Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Painted maquette of Gawain, by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, 2015 (artist's copyright)
I don't remember a huge amount about my first year at university (it was 1985, after all) but I do recall that all the English students had to read 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' in the original olde English, and that none of them seemed to enjoy it very much. Well, I've been reading this remarkable medieval poem in Simon Armitage's newish translation, and have enjoyed the experience hugely.

Its author, the mysterious Pearl Poet, lived and worked around the same time as Chaucer (14th century) and in this translation, at least, the story seems closer in spirit to 'The Canterbury Tales' than to 'The Mabinogion'. Gawain is not an idealised knight but a human being who is tormented by temptation and who - crucially - fails to resist. Actually his fellow knights don't seem that concerned about his fall from grace, considering the womanly wiles to which he is subjected, but he feels that he has failed dismally. He is not a cipher in a helmet, but a proud, flawed young man.

Chaucer would no doubt have described Gawain's temptations more earthily, yet their description is in the spirit of his Tales, and the counterpoint between scenes of hunting and seduction is glorious. Here and there I'm also reminded of 'Don Quixote' (in translation, alas), in the sense that the Pearl Poet seems to be playing with the traditions and expectations of medieval chivalry. On one level, Gawain is the butt of a rather cruel joke: he thinks he's a bold knight on a brave and noble quest, but he is deceived - rather as the squire of La Mancha deceives himself.

Although I do love a bit of knight errantry, there is an ulterior motive to all this. I'm involved as a sort of writer-in-residence in a collaboration between painter Clive Hicks-Jenkins and printmaker Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press. Together they are to produce a set of fourteen editioned screenprints illustrating 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', with the first one under way. Having already worked with an impressive roster of artists (Mark Hearld, Emily Sutton, Angela Harding, Jonny Hannah, Ed Kluz), Dan relishes this kind of collaboration.

Painted maquettes for Gawain & Gringolet, Clive Hicks-Jenkins, 2015 (artist's copyright)
Clive, meanwhile, has been exploring the story of Gawain for years, which probably doesn't come as a surprise if you know his work. A former actor, choreographer and theatre director, he was first inspired as a painter by the Welsh landscape and the spirit of the Neo-Romantics. Subsequently, however, he has found rich veins of material in Bible stories, Welsh mythology and an array of narratives involving saints and animals (wolves, dragons and the like); he is also, I should add, a prodigious creator of artist's books.

Over the years he has evolved an unusual, distinctive approach to painting, which sees him first create articulated maquettes of figures. These he manipulates into shapes that a real model (human or animal) would struggle to achieve, so that the figure(s) form part of a fully integrated design in which negative space is as valuable as positive. The upshot is that the paintings are bold, stylised and quivering with life. They are colourful, but not pretty. An early version of the Green Knight is fairly scary, while paintings of Gawain show a vulnerable young man, proud and unaware of what fate has in store...

For more information do have a look at Clive's artlog or visit the Penfold Press.

1 comment:

  1. How extraordinary, I did not know about the articulated maquettes but now it all makes sense.