‘I have heard of your paintings’: an artist in rehearsal

Lisa Wright was artist in residence with The Royal Shakespeare Company during their much acclaimed Histories Cycle of plays. Her 2 year residency  culminated in an exhibition at The Roundhouse London at the same time as the production, as well as at the Beardsmore Gallery and subsequently at The Royal Academy of Arts London.

Art Historian Michael Bird writes:

It begins with drawings. In ink, charcoal, but mostly pencil, there are dozens – hundreds – of figures, isolated and enthroned, milling around in groups, standing gorgeously costumed or anonymously smudged and casual. What are all these people doing, saying? Since Lisa Wright has labelled this particular square, black sketchbook ‘Richard III’, I try mentally running a Shakespearean soundtrack through the silent pages: ‘Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front’, ‘A shadow like an angel, with bright hair/Dabbled in blood’. None of the upturned or downcast heads looks as though it could be the one responsible for uttering this brutal music. Yet it rhythms are there all the same, connecting each rapidly notated tableau and propelling the eloquent sketchbook dumbshow from scene to scene.

Wright says that she found her way into this latest phase of her work – a series of ten large canvases and numerous smaller ones based on drawings made in many sessions during the RSC’s two years of rehearsals for Shakespeare’s History Plays – through the impact of the voice. Arriving mid-rehearsal for the first session, she was still unsure what an artist’s role could be in this context though prepared for the sort of sights she might observe there. Instead it was the sound of the spoken word, startling in its unanticipated emotional clarity and frisson, that convinced her there was something going on here that touched a chord in her own art.

You feel how essential is that sense of connectedness, of a strongly defined space shared by both artist and subject, throughout Wright’s work. In her figure paintings of the last ten years, the subjects have often been (or been based on) her own two children and their friends, first in the small scale-theatre of domestic interiors, then in the more publi9c but still physically circumscribed arenas of poolside or shoreside, and more recently in nocturnal landscape settings where the effect of torchlit arrest is both tender and alien – the visual equivalent of those moments when, watching the people we know best, we find it impossible to untangle emotions of intense intimacy and profound estrangement. This is, as it happens, not so far from the essence of theatrical experience, which has been described by commentators over the last two-and-a-half millennia, from Aristotle to Brecht, in terms of a tension between recognition and detachment.

It is obvious from the drawings that Wright made during rehearsals how closely she came to feel involved in the whole process. It’s evident, too, from the vitality and responsiveness of her line, ranging fluently through so many different kinds of mark and levels of pressure, that drawing lies at the heart of her work – its source and, I would say, its integral strength. When the rehearsal period was over and the pays were ready for the stage, she could have stacked up her sketchbooks and declared the project complete. The paintings, in a sense, are another story. As they step into the spotlight, the figures in her ten large canvases emerge not from darkened recesses upstage but from the hours and layers of their creation in Wright’s studio. In place of the rank poetic pheromones of power-play and butchery emitted by Richard II or the Henry VI trilogy, the beguiling reek of turps and oil paint tells you that these paintings are not some kind of secondary record of speeches heard or passing action seen; they are objects made to be contemplated in their own right.

Whereas handling a drawn line is an art in which, as in musical performance, skill and control are hard, perhaps impossible, to fake, artists are themselves aware of how oil paint seduces – its smells, its colours, surfaces and textures, what Roger Hilton instinctively mistrusted as its ‘luscious’ or ‘tasty’ qualities. Shakespeare seems to have felt similarly ambivalent about the medium, whether in the hands of professional artists or as applied by women to their own faces in the form of make-up. ‘Oily painting’, ’reechy painting’ appears throughout the plays as an art of concealment and dishonesty. ‘I have heard of your paintings’, Hamlet bitterly, unjustly admonishes Ophelia; later in the play, Claudius craftily winds up Laertes by asking whether his show of grief for his father is genuine or merely ‘like the painting of a sorrow, / A face without a heart’. Paint is the decorative crust beneath which unpalatable truth can lie concealed; ‘Men are but gilded loam or painted clay’, says Mowbray in Richard II. Shakespeare’s dramatic art, on the other hand, was (in Hamlet’s phrase) about holding ‘the mirror up to nature’. Where painters might apparently be trusted to do little more than adorn or counterfeit, actors ‘tell all’.

How, then, is a painter to project the dramatic moment as a moment of truth rather than illusion? This problem translated for Wright into the task of creating a series of images, each with its own identity and impact, from a multitude of transient, often bust scenes. Her response was to structure and to simplify. In her paintings, the groups of courtiers, soldiers, feudal kinsfolk or lowlife companions that populate the sketchbooks have mostly melted away to leave single figures, occasionally two figures or, exceptionally, a compact and static group, occupying spaces that are boldly but summarily realised in broad-brush, almost geometric blocks of colour. There are no intricate or decorative painterly props calling out for attention. Connoisseurs of Shakespearean drama won’t find themselves spotting famous, freeze-frame climaxes or exclaiming as though on cue, ‘Ah, that’s the moment when…’. Someone has shut a soundproof door on dynastic history’s storm- force narrative winds; the air is still, there is no audience breathing, coughing, clapping. Just a single viewer outside the frame and the isolated, enigmatic figures within it.

One feature of the production has found its way into two of the paintings, in which scything, snowlike paintstrokes appear to be either – or alternately – descending or ascending in a kind of luminous thermal. These paintstrokes were suggested by the soft, slow-motion rain of feathers devised for various points in the Henry VI plays. Feathers are the opposite of weapons: innocent, weightless, hopeful as the free air. They are also a clue that connects Wright’s focus in the History Plays series to her earlier work, in which the vulnerable figures of children take centre stage in settings of generalised, often tenebrous monumentality. Equally vulnerable, for example, is a figure Wright defines as the dethroned and imprisoned Richard II, trailing his own shadow like a Munch-esque comfort blanket or a felled trunk.

Make-up and portraiture aside, Shakespeare’s imagery contains a more visceral, less illusory kind of painting, in which swords are ‘ painted’ to the hilt in blood’ and the palette of bloodshed – ‘gules’, ‘crimson’, ‘purple’ – stains entire lives and landscapes, as in Macbeth’s vision of murder’s power to ‘incarnadine’ the world’s oceans. Wright’s repeated use of rich, sanguinary reds in these paintings could be interpreted in such a way, as an expression of the play’s passion and violence. But there is another, perhaps more fundamental, theme at work here too. The History Plays turns on a dynamo of kinship and alliance, as succeeding generations both pay the price for and extract the opportunities from the accidents of their bloodline. This might seem strange territory for a modern painter; in fact Wright says that it took her some time, as an artist arriving from outside, to feel part of the temporary but all-engrossing ‘family’ that is a theatrical production. When this point came, the whole enterprise began to make sense, not least because the plays themselves contain a vast succession of moments of family drama, sometimes jumbled up in rehearsal out of chronological order. Think of the subject s of these paintings, then, not as individual illustrations of the Histories but as generic visitants from their family tree: the defeated, the bereaved, the innocent, the unafraid – the children, in other words, of times and circumstances in whose historical mirror we see painted our own.


Michael Bird is a British author and art historian. Bird has written monographs for artists Sandra Blow, Bryan Wynter, Peter Lanyon and Lynn Chadwick and for Modern Painters and Tate etc.


© copyright Michael Bird and Beardsmore Gallery, 2008


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