Theatre in Wales

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Clive Hicks-Jenkins

On Criticism & Critics

Critical Essays Edited by Peter Wakelin , Lund Humphries , October 30, 2011
On Criticism & Critics by Critical Essays Edited by Peter Wakelin This compendium of nine essays covers the breadth of Clive Hicks-Jenkins' work, from oils to drawings, maquettes to the collaborative book publishing. The essays are bracketed within an introduction by Simon Callow and a biographical piece by Hicks-Jenkins himself. The life is touched upon regularly by the essayists. Each artistic life follows a course of its own. Hicks-Jenkins stands out for the gap of time between early conviction and full-time practice.

Hicks-Jenkins comes from an era that is now far away, although his year of birth was only 1951. When he writes that both his parents were in their second marriage, it is incommunicable today to convey quite how rare was that status nor to express the restrained stigma that it carried. He rightly speaks anyhow of the unreliability of memory. He likens it to “a bran tub I plunge my hands into, churning my hands to see what I can find.” Even our metaphors age. That particular experience of the bran tub, mixing delight, exploration and discovery, is lost to a reader from a later age.

His family retained their element of mystery. His mother presents him one day with a gold Torah on a chain with the explanation that he is Jewish. His sister is revealed to be a half-sister from another marriage and a half-brother is never known. A book of Egyptian sculpture and the weekly Saturday cinema matinee are stabilising regulars in the young life. A friendship with an elder teenager introduces him to books on Michelangelo and Rodin and in a decaying Cardiff cinema he sees Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bete.”

Hartridge Comprehensive School in Nepwort is disastrous and his parents wisely send him to the Italian Conti Stage School in Clapham. Still young, still shy and apparently solitary he haunts the British Museum every Saturday, first in line at the doors’ opening to head to the Egyptian Gallery or the Elgin Marbles. The education nudges him towards the theatre. His summary is characteristic in tone and confession. He calls theatre “a glittering, noisy carousel, a deceptive hall of mirrors, a queasy carnival of delights and horrors.” For himself “the tragic paradox was that I was both perfectly suited for the life, and not. Later that confusion would catch me out and trip me up.”

From age fifteen the Caricature Theatre, a repertory puppet company, offers six years of employment with breaks for training that include the tightrope and flying on wires. The career moves to pantomime, choreography, and an offer to direct. “Plays and musicals followed, regional repertory work, touring seasons and West End shows, operas and cabarets, revues and Christmas television specials.” He is accustomed to sketching from childhood and one day a producer, shown some sketchbook ideas, asks “Why don’t you design our pantomime next year?”

He admits that the decision to accept robs him of eight months’ decent sleep. The conception is vast, two hundred ornate costumes, a set too large to fit Cardiff’s New Theatre. But “Humpty Dumpty” works, even moves to London the next Christmas and “I began to feel like a designer.” The pall of theatre is compressed into a single paragraph, but it includes a perfidious producer, the hit to his personal standing, the life of constant travel and the swathe of AIDS cutting through friends and colleagues. The result is Tretower Court where he takes on at first a relief job for the custodian. He stays, sells tickets, answers enquiries, even puts on a uniform on the occasions of a visit by CADW management. The custodian’s hut is freezing in winter and stifling in summer. He sees later an analogy in art with the desert hermitages of early saints. It is past the age of forty when he turns to painting.

Andrew Green's essay opens with Tretower. It is the crucial symbol of the hiatus in the life “Tretower was where I landed when I threw myself from the parapets of a previous life.” All the first endeavours of art are a working through an artist’s admirations. In a painting of the vegetable garden at Tretower Andrew Green sees that “the mood is contemplative, the colours pastoral, and the style familiar from a line of British painters of the twentieth century.” In the width of the composition Green remembers an echo from Ivon Hitchens. On the opposite page a drawing depicts, in charcoal and contė, black sheep in a night quarry setting. The ghost of John Piper may be present but so too the moon might be that of Samuel Palmer. What is revealing is how quickly Hicks-Jenkins becomes his own distinctive artistic self.

The influences had been pouring in for half a life, not just the theatre career but those that were crucial in the formative years. “Mildred Pierce” in his words “seared my retinas.” The photography of a certain film age has never been bettered. Marlene Dietrich in “the Scarlet Empress” captivated: “conjuring a hallucinatory world of insanity and candle-drenched voluptuousness.” Dance has been so constant in the life that Hicks-Jenkins sees small difference in the two genres that, on the surface, are wholly divergent. Of dance he says “after all, it’s very like drawing, except in dance the lines are drawn in the air, in three dimensions, and are invisible.” Anita Mills extends this theme in her essay “Leaps of Faith: Of Dancing and Drawing.”

The essayists respond to the work across a spectrum of comment. It is the nature of fully-fledged art that it both contains but transcends work that has preceded it. Simon Callow sees in the palette “the lustrous, smoky, smouldering intensities of Leon Bakst’s Ballet Russes designs.” But then the figures put him in mind of Chagall. When Andrew Green looks at “Study for an Annunciation” he sees “a rich orange-gold background, Byzantine in its flatness and richness.” Rex Harley writes of the still lives with their strange juxtapositions. He sees back to Andre Breton, “beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”

Damian Walford Davies views a saint as “David Jones weirdly imagined through Pontormo.” Montserrat Prat recalls Picasso’s use of grisaille to convey suffering. Another sees Goya in the Mari Llywd series, first exhibited in 2001 in Newport as “the Mare’s Tale.” In truth art moves with its setting. “Tend” is the deeply felt image of a son applying a shave to a stricken father. The father wears traditional striped pyjamas. When it is shown in the Czech Republic the setting is the Terezin Holocaust Memorial. The meaning changes utterly from that of the purely personal.

Hicks-Jenkins’ human figures have a sculptural mass to them. As Kathe Koja’s essay describes they have a material making in their background. Paper maquettes are made in preparation, articulated for the testing of form and composition. A dramatic human-animal encounter is composed of acrylic on card and metal.

Rex Harley contributes an illuminating passage on how a change of medium can fundamentally change the art. Some still lifes in 2002 move from acrylic to pastel. “What happens as a result is that the edges of objects blur; seemingly broken down by light itself.” Harley sees a liberation in the use of colour analogous to a former freedom attained in perspective. The resulting painting becomes “a world apart with an internal logic, created by the painter.” Harley ends his essay in tribute to “Hicks-Jenkins’ fascination with the beauty of ordinary things, and his ability to use them symbolically, as messengers of the transcendent and numinous.”

The book contains two hundred and forty-four pictures and twenty photographs. The photographs include the young actor as Mr Mole, the choreographer at work in Vienna and a close-up of the designer, sculpting a piece of armour for a “Robin Hood” at Cardiff’s New Theatre. It is a rich and full compendium but there are some that strike home in a particular way. Some personal favourites: “Last Meeting” a nightmare of skull-horse and pyama-ed human figure, “the Congregation of Birds” with man, owl, goose and others, “Borderlands”, a tiny sheep in a spectral night scene, and “Herve and the Wolf”, the wolf a-snarl painted with a wondrous red.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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