Clive and Aleksy in conversation

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While I’m eager to share new work here, I agree with Dan at Penfold Press that we need to hold back from full disclosure of preparatory images for the Gawain series until the prints are ready to launch. So here, by way of a compromise, are some details of the paint and pencil study for The Green Knight Takes Gawain’s Blow, shown in black and white rather than in colour. They’re by way of accompaniments to a conversation between me and my friend Aleksy Cichoń in Poland, who has seen this colour study in full, and today has written to me about it

Aleksy: The radiance of colour in this piece is amazing. But I have a question – who is character in base of column? Samson or Atlas?

Clive: He’s a Green Man. Look closely and you’ll see the foliate patterning on his robe. Here, carved in stone, is an early personification of the ancient magic embodied in the Green Knight. And the sepulchre crowned with a winged-lion (above) is also foliate patterned, as though there have been other Green Knights before this one, and the ancient tomb is always waiting for a new occupant. In addition the stone man and lion act as witnesses to the event, as I didn’t want the visual distraction of the King, Queen and courtiers looking on.

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Aleksy: When I’m reading your words about this picture… I’m pretty sure that you’re representative of timeless generation of artists, true artists. What true artists do? They create artificial world based on philosophical rules. Furthermore, the image must be like philosophical treatise – multi-leveled, subtle model of petite universe. Well, you can do it. Gawain and Green Knight as universal figures of eternal drama – I’m shivering when I think about it. It’s good sign.

I’m in love with Green Knight’s melancholic acquiescence of his beheading.

Clive: I’m glad you like the Green Knight’s acquiescence. I find it rather sexy, this mighty presence bowing to the blade.

Aleksy: I’m aware of Knight’s load of sensuality, but melancholy side is the most attractive hue of character. Or maybe I’ve read too many books like ‘The Confusions of Young Törless’ and my outlook is distorted. Might be.

Clive: I agree with you about the ‘melancholy hue’. It is the abiding mood of this drawing.

Gawain is crimson, steeped in the blood of all victims who’ve been slaughtered in the name of faith or their masters’ causes. I wanted him to have a whiff of the Inquisition. He’s presented as flawed/tainted in the poem, though he’s definitely heroic in the terms of the times. But things are not so simple now, and we have better insights into what all these fabulous warriors actually did… the Templars, the Crusaders and the Samurai and their ilk, the Alexanders and Lawrences of history, and the Gawains, Lancelots and Lochinvars of fable. No matter how nobly they may be presented, they’re harbingers of death, albeit wrapped up in the ‘honour’ of whichever variety they subscribe to. I wanted this Gawain to be complicated!

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Clive: I haven’t had time enough to write to you as much as I would like. Up to my eyeballs in work. No doubt you are too.

I really like this spoof by Mallory Ortberg on Gawain and Green Knight . Made me laugh out loud with it’s American youth jargon! It’s pretty brief, yet conveys the story arc remarkably successfully!

Aleksy: The American Green Knight – pretty funny! And it reminded me some Polish experiments made by St. Barańczak – great polish translator of Shakespeare’s. He wants to summarize content of the dramas in short funny rhymes. As I remember, tragedies (like in original) were ending in oceans of blood, so precis was faithful.

Aleksy is responding in drawings to my progress through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You can see his first drawing, The Green Knight Arrives, HERE.

My own Green Knight Arrives colour-study for a print can’t yet be revealed, but here’s a detail of the drawing for it.

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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.

Clive, Aleksy and the Green Knight

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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.

 

Clive:

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

Aleksy:

Dear Clive,
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.

Clive:

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.

 

 

The Green Knight Cometh

The colour separations for the second print in the Gawain series, The Green Knight Arrives, are all but complete. Work slowed today at the final hurdle when I went down fast with a cold. (Like zero-to-sixty-miles-an-hour-in-three-seconds-flat.) Dan Bugg and I have agreed not to show the print in progress, saving the big reveal for later. So this is the one and only glimpse you’re going to get of it until the launch. The image shows the artwork for one of the layers of the composition to be transferred to a silkscreen, next to a fragment of the colour study made as a guide for Dan.

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A new print begins.

Spoiler Alert

 

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If you haven’t read the wonderful poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and intend to do so, then read no further, because this post contains spoilers.

I’m having a series of really interesting exchanges about Sir Gawain and his green nemesis, with my friend Aleksy in Poland. At the beginning of the narrative, the Green Knight appears to be a thing of flesh… albeit green… and blood. However, quite quickly everyone present witnesses the event that reveals him to be ‘not as other men’. People don’t usually go around being able to pick up their own severed heads, as this one does, and then ride off on horseback into a winter night.

That supernatural tone of our first encounter with the Knight, permeates the poem with wonder and dread. Gawain, on his quest, knows that he must submit, for honour’s sake, to the Green Knight’s blade, as the Green Knight has submitted to him. And at the end of the poem he does. Sort of.

Moreover, he survives the eventual encounter, though he flinches beneath the axe. But then the mystery is swiftly stripped away, and the ‘Green Knight’ reveals his true, human identity. He claims that the enchantress Morgan le Fey persuaded him to help her trick Arthur and his knights, to test their mettle, and that it was by use of her magic that the ‘Green Knight’ was conjured from the aristocrat, Bertilak de Hautdesert.

This ‘explanation’ has never worked for me. The extraordinary, visceral encounter that leads to Gawain’s year-long quest to find the ‘Green Knight’, feels real in every aspect. It’s violent, bloody, and spine-tinglingly ‘supernatural’. It is not some stage-illusion in a nightclub, but takes place in the middle of the Christmas Court. Moreover, it’s as though at the end of the tale, the writer doesn’t believe the explanation either, because it’s delivered briefly, without much conviction. It feels to me as though the supernatural is being waved aside, with Gawain being told that it was all just flim-flam, smoke and mirrors, just as a parent will reassure a child that ogres and witches don’t exist, so that sleep will come unattended by nightmares!

I like to think that perhaps a supernatural world protects itself by such deceits, pretending that its enchantments are just trickery, so that humans are misled into believing their eyes have deceived them. I think on the Anne Rice novel Interview with a Vampire, in which the undead hide in plain sight on the stage of a fashionable Grand Guignol theatre, presenting their bloody appetites as entertainments for the city’s beau monde.

And so in my head, I add a scene to the poem, in which Gawain, having said farewell to the Green Knight/Bertilak at the Green Knight’s ‘Chapel’, has a change of heart about returning immediately to Camelot, and decides instead to call at the fair Castle de Hautdesert, perhaps to see Bertilak’s beautiful tease-of-a-wife for the last time. But when he arrives, he finds an ancient, crumbling ruin overtaken by woodland, where only days before he’d lodged in splendour. Nothing is what you think in the world of faerie!

I am a little in love with that Green Knight, walking stoically to his horse while carrying his own head! There is a moment in the poem that I always come back to. When the Green Knight’s head falls to the ground under Gawain’s blow, it rolls along the floor, and the bystanders kick out at it. Here are the lines in a translation by Paul Deane.

‘Gawain held the ax high overhead,
his left foot set before him on the floor,
swung swiftly at the soft flesh
so the bit of the blade broke through the bones,
crashed through the clear fat and cut it in two,
and the brightly burnished edge bit into the earth.
The handsome head fell, hit the ground,
and rolled forward; they fended it off with their feet.’

Brave actions in this Court of Chivalry, to make a game of football of a decapitation. Little wonder Camelot later came undone!

Winter Knight Redux

While surfing Pinterest for reference material on armour as I progress with my Gawain print series with the Penfold Press, I chanced upon this version of my 2014 painting, Winter Knight. I have no idea who made it, but I rather like the vibrant green/red combo, and the collaged wooly beard! I like, too, the fine, squiggly marks on the fur collar, which look as though they might be sgrafitto. (Marks made by scratching through wet paint to the underlying colour/surface.)

Here’s the original, for comparison. Have to say that I feel rather flattered that someone wanted to make their own version, and I really like it!

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.

The Making of Christmas at Camelot

An album of images, from first drawings through to final print.

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Christmas at Camelot by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Seven-colour screen-print editioned by Daniel Bugg at The Penfold Press.

Numbering seventy-five prints, signed, titled and numbered by the artist, and stamped by The Penfold Press.

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Christmas at Camelot

Preparing to start on the series Gawain and the Green Knight with Dan Bugg at Penfold Press has been the biggest adventure. And now we’re off at a gallop with the first in the series of fourteen editioned prints based on the poem. Click on the link below to read James Russell’s bracing description of the image.

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You can find details of the print at The Penfold Press

The Making of Gringolet: part 2

The finished maquette.

There are thirty separate parts that make up the maquette, including the bars and cams at the back of it.

Of course there is none of the stretch and compression of real flesh. The card is unyielding. This is what I celebrate in the maquettes by frequently showing their angularities and segmentations in the paintings I make, but also fight against by finding ever-increasingly ingenious ways to make plausible movement. I both celebrate the flattening out and awkwardness, and continue to tinker with it, to extend the possibilities of the maquettes, and it’s probably the tension between these two that pleases me most. I want them to be real and not real at the same time. Convincing, and unconvincing. Puppets are always at their best when they are being puppets, and not getting too close to being the real things they imitate.

It’s complicated. But then all the best things are!

And the technique really comes into its own in my search for expressive movement.