Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Clive Hicks-Jenkins: Paint Me A Story

Clive Hicks-Jenkins tells Anna Zaranko about his passion for narrative painting and delves into the theatre of his imagination

image: The Virgin of the Goldfinches. Collection of Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff. Acrylic on panel. 2009

Anna Zaranko writes:

WHEN THE AGE of lockdowns began, I assumed I would read. A lot. It would be a relief, an opportunity, a pleasure. Instead, concentration came unhitched and words scattered on the page and shunned each other in the mind. But in the places where snatches of poetry might usually gather, I found something different: a burgeoning capacity for images. They’d file or float past, like a great card index in my head, surprising me with the detail they’d imprinted into corners of my imagination. At about that time, a trail of vivid wooden birds led me via the paper-cuts and wood carvings of folk art to the work of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, whose rich, luminous images exploded into the dark corners of every winter room, seeing us through to the borders of spring.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is a highly-regarded Welsh artist, but his career as a figurative painter was preceded by that of actor, performer, puppeteer, choreographer, director, stage designer. Until, one day, he walked away from it all, to a solitary existence as assistant custodian at Tretower Castle in Wales, and emerged as a painter. Going on to work through the media of drawing, painting, printmaking, ceramics, animation, and artist’s books, he has produced an incredible body of highly distinctive work, including many projects in collaboration with the poets and musicians he has inspired.

AZ: Much of your work accompanies well-known or ancient stories: Hansel and Gretel; Gawain and the Green Knight, The Owl and the Nightingale, Beauty and the Beast, Elijah and the Raven. Speaking on fairy tales, Marina Warner quotes George Eliot, who said that stories are ‘primitive instruments of thought’, fundamental to our thinking, that we are a story-telling species and stories take us beyond what we know. What is the place of story and word for you, in your work as a figurative painter? 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
La Chasse: Study for an llustration for Olivia McCannon\’s \’Beauty & Beast\’, forthcoming from Design for Today in Winter 2021

CHJ: I find the word to be a far, far more inspiring place to set out from. Poetry and literature are my comfortable realms, and so ‘narrative’, which description is outrageously designated a pejorative by many art critics and educators, is where I’m happiest. If I can’t find a text to underpin whatever I’m trying to achieve, I’ll either write one myself, or walk away. So the words/descriptions will always be my starting points, even if I then choose to pick away at them, or disagree, or stretch the visual possibilities inherent in them. As an illustrator I’ve always found the most profitable places to explore are not the paving stones (the words), but the spaces between them, where things have room to grow.

Words will always be my starting point

AZ: Do you see yourself within a particularly British tradition of painting? 

It’s been said that as a painter I aligned myself with Neo-romanticism, which is the art I saw as a child and as a young adult. But remember I didn’t become a painter back then. I became one much later, in my forties. As I started to find my way through the morass of a career reinvention, I certainly returned to what I’d known back as a teenager in London, visiting galleries and my eyes greedily taking everything in. Piper, Vaughan, Colquhoun and MacBryde. Ivon Hitchens. For a while I immersed myself in a sort of turbulence that definitely mirrored my state of mind. 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Portrait of the Artist. The Barbican, 2018

AZ: This reminds me of something I heard Alice Oswald say on the radio recently, about the Welsh bard Taliesin, who began life as Gwion, servant of the witch Ceridwen, from whom he runs away, having accidentally swallowed some drops of a potion of inspiration. As she pursues him, he changes into all kinds of beasts, and eventually becomes a grain of wheat; she turns into a hen, gobbles him up, swallows him and gives birth to Taliesin the bard. And that just goes to show, says Oswald, how many transformations you need to undergo to become a poet…or a painter…

CHJ: That’s a wonderful quote, and one that resonates deeply with me. Nothing is easy or fast. Transformation is evolution, and generally speaking – unless it’s a virus – evolution won’t be hurried. I’ve occasionally tried to explain that my convoluted process of making art – translating the observed into maquettes/models, into photographs of maquettes/models exploring compositional possibilities, into drawings exploring those photographic compositions, into translations-of-drawings-into-art-through-the-medium-of-paint-and-pencils, might be compared to stepping out of my garden gate and walking twenty-five times round the block in order to get the house next door.

In time, I found my early explorations to be a dead end. Like a suit of borrowed clothes worn to a party, I was able to look the part, but I discovered my feelings were not the same as those artists, at that time, so I set them aside. 

Because they are more measured and reflective, I still love Nash and Ravilious, and on those borders between art and illustration, Bawden. Then there’s David Jones and Stanley Spencer. But am I aligned to them? Not sure. Truthfully I don’t look much at fine art these days. I look to ‘Outsider’ art, folk art and applied arts. I think it’s probably because I edge away from anything that may overly influence me. If I need a fix, I turn to the early Renaissance and those largely anonymous ‘narrative’ artists who have been such a source of inspiration to me, painting before optical lenses, the camera obscura, the camera lucida and the modern camera, forever changed the way artists – and their patrons – would see.  

Whatever people think they see in my painting, the regions I more comfortably inhabit as an easel artist lie in the early Renaissance and in twentieth-century modernism. 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Blue Boy. (Saint Hervé and the Wolf) Acrylic on panel. 2011 

There are exceptions, the major one being George Stubbs. Stubbs is my God. Always Stubbs, in my mind’s eye and in my heart. There is no other like him. Not one. People talk about Munnings as a defining painter of horses, but he came after the photographer Muybridge had unveiled the secrets of locomotion in animals with his camera. In the eighteenth century Stubbs had no reference photographs, and there is a wonderful strangeness in his work that is utterly mesmerising. Look at Hambletonian, Rubbing Down, the most extraordinary painting ever produced in these islands. The horse looks so plausible. But on closer inspection, we see it stands on its two far-side legs, which is completely bizarre, because Stubbs knew that a horse cannot stand on two legs on one side. It would simply keel over, like a billboard in a storm! When standing, it must always have two supporting legs in opposition. Why did the artist do it? I believe he painted what felt right, because it gave the painting an incredible tension. The painting goes way beyond representation, or a commission from a wealthy man to celebrate his animal’s win in a race. Hambletonian isn’t painted in the style of a winner. He looks terrified, at his limits, ears back and eyes wide. It’s a painting all about physical extremes, and I suspect the man who commissioned it would have been perplexed and dissatisfied. But that’s Stubbs for you. He sees with an inner eye. 

I look to Stubbs.

AZ: Many of your paintings seem touched by a sense of fundamental tragedy that seems to lie just beneath the surface, always in the process of unfolding somewhere behind the story. Yet each work is also absolutely in the present, an immediate, vital encounter of some kind. Do you feel this tension when you are working? Or do you suddenly become aware of it afterwards?

CHJ: Both.  Sometimes the tension is the subject matter. I set out deliberately to explore it. But occasionally it comes in the aftermath, in ways I recognise with distance. 

Approaching a difficult subject is at times like approaching a horse that’s got out of the paddock. There’s absolutely no point in making for it head-on. It’ll just bolt and leave you looking foolish. You have to feign interest elsewhere, avert your gaze, talk to yourself and hum while edging steadily closer, backwards. I do that a lot. It’s why I play in the studio. Make models, compose assemblages and even make little animated films. They’re all ways of approaching that flighty horse who doesn’t want to look you in the eye.

Kevin and the Sunflowers by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Kevin and the Sunflowers

I do value the tragic things I’ve experienced. They need to be faced. After all, there’s a great deal to be learned from them. (And mined.) Like anyone I’d rather be happy than in a state of misery. But happiness doesn’t necessarily make the kinds of paintings I’m interested in. Nor the films, or books or music. Sometimes, but not invariably.

AZ: There are many encounters between human beings and animals in your work, but there’s nothing sentimental about these, no pretence of what creatures can be to each other. What I do see is an extraordinary tenderness, which brings to mind the words of Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize speech in 2018, when she said: ‘Tenderness is the most modest form of love… it appears wherever we take a close and careful look at another being, at something that is not our “self”… it is the conscious, though perhaps slightly melancholy, common sharing of fate.’

CHJ: Tenderness is a word that certainly expresses my feelings toward the sufferer, whether Beast, Saint, or Man-transformed-into-Beast. And pity, too, in the proper sense of the word. I’ve observed the natural world all my life, and living where I do I bear witness every day to the underlying cruelties of existence. There are no ‘rest homes’ for elderly songbirds. They live only while they’re resilient, until something goes wrong, and then they’re gone. 

I’m not entirely sure that what we do for our elderly is a kindness, once bad things happen to the brain and the body. As an artist I don’t turn away from these things, exploring fear (AIDS) – and failing health (my father’s) – in my series The Mare’s Tale.

I do value the tragic things I’ve experienced. They need to be faced. After all, there’s a great deal to be learned from them

AZ: The Mare’s Tale is an immensely powerful – quite terrifying – series of drawings, centred on the mumming figure of the Mari Lwyd, a spectral mare. In another painting, Flow (accompanying Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time), you depict the suffering Christ with his head tilted to one side, flanked by two small trees of the enchanting birds that often appear in your work. Can you tell us something about this composition?

CHJ: Matthias Grünwald’s Crucifixion altarpiece underlies the subject matter of Flow, which is that of the flagellated – and speared – Christ. But it’s no good, I simply can’t offer such horror straight up, without balancing it with the beautiful, mesmerising and strange. So I made Christ as a maquette, a puppet of sorts, with overlapping joints and pivots, and beautiful hands. Moreover I framed the composition with carved and painted birds on ornamental stands (folk-art), so that the viewer would have somewhere else to go, away from the marks of torture. The birds also became the witnesses. No one should have to go through this horror alone. In the altarpiece there are the attendant figures. In Flow there are just the birds, which though mute, bring tenderness-by-witness. My belief is that a puppet is just as able to express ideas of fatigue, pain and grief, as a person. By representing the tortured Christ in this way, I can bring myself to look. I can enter the space, empathise, express pity and tenderness with my mark-making, without traumatising myself. 

I recently gave up reading a book in which there was a visceral, unsparing account of Japanese soldiers inefficiently slaughtering zoo animals after defeat by the Allies. The premise was that there could be no danger of dangerous beasts escaping onto the streets as society fragmented, but they didn’t have enough bullets to do the job cleanly. I made it to the end of that chapter, but then just had to set the book aside. I won’t return to it. I couldn’t inhabit that space any more. 

I don’t want to drive anyone away from a painting, the way I was driven from that book. There needs to be a dialogue in order for a painting to work, and while it’s not my job to change a narrative to keep the viewer looking, there are ways to express truths that don’t involve the equivalent of being a photo-journalist.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
The Stain of Sin. (Study for a screen-print) 2017

AZ: Yes, it also calls to mind Goethe’s injunction that if you wish to find the infinite, you should explore the finite. It’s entirely right, somehow, that mixed among the birds, and toys, and creatures, and familiar meaningful objects we should find important questions. Perhaps just as puppets can reveal something about the human condition, a stage set can capture the genius loci

CHJ: Puppets and stage sets: it’s not even that I believe they can, at a push. I believe they do, unquestionably, and moreover more deeply and more truthfully than many of the more usual suspects. 

AZ: You began by painting landscapes – did the inspiration of theatre, of the stage, influence how your approach to that developed?  To your handling of the sky, for example, or a horizon? 

CHJ: Undoubtedly. In creative terms, I’m happier within the self-contained, hermetic world of the stage: the stage, the puppet stage, the dolls’ house, the peep-show, the zoetrope, they all focus and intensify experience. They lead me where I need to go in order to better understand. To me they’re places of meditation and revelation. Though I love the ‘real’ world and its myriad wonders, I have never been happier than when sitting in a darkened space, losing myself in the imagined.

Wherever possible I used to avoid the horizon when I was a landscape artist. I used to find every which way to break up that dreaded straight line, and devised formalised strategies I’d haul out of a bag-of-tricks to take the edge off my unease with the straight horizon. I’d skew everything, pitch the lot at an impossible angle, so that if there were a straight line involved, it wouldn’t be horizontal. But for the most part I used natural topography to break things up, or weather conditions to obfuscate. I was never a realist – or not for long – and so if what was in front of me didn’t offer a solution, I’d invent something.

AZ: Your latest project is another of the many creative collaborations you’ve embarked upon – an artist’s book: anhommage to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête which you are producing together with the poet Olivia McCannon, who is writing the words. Reading Cocteau’s account of filming, there’s a breathless urgency about it; he’s all over the place, one scene never methodically following the next – common enough when filming, but particularly brought out in his account. The director holds everything together in his mind while proceeding to work in an entirely non-linear way. How does this compare with how you might work on a book?

CHJ: Our work on the book is at least as weird and dislocated as any film schedule. I began making completed images before the text had even been started, some of which I may well need to re-visit for revising/re-painting. Olivia and I were having lots of e-mail discussions about every aspect of the story and how we’d approach it, and to begin with those e-mails were pretty much my principle source of material, because they were full of wonderful ideas. While Olivia was getting to grips with narrative structure, I began the process of ‘designing’ the characters. Just as she was translating the story into the one we would tell, I was translating the characters of the film into my actors for the page. What works in the film could have been adapted to a book, had we been content to make a graphic novel version of it.  Neither of us had any enthusiasm for that, neither did I want to hobble myself with forever having to think about ‘likenesses’ of Marais and Day in their roles, marvellous though they both were. Our Belle and her Bête needed to be conjured out of our feelings for the characters and where we wanted to take them, not raised from the dead.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Christ writes in the Dust

We’ve worked together on segments of the new narrative entirely out of sequence. We know exactly where sequences fall in the sense that this is a fairytale with a known storyline, though we’re making significant changes to it and to the outcomes for the protagonists. 

There’s been no problem keeping the linear trajectory intact while we solve the problems of any one scene, and then figure out how that impacts earlier or later ones. We have a shared overview, and it’s akin to looking down on a map of a journey, being able to see the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ and where the characters are at any given moment. We’re poring over the Diary of a Film, assembled from Cocteau’s diary while making La Belle et la Bête, as well as his biographies and the film script. We’re both in the film’s world and outside it, reading it through the experiences of those who were a part of the filming, and from our perspectives as admirers. 

If I need a fix, I turn to the early Renaissance and those largely anonymous ‘narrative’ artists who have been such a source of inspiration

AZ: You’ve painted saints and creatures together and your beautiful Temptations of Solitude sequence was a response to fragments of a Tuscan altarpiece at Christ Church in Oxford, showing the lives of the desert fathers.  These are subjects that can hover between folk tale and myth and religion. Moving to a subject like the Annunciation is to shift onto slightly different ground. When you were working on paintings such as The Virgin of the Goldfinches, for example, did you approach these subjects with a sense of exploration and freedom, or were you aware of constraints, of painting within a tradition?

CHJ: I’d made two Annunciations by the time I came to make the third, which later became known as The Virgin of the Goldfinches. The first two had been personal explorations, made out of my fascination with the subject. Both had gone into private collections, one here in Wales and another in the Netherlands. I began the third because I wasn’t done with the subject, and the draft drawing for it was on the easel when it was spotted by William Gibbs of the Contemporary Art Society of Wales on a visit to my studio. He asked whether CASW might underwrite completion of the painting as a part of that year’s purchasing plan. I agreed. William had a notion that it should go to the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea, who had previously lost out on their bid to acquire a large work of mine from CASW. 

I completed the painting. It was made from the heart and from my own admittedly mythic reading of the subject matter. In the end the painting didn’t go to the Glynn Vivian (again), but to Llandaff Cathedral, having been seen by the then Dean, who without hesitation (or consulting his colleagues) marked it down for the Cathedral’s collection. It came as a surprise to me to hear that it was going to a church and not a museum. And it was quite a challenge when I was brought in by the Dean to answer questions by the assembled clergy of Llandaff, because it had never crossed my mind the painting would be viewed and judged in that context. In answer to your question, I’d felt completely free of constraints when I’d made it. I’m not at all sure it would have been even close to what I produced had I been commissioned by the Cathedral at the outset. I didn’t feel bound by any particular ‘traditional’ iconography.

Green George
Green George. Acrylic on panel. 2007

All three Annunciations had their origins in the Bellini Annunciation in the Accademia, Venice. This is a passage from my notebook, written in the Accademia in May 2003 while standing in front of the painting. (Peter and the friends we were on holiday with toured the entire Accademia in the time I remained thunderstruck in front of one painting.)

“The angel seems frozen in the moment of entering the room. The door could barely have contained him. There is an awkwardness in the painting of the raised hand of benediction, but I like the feet enormously, harnessed unforgettably in a fetishist’s skin-tight, coral leather. His robes are arranged in oddly stiff folds, as though the artist has composed a still life in the studio from an empty garment and then painted the result onto the figure.”

“The lily the angel carries cuts a silhouette through the bright light reflected from a window-shutter. I love the formality of the room: the tiled floor with the asymmetric vanishing point, and the dream-like landscape beyond. But the beauty of the painting for me lies in Gabriel’s turbulent, headlong rush into the soundless vacuum of the room where Mary waits in stillness. It’s the captured moment before his wings unfurl, after which the air will be filled with feathers, cool, billowing satin and flying golden hair. And nothing will ever be the same again.”

AZ: A new setting and challenge would be, perhaps, an altarpiece, which modern artists (including Jean Cocteau) have tackled in very different ways. Is this a commission you would welcome? 

It is. However I suspect it would be fraught with problems, not the least of which would be the subject, which would require every ounce of skill and insight I possess, and then some. The thing that would most likely prove problematic, is that for me painting is an intensely private engagement. It’s the nature of commissions that everything has to be agreed mutually at the outset, so that those who pay the bills know what it is that they’ll be getting for their investment. I understand that completely.  But it’s simply not the way it works for me. What happens at the easel can’t be predicted, and no matter what I’ve said – or agreed – at an earlier stage, at the point I’m bringing the work to completion, I need to be free to go where it carries me. Revelation is very likely the same in art as it is in a religious context. When it comes, you have to answer. 

I had a commission from the Methodist Collection of Twentieth Century Art to paint the subject of The Woman Taken in Adultery. The subject was chosen and underwritten by a private donor, with whom I had a meeting at the outset, to determine whether I was the artist for the job. There were no specifications about how the painting would look. The conversation we had was all about understanding and empathy. Thereafter I was left to find my way to the finishing line. I felt entrusted and inspired. It was a wonderful experience. (The painting was titled, by me, Christ Writes in the Dust.)

AZ: Let’s hope the stars align in your favour and the right place for such a piece emerges!

[Clive Hicks-Jenkins was born in Wales in 1951. The early part of his career was as a choreographer and stage director. In the 1990s he turned to painting. He shows regularly with the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff, has had many solo exhibitions. His paintings, prints and private press books are in numerous public and private collections and libraries around the world.  He provided the illustrations for Simon Armitage’s Hansel and Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, published by Design for Today, which won the V&A Illustrated Book Award. Forthcoming projects include illustrations for Armitage’s translation of The Owl and the Nightingale, and for a retelling of Beauty and the Beast with poet Olivia McCannon. Clive Hicks-Jenkins is a Royal Cambrian Academician and an Honorary Fellow of Aberystwyth Unviersity School of Art. In 2017, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts by Southampton Solent University.]

A Seventieth Birthday Retrospective is anticipated during the second half of 2021 at the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff. Please refer to the website for updates:

MARCH 2021 Anna Zaranko MONK

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