the Origins of ‘Startled Peacocks’

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The painting has its roots in earlier work and interests. I’ve always been drawn to images of animals, and Stubbs is the master. His Horse Attacked by a Lion of 1769 has lodged in my mind since first I saw it, and it stays there still, appalling and sublime.

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Stubbs was working from classical models, as artists throughout history have done. The herbivore brought down by a carnivore is a potent metaphor for power unleashed upon the vulnerable, recognised and understood across cultures.

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In my painting The Barbarian Brought Down by a Lioness (collection of MoMA Mach), based on an episode drawn from the fragments of a Renaissance altarpiece at Christ Church Picture Gallery depicting the Lives of the Desert Fathers, I showed a man being mauled by a lioness, his limbs broken. Here’s a detail of her claws raking as she embeds her teeth in his abdomen. Her back is knotted with muscles. She’s as elemental as the heaving waves in Amlwch Harbour behind her.

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I drew on many models that had caught my eye, particularly Romanesque carved capitals of beasts attacking men.

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Lions have featured extensively in my work, though never in terms of studies from life. I’m interested in their forms and how they fill the spaces of compositions, and of course in what they can represent. Here’s a painting titled The Lion in Winter, made when lions were densely populating my imagination and sketchbooks. He stands on a pedestal in a snowbound landscape, the ruins of a Welsh slate mill behind him.

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The drawing for Startled Peacocks began with the Stubbs image so deeply etched in my imagination. Those wide jaws clamped down hard, haunt me.

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I listened to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time throughout the process of making the painting. The horror of my subject matter, a metaphor. Beauty and strength (the winged horse) brought down by brute force. Christ scourged and crucified.

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I worked by daylight with the large sash-window to my left thrown open, and after dark by lamplight. The images of the work in progress vary in colour because of the light conditions, though the photograph at the top of the post shows the painting as it appears when viewed in person. It was scanned for me in the photography department of the National Library of Wales, and the reproduction of its colour is spot on.

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I enjoy the images of the work in progress in all their variation, from the blue cast loaned by dusk to the gold washed across from the anglepoise  lamp I use after dark. Paintings, once framed and out in the world will be seen in light conditions beyond my control, so I like to see for myself how the effects of light of many types affect the images.

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Painting Made for Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.

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Daniel Broncano, who’d invited me to work on the Messiaen project, had written to me about the prisoner-of-war camp in which the composer had been incarcerated while he wrote the piece. The music had been first performed in the camp by inmates, and so I began my initial work by expressively exploring the physical environment and conditions of the music’s making. I worked in black and white. But then Daniel wrote again, this time suggesting that I read the biblical texts Messiaen had been inspired by. He also explained why he thought I should work in colour. I stopped what I’d been doing, took some time to think through Daniel’s ideas. and started afresh.

I often find that an earlier piece of work can kick start a new process of creativity. On this occasion I looked to my print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’d made a design of foliate scrolling and peacocks as an embrodery pattern for the caparison of Gawain’s horse, Gringolet. That became my starting point for Quartet for the End of Time.

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The composition advanced quickly from there. I thought not so much in terms of solid colour, as building a picture from textures, transparencies and the prismatic effects sometimes see in the sheen of insects’ wings. I used maquettes of a winged horse and a cat-like beast to build the composition.

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I’ve frequently used cats both wild and domesticated in my compositions, and this one became a hybrid, built from a lion, a tiger and a leopard. Its tail sprang leaves, blossom and fruit. Massed and layered textures swarmed over the composition. The beasts’ pelts writhed with mark-making and the background became an inky sea of gouache, the matt density a pleasing contrast to the polish of the heavily worked pencil rendering of flora and fauna. I played with the joints of the maquettes, emphasising them to suggest layers of making. There’s a sense of imminent dissolution, as though all the pieces are about to drift away. I like the borderlands where representation collides with the artificiality of a construct. Increasingly in my work it’s where I’m most comfortable.

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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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