenly, at the end, a new character appears who’s a dead-ringer for Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace. What impressed me more than anything in this film was the music by Daniel Hart, which will stay with me for a long time, not least because I’ve purchased it and plan to read the poem while listening to it.

The 2018 illustrated edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

For over three years I was completed immersed in the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as I produced the fourteen prints and the Faber book. I read the poem every working day, often from beginning to end. I knew the characters and their experiences inside out. I made thousands of drawings. Nevertheless I was fully prepared to set all that aside so as to be able to experience a different telling of the tale. I longed for a different version, something I could lose myself in. I love cinema, and an underlying passion for the history of film underpins a lot of my work. (The book I’ve just finished illustrating, Beauty and Beast, is a paean to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Béte, a film I’ve loved for over fifty years.) But here there was just too much borrowed from the poem, yet without the context that would have made sense of it. The film-makers should have perhaps detached themselves further from the text than they did. I acknowledge that the complex codes of chivalry are not anything a modern audience would understand or have sympathy with, but a simplified expression of them could have better supported the narrative of a knightly quest. Gawain is not everyman. He’s not ‘one of the boys’ who we identify with because he’s just like us. His code of honour drives him, and would make him uneasy company in any age. He has something in common with the character played by Edward Woodward in another film with roots in what’s now known as folk/horror, The Wicker Man, who we discover late in the story is a virgin, which accounts for the way he behaves and places him as an annoyingly principled outsider. The poet’s Gawain is an outsider, too. He may glitter with youth and idealism and the borrowed trappings of jewelled armour, but he is a loner. No-one wins his heart, which is set on higher things. He begins and ends the poem alone, and there seems very little chance of a good outcome for him beyond the conclusion.

Gawain appears in subsequent Arthurian stories from other hands, though never again as a central character. Placed at the periphery he is not the hero any longer, but a Knight grown sour with age and disappointment.

In Birdland

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Peter Wakelin will be interviewing Clive Hicks-Jenkins on the 29th September, 19:00 – 20:15. The first in a planned series of online art interviews organised by the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, admission to In Birdland is free. There are 100 places available for the live event which may be viewed around the world, though registration is required.

Click HERE to register.

About this Event

While caged at home for lockdown, Clive Hicks-Jenkins has surrounded himself with birds. His projects have included his miniature picture-book Bird House for Design for Today, a new print of birds and beasts for the Penfold Press and illustrations for Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, forthcoming from Faber & Faber. Birds have appeared often in Clive’s paintings, notably his series on St Kevin and the Blackbird and CASW’s The Virgin of the Goldfinches in Llandaff Cathedral. In this live interview he will talk about how birds weave their way through so much of his work, his inspirations and practices and his collaboration with the Poet Laureate. There will be time allowed at the end for audience questions.

Above: Illustration from Simon Armitage’s The Owl and the Nightingale

Below: St Kevin and the Sunflowers. Private Collection

Below: Startled Peacocks: Private Collection

Below: Illustration from Bird House, due out from Design for Today in November

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The Owl and the Nightingale: the rough and the smooth

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Above: worked-up study from a project book, and below, the preparatory drawing for it:

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I’m in the thick of my third project of lockdown, which is to illustrate Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, due out next year from Faber & Faber.

My project book for this is full of preparatory work exploring the themes of the poem, and I’m already well into final renders. I absolutely love the early stages when drawings are flowing freely without consideration or hinderance. No page measurements to worry about and a disregard for anything other than letting the creativity have its head. Everything conducted at a gallop.

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But all artists face the dilemmas that come when the rough needs to give way to the smooth, and this project is no different from any other I’ve worked on in that respect. In the project book a single idea is drawn ten times… or twenty or more… and no finished artwork can ever contain all those ideas and all that unfettered energy. Whatever emerges when a hundred ideas have been distilled into one image, is going to be a different thing to where the whole thing kicked off.

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The poem is set in an anthropomorphic universe in which the poet presents the exchanges between rival birds as a dizzying display of one-upmanship and smug self-regard. Accusations fly like missiles in the squabbles. Feathers ruffle and subside and are preened back into good order in preparation for the next salvo. There are moments when the rancour feels extraordinarily contemporary with anything found in the Big Brother household or at Facebook.

The drawings to accompany the poem could have gone in any number of directions from rambunctiously satiric to Thomas Bewick-like lyricism. At the outset Simon suggested I look for inspiration to illuminated manuscripts contemporary with the original writing, and to borrow and rework what I’d find most useful in them. I’d frame the translation with a contemporary response to historic images, just as Simon had reworked the poem in a way to speak to a modern reader. So words and images together dance in a territory somewhere between past and present, nodding to established traditions while building new ones.

It’s not commonplace in today’s publishing world to be given opportunities to illustrate poetic texts as densely as I’ve been fortunate enough to do, first with Simon’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then with Hansel & Gretel at Design for Today and now with The Owl and the Nightingale. I’m enormously obliged to the poet and his publishing team at Faber & Faber, and to Joe Pearson at @designfortoday, all of whom have been enormously supportive and patient in our undertakings together. Thanks too to Dan Bugg at @penfoldpress and @sirgawainscreenprints, and to Laurence Beck at @laurencebeckdesign.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to Mark Brown, who generously came to my help when digital adjustments needed to be made to some of the Gawain images prior to publication.

Reinventing Gawain at the National Library of Wales

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My thanks to the many who on Saturday afternoon filled the lecture theatre at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, to hear me speak. It was the first time since its publication in October that I’ve talked about my collaboration with Simon Armitage to make an illustrated edition of his translation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it was a happy occasion for me to reminisce at a comfortable distance from all the hard work and exhaustion that went into the project. Good too, to place the lion’s share of credit at the feet of Dan Bugg, who facilitated the entire adventure at his Penfold Press Studio in Selby, Yorkshire, and who guided this artist so completely inexperienced in the alchemy of screen-printing, safely through the labyrinth and back out again.

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My thanks to Stuart Evans of Aberystwyth Printmakers, who arranged the Library event, and to all at the National Library who were warmly welcoming and made the occasion such a pleasure.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: fourteen paintings

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For every one of the fourteen screen prints in the Penfold Press Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series, I first made many sketches before producing at least one preparatory painting, and sometimes several. Here are fourteen of the paintings produced toward the printing process. Some are in private collections, and others will be in the forthcoming exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery.

 

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Above: Christmas at Camelot. Private Collection

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The Green Knight Arrives. 2016. Private Collection

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The Green Knight Bows to Gawain’s Blow. Private Collection

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The Green Knight’s Head Lives. Private Collection

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The Armouring of Gawain. Private Collection

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The Travails. 2016. Gouache and pencil on board. 55 x 55 cms

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Fair Castle: Study for Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle. 2018. Gouache, ink and pencil on board. 55 x 55 cms

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Reynard and the Slaughtered Peacocks: Study for The Three Hunts. 2017. Gouache, ink and pencil on board. 55 x 55 cms

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The Happy Rabbits: Study for The Temptations. 2017. Gouache, ink and pencil on paper. 55 x 55 cms

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Vessel: Study for The Exchange. 2017. Gouache, ink and pencil on board. 55 x 55 cms

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The Source: Study for The Green Chapel. 2017. Gouache, ink and pencil on board. 55 x 55 cms

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Suit of Lights: Study for Gawain Staunches the Wound to His Neck. 2017. Gouache, ink and pencil on paper. 55 x 55 cms

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Out of the Fire: Study for Morgan le Fay. 2017. Gouache, ink and pencil on board. 55 x 55 cms

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Shadowed: Study for The Stain of Sin. 2017. Gouache, ink and pencil on paper. 55 x 55 cms

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Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Penfold Press: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – Part II

The Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff

10th January – 27th January 2018

Private View Wednesday, January 10th, 6 – 7.30pm

 

Mapping the Tale: image making and the narrative tradition

Quite early in my career as a painter I began examining ways to create narratives in my work. To begin with those developed from my own stories and were essentially biographical. My father’s childhood fears and how they impacted his life and death were the source material of The Mare’s Tale. In many ways those were mood pieces, with the narratives forming underlying supports to material that for viewers could be interpreted personally and in diverse ways. I think of them now as more like orchestral compositions in which the character of the music carries listeners to their own imaginative spaces.

Tend, 2002. Private Collection

Later I painted several Annunciations, drawn by the drama of the New Testament account, and made a series of paintings, The Temptations of Solitude, based on episodes in the Lives of the Desert Fathers: a hermit dwells in a tree, attended and fed by an angelic visitor, and a cruel slave-master pursues a fleeing couple across a wildernesses, only to be stalked and devoured by an avenging lioness. I was discovering, perhaps as a legacy of my many years working in the theatre, that the type of paintings that interested me most were ones that told stories.

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The Comfort of Angels Attending the Dying, 2004. Private Collection

Outside of the recent Hansel & Gretel illustration project for St Jude’s and Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop in Covent Garden, the work on Gawain and the Green Knight has been my most comprehensive and complete exploration of a narrative to date. Using the poem as my guide and inspiration, the intention from the beginning was to make fourteen sequential and editioned prints that would tell the story, though for every print to be stand-alone in the sense that I wanted each to work whether viewed as a single artwork, or as a part of the series.

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The Armouring of Gawain. Screen Print. 2016

The process of building an image that encodes not just the narrative ‘moment’, but also has a sense of linkage to what’s transpired and what will come after, takes planning and endless trial and error. Every image has to be built from scratch: composition, colour, tone, and mark-making all serving the narrative. Imagined landscapes, gardens and castles must be conjured, as well as interior spaces and their furnishings. Characters, shown once or repeatedly have to be realised, complete with garments, hairstyles, armour and weaponry. When appearing repeatedly there has to be a balance between keeping a likeness, and yet allowing for physical and psychological change. Arthur, Guinevere, the Lord and Lady of Fair Castle and Morgan le Fay each appear just once in the print series, whereas the Green Knight and Gawain occur repeatedly. In the fourteen prints there are three featuring horses, plus images of hunting birds, a stag, a boar, a fox and several peacocks. Each had to fit within this particular imagined world. Then there’s the need to honour the source material, in this case the 2007 translation by Simon Armitage. I wanted to make a visual response to his text rather than try to represent it illustratively, and to do that I had to steep myself in his words over a long period. The small, hardback Faber & Faber first edition was never out of my pocket. I can recite quite long sections of it, committed to memory by repeated reading.

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Above: building a print with layers of lithography film, each of which will be printed in a single  colour.

For me responding to a text is all about finding the spaces between the words and then colonising them. I invest the characters and events with my own imagined detailing, layering invented elements onto what’s provided by the text. In this way the enchantress Morgan le Fay, who’s only mentioned in the poem by another character, gets a whole print to herself, while the Gawain of my images sometimes appears in ways not found in the poem. He binds his wound with the green sash given to him by the Lady of Fair Castle, and by the end of the series his armour has transformed itself with foliate embellishments, while the back of his hand has been marked with a branching stigmata.

Though the prints were not made specifically to accompany the text, I want anyone looking at them while reading it to discover that the words and images are in dialogue. Gawain begins the story as a glittering young knight, unmarked, privileged and unproven. By the end of it his face is shadowed, his hair is shorn to stubble and he is all too aware of his shortcomings. It’s all there in the title of the final print: The Stain of Sin.

Below: the magical transformation of black and white to the luminous, transparent coloured inks of the final print.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Penfold Press

opens at

The Martin Tinney Gallery

on January 10th, 6 – 7.30 pm.

Fourteen prints on the theme of the narrative poem, plus paintings and drawings.

 

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The Toy Town Theatre

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It’s been a long year. For me, and for my partner Peter too, our various projects have kept us hard at work. Peter curated two exhibitions and wrote the catalogues to go with them. Moreover he’s just delivered his manuscript to the publisher on the art of Roger Cecil, and there will be an exhibition next year.

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For me 2016 was largely taken up with three projects: the ongoing series of prints on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, made in association with Dan Bugg of the the Penfold Press, the halfway point of which was celebrated with an exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery earlier this year. There was the publication of Hansel & Gretel (Random Spectacular), which had been two years in the planning and making, and the completion of my work on a forthcoming toy theatre being produced by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.

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2017 promises to be just as busy, with a yet to be announced project for the stage – which for the present time I must keep to myself – and the continuation of the Gawain project, due for completion in March 2018.

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For now, and in the sprit of the season’s greetings, the images in this post are of the Toy Town Theatre that Dan Bugg and I produced as a Christmas card for the Penfold Press. Working with Dan has been one of the great pleasures of 2016, and though there were times when we both thought we’d never make our deadlines, of course in the end we did. In the coming year there will be more Gawain work, plus a few surprises, forthcoming from the Penfold Press. Watch this space.

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Drawing in Layers

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Preparing the stencils ready for producing a screen print is a relatively new experience for me, though under Daniel Bugg’s guidance I find myself greatly enjoying the the learning curve. It was odd, to begin with, creating an image only to deconstruct it in order to build again, this time in layers.

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Now I find those layers to be fascinating. Neither the original preparatory image, nor the print that will come later, they have their own transient, translucent allure.

 

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There’s paint, both opaque and transparent, drawings made in lithography crayon and in ink and collaged elements, where films marked with ‘frottage’ – rubbings made over rough surfaces such as the floorboards of my studio – are cut and taped into place to add diversity and density of mark-making.

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Occasionally there are errors, excised with a scalpel and repaired with transparent tape elastoplasted over the wounds.

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Of course, the only people who usually see the stencils are artist and printer. But today, for visitors here, I’ve made an album of images of the stencils for my current print-in-the-making.

The Green Knight and the Perfect Pose

There is a pose I’ve loved ever since I was a child. It appears throughout the history of the arts, from ancient Greek vases to the age of photography, and I’ve explored it in many forms in my work as a choreographer, and as a painter. As far as I can remember, I noticed it first in the statue by Rodin, pictured below. Here the hand is raised to a head turned to offer its profile to the viewer. There’s something about the containment of the profile within that triangular space, and the sense of an interior landscape dreamed behind shuttered eyes.

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A variation of the pose can be seen in a poster depicting Vaslav Nijinsky as he appeared in Le Spectre de la Rose for the Ballet Russe. Here the arm is draped across the top of the head, so that it tenderly cradles it. The mood is drenched in erotically charged languor.

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Much later the Nijinsky pose was recreated by choreographer Mathew Bourne, and the effect is less languid than in the Nijinsky image, emphasising instead a fierce, proud energy and dynamic.

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Adam Cooper in Matthew Bourne’s reinvention of Swan Lake, with a male dancer in the role of the Swan that until then had been danced only by ballerinas.

The pose appeared in some of my earliest works. Here it is in a study for the figure beneath the sheet of a Mari Lwyd (a Welsh mumming tradition) made in 1999.

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Saint Hervé, made in 2011. Everywhere there are triangles, forming both positive and negative spaces.

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Right now I’m working on the next print in my Gawain series for the Penfold Press: The Green Knight Arrives.

The image is a close-up, and is intended to show the moment before the Green Knight pounds on the door of King Arthur’s Christmas court. Here in icy silence, he wipes his brow and prepares for the trial ahead. After this night of wonders, lives will be changed and stories will be told. I wanted a close-up so that I could show the Green Knight’s weariness and wariness, and the dark inkiness of his foliate-tattooed arm. He is the actor waiting in the shadows of the stage-wings, tense and anxious. But when he steps into the limelight, all will be blazing energy and power and magic. The gesture is tender, solipsistic, self-comforting and unexpected. In the spaces around him will be a landscape. Possibly holly leaves, or the snowy pollarded trees that didn’t make it into Christmas at Camelot. For me, this is the playtime, before the hard work of bringing the print into the world.