On print : The Green Knight's Head Lives

The Green Knight's Head Lives by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

The print captures the moment of the drama when the game changes; all the rules of the natural world broken. The blade has descended, flesh has parted and the head has rolled. But this giant of a man doesn't lie down, even though separated from his seat of reason, and he strides off to retrieve it from where it's rolled and rested. Arthur's knights, unknightly-like, have kicked it for sport, making a football of the thing. Little wonder Camelot will one day fall.

The decapitated Green Knight, head in hands, turns to face the throng. This brought about a compositional conundrum. Was the event to be shown from the front, or from the side, from a distance or in close-up? On horseback or off? More importantly, how was the severed head to be held? The territory is ripe for clichés. Swinging the head by its hair is not an option, or it will look like every other scene in Game of Thrones.

Having tried it all ways, I resolved to show the head grasped and held aloft in both hands, tilted to an angle with eyes sliding sideways from under half-closed lids while beard and hair stream and snap like pennants in the wind. But this is indoors, so is the wind a supernatural unsettling, or an earthly one, racing through a doorway left gaping after the Green Knight's arrival? It doesn't matter. We can't see anything of the space anyway. And there's no wound for us to gawp at either, as I don't want to distract with bleeding stumps. Nevertheless, the head is off, no doubt about that, absent from where it should be and present where it should not, held high and cradled in secure hands.

There's blood, or what passes for it with old magic at work. Dense with flow, not kinetic, but hieratic, spouting, fountaining frozen, blossoming atop a frilled column. This is blood unfurling, not gushing. My reference is a fungus I once found bursting through the black plastic of a neighbour's bale of hay. It was huge. I broke away a grapefruit-sized part of it and brought it home to photograph and draw. I've lost the drawings, but a photograph of it survives, fluted like cathedral fan-vaulting, and flowing in overlapping scallop-shapes. It will make a strangeness in the composition rendering the event not just supernatural, but beautiful. There's a beauty too in the horse's embroidered caparison, which will swarm with foliate meanderings and flighty birds. The textile in this image is an invention in which I riff on traditions of Coptic and Romanesque embroideries. In the absence of any buildings or landscape in the background of the print to give it a location, the motifs of scattered talisman-like eyes, flying peacocks and scrolling tendrils bearing oak leaves and assorted fruits, fills one half of the composition with a sense of place and mystery. The Green Knight brings the wilderness into the halls of Camelot through the decorations on his horse and the inking on his skin.

A significant element in the composition is the animal's wildly rolling eye and fearful expression. The human observers are out of frame, and so it stands in for them in the matter of a response to what's happening, its astonishment more meaningful than anything we might expect from those loutish, head-kicking bully-boys drunk on Christmas wine.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

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