Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Grail, or Something Like It

In his book about the *Grail, John Matthews makes the point that the quest for the Grail is never truly over. I would add that the reason for this is not so much that the Grail will never be found, but that what the Grail actually is, and what it represents, is different for those who quest after it. Sometimes we find what we are looking for, and sometimes we don't. And sometimes what we find is not that which we originally had sought.

Whatever it is that you seek, I hope that you may find it - or something very like it - in the year to come. And even if you do not do so, then I hope that your journey is still an interesting one.

A prosperous and rewarding 2010 to my followers, to my readers, and to all fellow bloggers!

Artist: Hawkwood
Work: The Quest, 1989 (digital version: December, 2009)
Medium: Acrylic, with digital elements
Location: Private collection

Source: *The Grail: Quest for the Eternal, by John Matthews. Thames and Hudson, 1981

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Winter Silence

Exactly one hundred years ago the Dutch biscuit company Verkade released with their products a series of collectors' cards. The cards were from paintings commissioned from the artists Jan van Oort and Jan Voerman, and it became an engaging passtime for many households at that time to paste the cards into the albums, descriptively written in period Dutch by Jac P. Thijsse, which Verkade issued for the purpose.

Many of the albums were themed around the nature and wildlife of The Netherlands, and the paintings, and the albums with their cards, passed into Dutch folk art and became collectors' items - so much so that various facsimile editions were subsequently issued. The most recent reissue depicting the four seasons (which are the four albums which I have) even included a set of cards to cut out and paste á la the style of the originals.

Well, I have to admit that, several years later, I still haven't gotten around to pasting in the cards (give me a break; there are one hundred and forty four in each complete set). Maybe it's something to do with the times. Not that I'm impatient, because I can cheerfully muster the wherewithall to labor for hours customising HTML codes. But there might be another reason.

Because truth to tell, it is not so much the more well-known paintings on the cards that have my attention, as it is the pen drawings which decorate the albums. So I guess that (perhaps rather ungraciously in the eyes of Dutch folk culture!) the cards are for me rather redundant, as I apparently find that the albums with their black-and-white illustrations are already satisfying-enough in themselves. A modest credit on the albums' title pages mentions that these are by 'L.W.R. Wenckebach'.

Wenckebach's illustrations hold up throughout the series, but it is those which appear in the Winter album that truly shine (the six images shown here). With remarkable economy of line, snow-covered fields, canals and Dutch farm houses are conjoured from Wenckebach's pen lines, their darkness made more stark by the areas of paper which have simply been left blank to convey the covering blanket of whiteness.

Pollarded willows so typical of the Dutch landscape bend over a frozen canal. A woman carrying pails (presumably of animal feed) makes her way over the snow to a farm house door. Boats frozen fast into the ice lie immobile by a snowy bank. On the edge of a village a bridge spans the snow-covered ice of a river. The atmosphere of crisp winter silence is tangible.

As it happens, outside my window the snow does indeed lie thick on the ground at the moment, and despite a couple of attempts at a thaw, remains much as it fell several days ago. A perfect opportunity for contemplating these superb line drawings by L.W.R. Wenckebach, and for bringing them to an audience as international as they deserve.

Artist: Ludwig Willem Reymert Wenckebach
Works: Illustrations for the album 'Winter', 1909
Medium: Pen and ink
Location: Untraced

'Winter', by Jac P. Thijsse, published originally by Bakkerij 'De Ruijter', Firma Verkade & Co., 1909. Facsimile edition issued in 1997.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Sheltering Snow

At the beginning of the fourth century, in the city of Mérida, a young Spanish girl was martyred. During these early centuries of the new Christian faith, and the perceived threat which it presented to Imperial Rome and the established order, instances of - and opportunities for - dying for that faith were frequent enough. What perhaps is remarkable in the case of Eulalia is that, even at such a tender age (she was no more than twelve or fourteen at the time) she appararently actively sought her own martyrdom.

Knowing her daughter's declared willingness to make this supreme sacrifice, her mother attempted to hold Eulalia within the confines of her home. But her daughter escaped, found her way to the occupying Roman magistrate, and announced that she refused to sacrifice to the Roman deities. The instruments of torture were laid before her, and it was explained to her that all that she needed to do to avoid their use was to make a simple offering of a little salt and incense, which were then provided for her for that purpose. Eulalia remained resolute. The inevitable sentence was summarily executed. She was stripped. Her flesh was torn from her body with iron hooks, exposing bone. She was then staked, and burning torches were passed over her ragged flesh. Death finally came through suffocation from the inhaled smoke.

Legend steps in to elaborate upon history. At the moment of her death, a white dove appeared to issue from her mouth and ascend to heaven. When her mutilated body was cut down and laid upon the ground, a deep snow suddenly fell to clothe the broken and naked young corpse with a covering shroud of purest white. Redemption can take many forms. For Eulalia, it came in the form of the gently-falling snow so unexpected that the hardened soldiery, standing in the flakes of drifting white, were stunned to awed silence. Future canonization duly followed.

This is the story which the painting by Victorian artist John William Waterhouse (above) purports to portray. But if legend can elaborate upon history, then art, apparently, can elaborate upon both. The version of events as portrayed by Waterhouse would seem both accomplished and disturbing. Accomplished, because the artist has opted for a composition as dramatic as it is difficult to bring off, with its acute foreshortening of the principal figure of Eulalia, and its restrained and atmospheric palette of muted earth reds and cold grays. Of course Waterhouse was both an accomplished draughtsman and storyteller - as his hugely-popular Lady of Shalott, painted three years after his St Eulalia, testifies. But his treatment of Eulalia's martyrdom contains disquieting undercurrents.

The artist's model who posed for the young saint was clearly no girl at the threshold of her teen years, but a mature young woman (the inverted detail, above). And the powdery layer of snow - surely one of the central elements of the story - does anything but discreetly cover the lifeless half-nude body. Not even the most inoffensive suggestion of mortified flesh is apparent. Instead, the artist has opted for a symbolic flowering of spreading hair; an element that was already being considered in his preparatory sketch (below). That Eulalia had lustrous long tresses is known. But what is also known is that these were burned away by the torches. In these details - or rather, in the lack of them - Waterhouse presents us with a version of history which strays beyond being merely idealized to being actually sanitized. But for whose protection? For the artist's? For the sensibilities of his viewing public?

History already offered the artist the solution to this visual dilemma: the grievously mangled body of Eulalia was covered by the sheltering snow. And not the light dusting which Waterhouse shows, but a drift deep enough to make the body discernible only by its general outline. But it would seem that in his choice of a mature model, and in leaving that model unblemished and literally exposed, Waterhouse succumbed to the temptation to portray a whiff of mild Victorian *eroticism whose dubious inclusion was a betrayal of the very subject which he had chosen to portray.

Waterhouse was a master of such subtly suggestive treatments, and the studied slipped-off-the-shoulder costumes of such subjects as Psyche (the detail, above) must have had the thoughts of his Victorian audience racing with adventurous possibilities. But when he came to paint such a sensitive subject as Eulalia's martyrdom, was there not some small voice which said to him that such a voyeuristic treatment, however mild, was not merely inappropriate, but a really bad idea? Apparently not.

And the historical Eulalia? The passionate and intense sincerity of the young can burn more fiercely even than that of maturity. But is this enough to explain the young girl's fervor for, and active seeking out of, such a gruesome and horrifying death? And the Roman authorities and those who carried out their directives? Clearly such monstrous inhumanity is inexcusible in the name of any faith. But history sometimes becomes a mirror, inverting previous events. Almost exactly a century later, the horror which Eulalia suffered was again exemplified by the bestially cruel death - in a church at the hands of Christian monks - of Hypatia of Alexandria, one of the most enlightened and progressive pagan minds of her age. Eulalia had hardly begun her teen years when she died. Hypatia was forty five. Perhaps such terrible acts owe less to any perceived threats to a faith than they do to a dark and frenzied *misogyny.

Today, December 10, is Saint Eulalia's day.

Artist: John William Waterhouse
Work: Saint Eulalia, 1885
Medium: Oils
Location: The Tate Gallery, London

Artist: John William Waterhouse
Work: Study for Saint Eulalia c1885
Medium: Pen and ink with grey and brown wash heightened with white on paper
Location: The Tate Gallery, London

*This theme is also discussed in my post of November 2: 'Five Women and Four Serpents'.
*A hatred and loathing of women.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Phantom of the Opera

This is the story of one of my pieces of cover art, and how it came into being. It is August, 1993. I receive a phone call from the art director at Puffin Books, who explains that Puffin are planning a major re-issue of their series of literary classics, and would I be interested in producing the cover art for Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera (*below) for them? Within a few days I receive contracts to paint the Phantom and *three other Gothic classics for Puffin: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Terror, together with some color mock-ups from the art department of the cover designs for the new Puffin Classics series as a whole, which indicate where the title panel will be placed.

These Gothic titles are now out of copyright, which means that there are plenty of editions issued by other publishers to vie for attention in the bookshops with what Puffin will be offering. For me this is an agreeable situation, because if there are half a dozen different editions of the same book from which a potential purchaser can choose, then generally it's all down to the cover to help sway the choice that is made. At this stage I myself have no clear idea of how I am going to approach the illustration for the Phantom, other than to be guided by Puffin's request that I feature the respective 'monster' of each Gothic on the cover.

I sift for some vision of how the Phantom – Erik in Leroux’s story – might look. The American edition which I have to hand shows only the eerily-deserted grand staircase of the Paris Opera House on the cover. It's a professionally accomplished illustration, but there's not a phantom in sight - imagined or otherwise. And the films? The 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney, Snr., once seen, remains indelibly in the mind, resonating with the authentic power of a dream, or of a nightmare. Subsequent versions tend to offer a suave and rather romantic Erik who remains discreetly masked. I make a decision to ignore all previous interpretations and go back to Leroux's original text.

The airy baroque interiors of the Paris Opera House are transformed under Leroux's pen into spaces which become dark, brooding, and strangely claustrophobic in their vastness (above, and below). Leroux's opera house is at the same time both the same as, yet different from, the opera house of reality. It is a world closed in upon itself, and it is only in the air of this other opera house that Erik can breathe and live out the events of his tragic life. When one begins to read the book, one begins to breathe the same air as Erik, and his presence - even on the many pages in which he does not directly appear - is tangible. I scan the pages for a description of Erik's appearance: the cadaverous face, the yellowed skin stretched taught over the bone, the lack of a nose, the inexplicable glowing lights in the dark recesses of the eyes. As with a reading of Frankenstein, one becomes so familiar with the subsequent interpretations of others that the author's own description of the character comes almost as a shock.

I make some tentative sketches in pencil. The face described by Leroux seems so genuinely appalling that I find myself drifting towards a masked portrayal after all. I look through some pictures of stylish Venetian carnival masks. But Erik's mask is of black cloth. Not much help. Perhaps I can solve the problem by showing Erik unmasked, but keeping him as a dark figure in a corridor of shadows. I make another sketch. The result looks melodramatic - the very thing I'm trying to avoid. I decide to abandon the idea of attempting to show any atmospheric background, and zoom in on the face alone until it fills the entire cover area (my pencil sketch, below). It's only a rough sketch, but immediately I have the feeling that Erik is staring back at me. I work some more detail into the sketch and fax a copy to the art director. He offers enthusiastic encouragement for the idea.

Now begins the tracking down of reference material that might help me with the actual painting. Pictures of the Egyptian mummies in the Leiden Museum of Antiquities, and a photo of the naturally-mummified body of a priest in the Colombian Gold Museum, all become grist to the creative mill. I coat the face of my obliging son with a flour-and-water paste, then crackle-dry the resulting goo with my wife's hair dryer, studying the effect. On a canvas board I have previously applied a coating of ivory-colored oil paint with a palette knife. This ensures that the texture of the canvas will not appear too pronounced in the final reproduction, and provides me with a suitable ground on which to begin the painting. The board is about three times larger than the printed cover will be, as I know from experience that my work tends to look best in print when reduced by this ratio. But this will make the face which I am about to paint considerably larger than life-size, and my planned in-your-face approach to the Phantom becomes a shade more daunting.

I begin painting the main areas of tone with a monochromatic earth-brown oil color, and progress to the point where I must break in order to allow this first stage to dry. I prop the board against a chair in a corner of my studio. At this stage it resembles an old daguerreotype, and l'm tempted to leave the final painting with something of this look to it. As a rule, my cover paintings tend to be strongly color-themed, as this greatly enhances the impact of the printed image when it appears in the bookshop, and this seems to hold particularly true for the Gothics. There is a good reason why the original silent film version (above) of Leroux's tale packs a greater punch than any later Technicolor version. I'm now left with time on my hands as I wait for this first stage to dry. On an impulse, and to make economic use of my own time, I begin painting *Frankenstein (below). From where I'm sitting I can see the first painting, and as Mary Shelley's tragic creature takes shape in front of me, Erik continues to watch me from the corner.

And so it continues, as these two feared and tragic beings gradually assume their finished form. The atmosphere in my work area becomes noticeably more oppressive. I begin to suffer from headaches, and my wife complains - with justification - of my own increasingly morose behavior. My studio becomes a no-go area for my impressionable seven year-old daughter, and I myself start to question my own wisdom in involving myself so closely with such material. Normally I prefer not to paint at night, as artificial light distorts the accuracy of colors. But now I find myself drawn to my studio over several successive evenings, working by the hard-edged light of a halogen lamp, manipulating the brush to create the blotched and mottled texture of Erik's skin. I actually enjoy the surrounding shadows. In the yellow-white halogen light I experimentally exhale smoke from my pipe onto the painting, wreathing the Phantom in a drifting cloud. The effect is wonderful, and I try to translate it into paint, making the shadow areas which surround the face less dense, until the darkest areas of the painting are the eyes themselves: twin ovals of unknowable space, in each of which a distant sun is burning, exactly as described by Leroux. The last touch is to surround these two suns with a red coronal glow, and the painting is complete.

Fifteen years later I returned to the painting to rework it digitally (above) for a more current portfolio of my work, adding some faded blooms and a page from the score of La Traviata. Perhaps it is an unexpected point to make, but during the creation of the original painting, as with the other Gothics, I did not intentionally set out to try and be scary. Rather, I attempted to approach these images as straight portraits, striving to keep the expressions relatively neutral. I think that readers always feel when someone is actually trying to make them scared, and the natural reaction to this tends to lead to the opposite effect. Those who have seen my 'portrait' of Erik tend to comment on a certain inexplicable gentleness in the face. It is this sensitivity of spirit, trapped as it was within a nature coupled with explosions of cruel frenzy and the despair of unappeasable loneliness, which to me represents the true horror of the Phantom.

Artist: Hawkwood
Work: The Phantom of the Opera, 1993
Medium: Oils
Location: Collection of the artist

Artist: Hawkwood
Work: Frankenstein, 1993
Medium: Oils
Location: Collection of the artist

Artist: Hawkwood
Work: The Phantom of the Opera, 2008
Medium: Scanned painted, photographic and textual elements
Location: Cyberspace

'The Phantom of the Opera', by Gaston Leroux. Puffin Classics edition, 1994
'Frankenstein', by Mary Shelley. Puffin Classics edition, 1994

This post has been partially rewritten from my article which originally appeared in the Spring, 1995 edition of the Phantom fanzine BENEATH THE MASK. My appreciative thanks go to the founder of the British-based Phantom Appreciation Society for contacting me via the publisher to communicate her glowing response to my cover art on behalf of the Society. "All of us.."(her letter to me ended) "..have our own visions of how Erik must have looked - you have captured that vision for us." Feedback from the reading public is one thing, but to have received this reaction from such a critical audience is praise much-valued!

*My cover for this edition of the Phantom is generally available to see on the Internet, although these other versions - and the printed cover itself - tend to give my original colors a strong orange cast. For my image for this post, I have matched the colors to my original painting.

*I subsequently received commissions to produce cover art for three further Gothic titles: Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. But by this time, further editorial hands were involved, and it is the Phantom, and the covers for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Edgar Allan Poe's Tales, which remain my own favorites, being the three titles to reach the bookshops virtually intact from my original planned sketches.

*See my post of September 13: ‘Monsters Have Light Inside’.