Painting is "a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors, as well as our desires."
The Tale of St. George and the Dragon (Wikipedia)
According to the Golden Legend the narrative episode of Saint George and the Dragon took place in a place he called "Salone," in Libya. The Golden Legend is the first to place this legend in Libya, as a sufficiently exotic locale, where a dragon might be imagined.
The town had a pond, as large as a lake, where a plague-bearing dragon dwelled that envenomed all the countryside. To appease the dragon, the people of Silene used to feed it a sheep every day, and when the sheep failed, they fed it their children, chosen by lottery.
It happened that the lot fell on the king's daughter. The king, distraught with grief, told the people they could have all his gold and silver and half of his kingdom if his daughter were spared; the people refused. The daughter was sent out to the lake, decked out as a bride, to be fed to the dragon.
Saint George by chance rode past the lake. The princess, trembling, sought to send him away, but George vowed to remain.
The dragon reared out of the lake while they were conversing. Saint George fortified himself with the Sign of the Cross, charged it on horseback with his lance and gave it a grievous wound. Then he called to the princess to throw him her girdle and put it around the dragon's neck. When she did so, the dragon followed the girl like a meek beast on a leash. She and Saint George led the dragon back to the city of Silene, where it terrified the people at its approach. But Saint George called out to them, saying that if they consented to become Christians and be baptised, he would slay the dragon before them.
The king and the people of Silene converted to Christianity, George slew the dragon, and the body was carted out of the city on four ox-carts. "Fifteen thousand men baptized, without women and children." On the site where the dragon died, the king built a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint George, and from its altar a spring arose whose waters cured all disease."
"Flight of Swallows Over the Field of Gold"
And, not that Perseus is my favorite or anything, but Wikipedia goes on to say: "It is also possible that the 'George and the Dragon' myth is derived from the myth of Perseus and Andromeda."
According to his website:
Clive Hicks-Jenkins "...worked as an actor in films and television, and toured Europe and America as a dancer. From his early twenties until his mid thirties, Hicks-Jenkins was a highly successful choreographer, director and stage designer, creating productions with leading companies, including the Vienna Festival, the Almeida Theatre, Theatr Clwyd and Cardiff New Theatre, where he was Associate Producer. His stage designs displayed a powerful vision, and exhibitions of them were held at Oriel Theatr Clwyd, Cardiff New Theatre and Newport Museum and Art Gallery."
After a while, he tired of the traveling life of a performer, resettled in Wales and began to focus entirely on the visual arts he'd been developing as a set-designer and mask-maker for theater performances.
From the Mari Lwyd series.
A 2005 article in the Journal of Mythic Arts gives a description of the Mari Lwyd tale and its traditions:
"The Mari Lwyd, or Grey Mare, is an ancient figure found in Welsh folklore, a spectral messenger between the worlds of the living and the dead. In a centuries–old folk drama still enacted in parts of Wales today, the Mari Lwyd is represented by a horse’s skull mounted on a decorated pole and carried from door to door by a man hidden under a long white sheet. In some areas this took place at night, the Mari Lwyd led through the streets by a group of rowdy wassail singers bearing lanterns to light the way. As described in Crafts, Customs, and Culture in Clwyd (1981): "The first intimation often received was the sight of this prowling monster peeping around into the room…or sometimes shewing his head by pushing it through an upstairs window." The men accompanying the Mari Lwyd then knock loudly upon the door and challenge the inmates of the house to a pwnco, or contest of wits. This contest is conducted through the musical exchange of traditional and improvised verses that are rudely satirical in nature, with each participant insulting the other’s singing, drunkeness, etc. The Mari Lwyd group is required to win the challenge in order to gain entrance to the house, whereupon they partake of cake and ale, sing a farewell song, and then depart. Though the ritual is now generally performed at Christmas, scholars date the Mari Lwyd figure back to the pre–Roman era and believe she originated in the winter rites of the Celtic horse goddess Rhiannon. Similar customs can be found in Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria, Slovenia and other Celtic areas of Europe."
"It Comes at a Clacking Rattling Run"
(From the Mari Lwyd Series)
From a poem by Catriona Urquhart, written for a gallery showing of the Mari Lwyd works:
"But it is never welcome,
not to me.
I would forbid it entry if I could.
I'd lock the door and swallow down the key
and never face again the swirling hood
around that gruesome grin,
that monstrous, spectral head.
I'd swap our Chrismas plenty
for a begging bowl.
I'd barter all I have
if I might win.
I'd be good forever
if only God would strike it dead;
but Hetty lifts the latch and lets it in."
(From the Mari Lwyd series)
"For many years," writes Clive, "I made a daily car journey from Newport to Tretower Court near Crickhowell, and in all that time I don't think that I once passed through the village of Llanover without slowing to a snail's pace, drawn by the darkly mysterious painting of a Mari Lwyd above the Post Office door. I'd never seen a Mari Lwyd other than in that painted sign, but my father had, and late in life he recounted his childhood terror of the sheeted horror which had come at him out of the night. The memory had stuck, ambushing him at moments of vulnerability. All his life his family were aghast at the power nightmares had to unseat his usual composure, but by the light of day he was a man who walked in the sunshine, laughed a lot, and was content.
"He was eighty-four before he admitted to what had been bothering him, looked at it in my drawings, called it by its name, faced it down. As he lay dying in hospital, besieged by God knows what unseen monsters, he cried out and battled with his bed-sheets. He never liked to be confined by a sheet. Too much like the Mari, and too much like a shroud. With his passing the Mari Lwyd became central to my work, but quickly slipped the tether of its folk custom origins, metamorphosing into something less corporeal."
(From the Mari Lwyd series)
In the 19th century, a group of panels depicting the "Lives of the Desert Fathers," already several centuries old, was broken up and dispersed. At the Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford, there are now 9 panels together. Clive Hicks-Jenkins did a study of those panels and also created several of his own paintings inspired by their theme, a series he named "Temptations of Solitude." His own writings on the thought process behind the paintings of this series are amazingly lush and descriptive.
From his journals:
"12 November, 2002, Christ Church Picture Gallery
I’ve returned to study the fragments of what was once an intact and magnificent altarpiece. There is a collage reconstruction in the Christ Church catalogue of how the whole may have appeared before the act of vandalism which reduced it to a jigsaw puzzle. Nineteen pieces are spread across the world. Christ Church has nine, the largest number in one place. These dismembered relics by an artist or artists unknown are so beautifully painted, and yet so heart-achingly incomplete, that the images contained within them have haunted me since I first saw them last Easter.
The scenes are bathed in an unearthly, greenish twilight which fools you into thinking that you are about to strain your eyes. Yet the paradox is that, when you draw close to the paintings, there is in them a dreadful clarity, as in the worst nightmares. The desert floor ripples like wave-washed sand, while the rocky places are modelled into stiff meringue peaks of ghostly greys and umbers. The figures, animals and trees throw no shadows, and their lack eerily heightens the dream-like state. Patches of richness irradiate briefly: the tawny pelts of wild beasts, the iron oxide of pantiles, the crimson flash of an angel’s unfurling wing.
Islands of vegetation are darkly impenetrable, traceried branches and leaves patterning the shadowy depths like sombre brocade. In two of the scenes the sky is visible, a thunderous Prussian Blue, lightening only towards the horizon. In just one painting does relief come, in the form of a distant, cheery prospect of golden hills.
The ground particularly is unnerving, scattered with bone-like pebbles, snakes and odd, pincer-shaped plants that might be traps for the unwary. Bare feet seem vulnerable in such a hostile terrain! And I don’t like the look of the water either. Clouded, phlegm-green, and perilous with currents, undertows and whirlpools. In a sharp-snouted black boat, two winged demons are doing something unspeakable to a naked man, possibly with grappling irons.
The picture planes are flattened. Landscape rears up and details appear undiminished by distance. In seven out of the nine paintings, vermillion flares in the dusk - most spectacularly in the tunic of a barbarian being devoured by a lioness. It’s as though the splendour of his garment has marked him out for a blood-letting!
Evil things walk in the light. A fearsome devil steps shockingly from behind a rock to brandish a scythe in the face of Abba Macarius, and an Ethiopian reels beneath the blows from a sturdy demoness. But to balance these horrors there are passages of tenderness and strange beauty, such as the sainted monk rising like a flower bud from the hollow heart of a tree, fed from on high by an angel descending from the clouds with a gift of bread."
A Vision of Angels Ascending
Here, he describes some of the process leading to the shapes he gives his figures. Note the uncomfortably twisted forms of the men on the ground of Angels Ascending...
"December 2002, Prague
At my studio back in Cardiff the walls swarm with a cast of hermits, angels, penitents, devils, wild beasts and anchorites. They are made of roughly painted card, jointed for articulation and capable of surprisingly varied and unlikely positions, rather like elaborate shadow puppets. They were constructed as studio aids to achieve a more expressive use of the human figure and free me from the choreographer’s understanding of the body.
I’m reminded of these matters as I discover the treasures of the Narodni Gallery here in Prague. So many of the figures in these Gothic Bohemian paintings have the same kind of postural distortion that I’ve been striving for in The Temptations of Solitude. In the Master of Wittingau’s The Agony in the Garden, Christ on his knees forms a perfect and sinuous ‘S’, and his agonised shape emerging from the shadowy, foliate background of Gethsemane infuses both the figure and the painting with a desolate isolation. Here form and colour conjoin to conjure the emotional tone of the subject. This is not about flesh and the corporeal body. The image almost ignites with the violence of Christ’s spiritual agony.
Crossing the deserted Charles Bridge at midnight, a dusting of snow muffling our footsteps, we passed an elderly man sitting at a little table, only his long beard and mittened fingers showing outside his old great-coat. He was playing a dulcimer, his Jewish folk tunes fading in the gusts of wind that scattered them to the darkness, as timeless and melancholy as the frost."
Elijah and the Raven
"Elijah fed by the raven sent by God, was the first subject I set myself when I started preparations in earnest for The Temptations. Saint Paul, too, was supplied with bread by ravens, the ration doubling when Anthony of Egypt came to visit and then stay with him. On Paul’s death, Anthony buried him with the assistance of lions which appeared out of the wilderness to dig the grave. The stories are full of these encounters and miraculous alliances between men and wild animals. "
The Virgin of the Goldfinches