The story behind a piece of artwork in the artist’s own words
Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.
I am neither illustrator or scholar however over the years the plays of Shakespeare have regularly provided me with themes to explore. I made this painting ‘Orsino before Viola’ especially for the 2012 production of ‘Twelfth Night’ by Reading Between the Lines Theatre Company. Other plays, such as Coriolanus and The Tempest, had suggested imagery to me in the past, however this play was quite different in tone. Ostensibly about love I felt the play’s true subject is love’s delusions, or – perhaps even more precisely – the ‘sol y sombra’ of desire. I was excited by the territory, but unsure how I would respond.
All artists need points of departure. Sometimes I start a work in material terms and let the content emerge; other times I start with a particular idea (or feeling) and work towards finding an appropriate form. I knew a literal illustration just wouldn’t be my thing, but I have always been interested in how a work of art in one medium can inspire an artist working in another. Some great examples are Botticelli’s drawings of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Titian’s interpretations of Ovid. These are much more than spectacularly accomplished illustrations, they are untethered complements to their sources. Titian called his responses ‘poesie’, and to this day it is not unusual for artists to make some kind of distinction between their art and illustration. Perhaps some consider the latter is subservient, I prefer to think it is just a question of artistic sensibility: an illustrator will be happy to provide narrative embellishments, but an artist will want to explore the territory and find expressive equivalents.
Re-reading the play potential images started to emerge. Malvolio’s emotional isolation and the play’s blurring of identify and gender appealed, but eventually I was drawn to the character of Orsino. His affected launch: ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ shows him full of romantic swagger, strutting round the stage like a puffed-up peacock. Left undeveloped this characterisation would have been shallow, yet as the plot develops my fascination grew as Orsino (and the other main characters) become mirrors to our own romantic identities. We may laugh at the comedy, but if we are paying attention it will be somewhat nervously.
There was also a practical reason for choosing Orsino. I had an unresolved canvas in the studio, a large version of an earlier painting ‘Figure feeling its power’ which was ripe for modification. The composition already promoted a central male figure, but now it could also have an identity. The title was chosen to reference the Duke’s vacillation between fervour and malaise that lasts up to the revelations of the last act – but this could be no narrative embellishment. My aim here has been to express Orsino’s state of ‘being in love with love’. In the painting immediately identifiable physical elements merge with colours and forms to suggest his overtly romantic state of mind:
‘So full of shapes is fancy, that it alone is high fantastical.’ Orsino Act 1, Sc 1, l.14
Meanwhile, some way off, the boat carrying Viola and Sebastian is poised to split, thereby setting off the chain of events that finally will lead to the Duke finding true love.