Paintings are magic. I always remember as a young child being fascinated by the Pevensie children being overwhelmed by a painting of the Dawn Treader on the Narnian Sea and being swept into the water.
When I was a drama student we were given a summer task to prepare a talk about a painting. Of course there was no internet then so you had to find your paintings from a book or a gallery. I daresay it had the highly laudable aim of creating rounded artists. One of my fellow students had many art books and I stayed with him for a few days as I looked through the books to find a suitable painting to talk about. I decided suddenly that rather than discuss the painting or the artist, I wanted to fully enter the painting, its atmosphere, and at least one of the characters within it. As I decided this the whole idea filled me with joy as a truly creative task blossomed from something that had felt incredibly like worthy homework.
The painting I chose was THE WANDERER by Heironymus Bosch. I had never seen his paintings before and I was transfixed by them… horrible grotesque fantasies of hell and heaven, and this picture, though less dark, offered me something powerful. Looking at it I was immediately reminded of the Bedlam beggars and Poor Tom in King Lear.
After examining the picture in detail, I thought my first step would be to examine the man’s physical position. I found a stick, a hat and a pack and put myself in his position. I remember I also took a shoe off to give myself the feeling of the odd shoes he was wearing. It was amazing how having odd shoes made me feel unwanted, off-balance, bitter and unhinged. Looking back over my shoulder as I pushed forward immediately made me feel a longing and a bitterness. I was either being driven away or I was longing for a more settled life for some reason. I started to feel a little like a beaten dog.
The house behind me, and from which I had just come, was broken-down and clearly a place of some conflict. The house delapidated and uncared for, the man pissing against the wall, the young woman, blocked by a young man from looking at me and another looking out of the broken window, after the beggar. Was my itinerant beggar part of this life or not? I got in position, turned on a tape recorder and began to speak. a harsh rasping voice came out. The beggar spoke of a longing for stability and yet despising that stability the living in the house might have provided. I created a world and psychology from the atmosphere of the painting, its characters and principally the rather gentle faced man who was walking away. It is true that the radiation from his face did not match my bitter monologue (which came more from the background characters and the general dishevelled nature of the house, and also the main character’s predicament). However it was the turning back to look which gave me the main thrust along with the image of what I could see.
It was an exciting ,creative project which was very rich for me. Now in my Chekhov work, I often use a painting as a starting point for a dramatic piece. We engage concentration, the Feeling of Form, Movement, Atmosphere and our imaginations. That’s the subject of one of the new courses, THE PICTURE SPEAKS which runs for five 90 minute sessions on July 6th online. We will create a speaking gallery of paintings.
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