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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jack-in-the-studio

Jack is my companion at all times, and as he has a basket at the ready for snoozing in up in the studio, it’s little wonder that he occasionally makes appearances in my paintings. Here in a detail from The Rapture (2011) he’s been angelically hoisted aloft, along with his master, like aerialists from Cirque du Soleil.

Jack is an accomplished model, and he posed beautifully in the studio for this starring role alongside Raphael and the angel’s young charge, Tobias. Of course I didn’t dangle Jack from a hook in the ceiling while I painted him. He was lying on his side in his basket, but by depicting his harness as though it’s bearing his weight, and his ears as though streaming in the wind, the illusion of flight is conjured. Tobias’s untied and ribboning shoelace is probably my favourite part of the composition, along with Jack’s sideways look at the viewer. The oversized hand belongs to Raphael, the ‘catcher’ in this trapeze act.

It’s interesting to note that before I ever read the bible account of Tobias and the Angel (or the Tobias-themed novel Miss Garnet’s Angel by Sally Vickers), I always assumed the dog in the many paintings I’d seen of the subject, belonged not to Tobias, but to angel Raphael. It took my friends Nicolas and Frances to point out my error, by which time I was already wedded to my own notion. And so I reinvented the story, in my head, as one in which a dog arrives unannounced and is taken in as a stray by Tobias, though in reality it’s an emissary sent on ahead to smooth the way for its true master’s arrival. (This is my habit. If a story doesn’t quite fit together as I want it to, then I’ll add a subtext that no-one need know about other than me. In this way I’m like an actor figuring out the back-story that makes his character tick.)

In this detail from Green George (2007), Jack accompanies the maiden on a grassy knoll overlooking the killing-field, where both may have met their fates in the jaws of a dragon had not Saint George intervened and saved the day. Jack looks very interested in the action, and as soon as the dragon has been dispatched, he’s going to come down to check that the deed has been done well!

Finally we have My Dream Farm (2010), shown here in its entirety. You’ll have to play spot-the-dog with this one, as Jack is so small in the composition that he’s easily missed. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Read Damian Walford’s Tobias and the Angel poem The Rapture, HERE.

Green George: behind the scenes

To start the work I prepared maquettes of the saint, his horse and the dragon, and they were my principle tools throughout for finding the compositional forms. From the maquettes I made a few drawings and a series of simple colour studies to get the shapes of the figures really under my skin.

Maquettes

Above and below: the studio in 2007, with maquette and sketches blu-tacked to the walls and beams for daily reference. The head of the dragon was a trial-run for the full beast.

Above: maquette of George’s horse

Above: maquette of the dragon

Above: maquette of Saint George with wings.

Studies

Clive and Jack

I have no images of Green George in progress, save what can be seen in the background of this photograph taken by Pete Telfer. The girl, the dog and the horse have been completed, but George and the dragon are still a sea of red oxide under-paint. Jack is where he can usually be found, in his bed next to the easel. Note that ever hopeful of a game, he’s brought his frisbee to persuade Pete to play with him once the business of the moment is over and done with.

This is the final instalment of a series of posts about the painting Green George and how it was made. You can see the series in order by clicking on these links:

Green George 1: dragon-heart

Green George 2: the maze-garden

Green George 3: the favour

Green George 4: the tree-of-life saddle-cloth

Green George 5: the observers

Green George 6: the full picture

Green George 5: the observers

Damian Walford Davies wrote a poem about Green George, including it in a collection that had the painting on its cover.

Green George

Altar-
piece of spliced time:

the indie
damsel and dog an indi-

fferent audience
for the renegade cowboy-

fusilier with
Tommyhat and quilted

carmine horse
debouching from Oxwich

onto a Gol-
gotha meadow of camp-

anula to
spear a blue-tongued

gummy devil-
dragon and the tide lolls in.

Damian Walford Davies 2008

I like Damian’s ‘indie damsel’ description. Informal in her leggings and dance-slippers, the poet nails her look in two words. Succinct. Evocative.

Traditionally in compositions of Saint George and the Dragon, the young woman sits arrayed in finery, accompanied by a lamb, perhaps implying the nature of her sacrificial status. But I didn’t want to paint a lamb into this version of the story (lambs are too pretty, too vulnerable) and so my terrier Jack took its place. He’s giving the dragon a very hard stare, and you can be sure that when it’s been dispatched, he’ll be down in a flash to give the corpse a very thorough going over. (Let us not forget that this is the terrier who stole and then wolfed down my Shetland’s testicles after the pony had been gelded!) The dog makes a tiny point of worldliness in what after all is a rather unworldly painting. He’s focussed, confident, sure of his place in the scheme of things and prepared for any outcome. Had things been otherwise, and the dragon slain the saint, Jack would have swiftly and silently retreated, looking for another to be his protector. He has a dog’s sense of survival. In Jack World it’s a case of ‘The King is dead! Long live the King!’ But at least you know where you stand with him.

Green George 4: the tree-of-life saddle-cloth

I knew that I wanted a decorative cloth for George’s heavenly steed, to reference the custom of caparisoning medieval horses. I didn’t want horse-armour per se, but the saddle-cloth alone does the trick of making the animal appear heraldic. The design has its roots in the appliqué and quilting traditions of American folk-art. I kept it austerely black and white because there was so much colour elsewhere, and I didn’t want anything fighting with George’s green or the horse’s red. Look closely… very closely… and you’ll discover among the riot of flowers, foliage and fruit, a single blackbird. (You may have to click on the image and magnify it to find him.) I like to think that when all the blood-letting is done, his song will wash away the horrors.

Green George 3: the favour

‘Favours’ were usually scarves gifted by admirers to knights about to joust or leave for battle, and a recipient would wear the favour tied about his person. In the medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain sports the favour of a belt gifted to him by Lady Bertilak de Hautdesert. Wrapped twice around his waist, it’s a gift he later regrets accepting, and thereafter wears as a badge of his shame.

In this painting the favour tied around Saint George’s left upper arm is dragged upwards and out of the picture by the wind. In a hieratic composition of arrested movement, it’s the one thing that pulls away from the painting’s focus-point of the killing-blow. The saint, his horse, the maiden on the mount and the dog next to her, all fix attention on the task in hand. The favour alone seems bent on another mission, whipped toward heaven by the unseen ferment.

I’m quite secretive about the subtexts to my paintings, preferring that viewers create their own narratives. When making this painting, my secret knowledge was that the maiden on the mount was not the giver of George’s favour. His heart does not belong to her, which quite apart from the fact that she was very nearly the ‘Dragon’s Bride’ (or perhaps its meal), seems good enough reason for her pensive demeanour. But the time-honoured rituals must be observed, so there she sits, the token, if unwanted prize of a saint with other things on his mind. When a suitable period has elapsed, she’ll no doubt be parcelled off by her family to another suitor more inclined to wear her favour in battle, leaving George to his reveries of an absent, unidentified lover.

I add elements into paintings that can capture senses other than vision. I see the favour and in my inner-ear I hear its silk snap and crackle, tugged by a briny-scented wind from the sea.

The lance, a cool celadon green in George’s hand, turns molten red as it plunges into the dragon’s chest.

Green George 2: the maze-garden

In Uccellos’s Saint George and the Dragon (c. 1470), the saint’s sturdy mount prances past a dark sward that appears patterned with what might be a turf maze. I’ve always loved this mystery at the heart of the painting, and I borrowed the notion of it for Green George, though my maze is of the hedged variety. It can be seen only partially, located in the upper left quarter of the painting, laid out like a garden in front of the gate of the pristinely whitewashed castle/fortified walled-town that I conjured from the imposing ruins of Weobley Castle on Gower. The tail of the horse flows up through the composition to the left of the maze like a flaming bush, adding another layer of strangeness to a painting that for many is strange in just about all of its components, not the least of which is the greenness of the saint.