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King Priam

Updated: May 6, 2022

In this post I focus on my recent painting 'King Priam,' based on Michael Tippett's opera of the same name, insofar as it leads to some reflections on my creative process - which might be useful for understanding what this kind of painting means.

This is primarily a painting of a musical composition. It is an abstract picture that illustrates the opera in something like the same way as the music of the opera illustrates its words and stage action. The music of the opera is also 'abstract,' of course, in the sense that it does not - cannot - depict anything, but it too 'illustrates' something: a textual and mythological subject matter, namely, Tippett's libretto. The fact that an abstract painting can illustrate a piece of music is no more mysterious than the fact that a piece of music can illustrate a text. That is to say, it is very mysterious; but if we can live with the latter mystery as an accepted part of our artistic culture, we ought to be able to live with the former as well.

To show what this means in practical terms, let me explain how I came to paint 'King Priam.'

First, an overview of the subject matter itself, the opera. The central idea of Tippett's King Priam, which is a retelling of the story of the Trojan War, is the choice that Priam is forced to make at the beginning of the story: he must decide whether or not to kill his baby son Paris, who, the fortune teller has predicted, will live to bring about his father's death. Since he is a king as well as a father, the choice is a brutally difficult one. He consents to have the child killed, for the sake of his nation, but, in his heart of hearts, wishes that his son might be spared. The young guard tasked with carrying out the infanticide detects that wish, and secretly deposits the baby with a shepherd.

Years later, the boy Paris is rediscovered and reunited with his family, and Priam decides to accept this as a stroke of good fortune, whatever the consequences may be for himself or for Troy. As we already know, the consequences are dire, and wayward Paris, never quite settling into the role of Trojan prince, leaves Troy to become embroiled in an adulterous affair with the Spartan queen Helen. The ensuing war, and the downfall of Priam's family and state, occupy the rest of the opera.

Tippett's interest is mainly psychological. He focuses on the way moral dilemmas are forced on the characters by their dual roles as private and public individuals (in Priam's case, father and king). As an epigraph Tippett quotes the closing statement of Kandinsky's essay on the paintings of Arnold Schoenberg: "May Fate grant that we never turn our inner ear away from our soul's lips." The tragedy unfolds because Priam's conscience, the voice of his 'soul,' comes into conflict with his duty to the city of Troy.

In his quotation, Tippett italicises the word 'fate' - a somewhat surprising inclusion in Kandinsky's statement since, one might think, if anything is within our own control rather than the lap of the gods, it must surely be our own private moral deliberations. What Tippett wishes to emphasize, both in the epigraph and in the opera itself, is the point that fate does often interfere with our receptivity to the voice of conscience. In Priam's case, this happens as a result of his kingly duties coming into conflict with his love for his son. The point the opera makes has a broader scope, however. The quote from Kandinsky's essay (especially interesting to me, since it is a quote from a painter writing about about paintings) is about artistic conscience: Schoenberg's refusal to compromise his own creative impulses by pandering to popular tastes or restricting himself to accepted methods. The tragedy of the opera makes tangible the absolute value of courage and integrity, whether moral, artistic, or intellectual, as well as our sad dependence on circumstances to realise and not to work against this value. This is part of what is revealed by the tale of Priam's failure and the music that accompanies it, in a way that cannot fully be explained. "Do not imagine all the secrets of life can be known from a story," says Tippett's Hermes in the end. "O but feel the pity and the terror as Priam dies." Like the Greeks who invented the story, Tippett believes in the power of tragedy to edify and embolden. He also believes in the power of music, an abstract art form, to catalyse this purpose: "O divine music," Hermes concludes, "melt our hearts, renew our love." ​

As Troy burns and Priam prepares for death, he withdraws from his family and his city, and enters a visionary state in which, detached from his two worldly perspectives, he confronts the obscure, tragic depths of life itself. Here the libretto quotes words (by Stefan George) from Schoenberg's second string quartet and from Yeats' poem 'The Statues.' Observing Priam's last moments, Hermes remarks that "he already breathes an air as from another planet" (perhaps playing on the ambiguity of 'air,' meaning both atmosphere and song) and that "Mirror upon mirror mirrored is all the show." The final words of the opera are Priam's dying vision: "I see mirrors, myriad upon myriad... moving... the dark forms of creation." His 'soul's lips' are no longer muffled by royal duties, but their words are now meaningless, as the sphere of human activities in which they make sense falls into oblivion. Set against the immanent reality of death, that sphere now takes on the character of an empty show, a hall of mirrors with nothing behind it. But as Priam's heart freezes, ours, Tippett hopes, are melted, and we are brought back with fear, love and pity to the terrible world that Priam is leaving behind.


In what sense does the painting realise this source of inspiration? On one level, it connects graphically with the opera's themes: loosely conglomerated slabs and fragments of colour, heavy and rough-hewn, variously suggest the confusion of war, the dust of the battlefield, the toppling of Troy's monumental architecture and of the great King Priam himself; solid beams of light, compressing the bulk of the composition from unseen heights, suggest the inexorable whims of resplendent Olympians weighing heavily on the doomed Greeks and Trojans, along with the grandest of their monuments; the broken shapes, meeting in a complex network of symmetries and asymmetries, suggests the myriad moving mirrors and the dark forms over Priam's final ecstatic vision. But, as an abstract composition, it merely suggests these things, as Tippett's music also suggests them, and heightens their force, while moving in an ineffable visionary direction of its own. On a more formal level, Tippett described this music as an at first incomprehensible 'mosaic' built up from simple, starkly expressive elements, largely unadorned and devoid of lyricism, appropriate to the pitiless moral directness of Greek tragedy, and similar terms could also be used to describe the formal properties of the painting.

These are merely pointers, however; for any work of art whose force and meaning can be reduced wholly to explanatory prose (however poetical and suggestive) must be impoverished. The process of painting itself is almost entirely intuitive, though I believe it depends upon a long stretch of prior ruminations, both conscious and subconscious, taking place over weeks, months or years.​ The process of looking at the painting should be equally intuitive, although it may - perhaps must - also be supported by written explanations and a prior knowledge of its subject matter (the opera King Priam), along with the shared cultural scaffolding that inevitably surrounds a topic (the Trojan War) with such deep roots in our civilization, not to mention familiarity with the art of painting and its history.

What's more, I could only have written these descriptions after having completed the painting. In this case, in fact, I initially set out to paint something relating to Tippett's 4th symphony, which is an extremely bold, richly musical but enigmatic late work dealing with questions of life and mortality. But when I came close to finishing the painting, I could see that although it approximated the intensity and angularity of the symphony, it carried a somewhat different mood, bleaker, weightier, more barbaric, and not as lively or darkly mysterious. I contemplated reworking the image, but tried first to understand it on its own terms. I was still reminded strongly of Tippett, but spent some time trying to remember which of his pieces it reminded me of. Eventually I remembered King Priam, which I had not listened to for many months. I studied the libretto, listened to the opera, and went through the libretto again, taking notes, to confirm that it corresponded to my expectations.

​This kind of interpretation after (or during) the fact is not uncommon for me, or, I think, for other artists. Writing of the genesis of King Priam itself, Tippett explains that the initial artistic impetus was largely indeterminate as to the form as well as subject matter of the eventual opera, and that only after he had been working on it for some time did he discover what it was about and what it would sound like. Works of art often have definite meanings before their creators have fully understood them - even though it is their creators who determine their meanings. The act of creating itself often constitutes the process of coming to understand the creation, just as we often come to know our own thoughts through the process of talking about them, with a strong sense that these thoughts were already ours before we discovered them.

Here, I found that Priam's perplexing deliberations, his tragic fate, and his grappling with the mystery of life and death, set against the horrors of war and other forces he cannot understand or control, coupled with Tippett's edifying musical treatment of these themes, corresponded precisely to the inchoate, non-verbal thoughts and feelings that I tried (and, I think, managed) to express in my painting, despite the fact that I did not, until the painting was almost finished, consciously associate these thoughts and feelings with the opera after which it is now named.

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