Friday, October 30, 2015


oil on canvas 65x65cm


No, not really. I’ve never been particularly enthused by the traditional Xmas. Madam and I have a theme every year; Roman, Revolutionary, whatever, and we had a very committed and successful Punk Xmas not long ago. So, no, not sorry.

This piece’s genesis occurred in 1979 - contemplating the approach of the Season of Goodwill - and I can clearly identify the three elements that came together to form it. First, The Clash’s ‘Give 'Em Enough Rope’ had come out the year before, so the record cover was everywhere. Then, I’d seen ‘The Tin Drum’ earlier that year – near the end there’s a shot of an Asian Russian soldier, whose impassive face made an impact. Thirdly, I’d just seen Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev*’ - which depicts a Tartar raid - on the telly. Stir those into this young man’s angsty disdain of King’s College Carols, Santa, and ‘I-i-i-i-i-i-t’s Chri-i-i-i-i-i-s-s-s-ma-a-a-a-s-s-s’, and the Mongol/Santa scenario was inevitable. 

It’s a very strong image - my flatmate of the time still thinks it’s hilarious - and I thought it would be a waste if I never developed it (I did cut a wood block for the following year’s Xmas cards but never got round to printing them properly). In the original sketch the Mongol horseman is poking Santa with a spear. I had trouble getting decent sources for this, but found a good photo of a mounted Mongol archer with a shield - which hid his midriff and hips – whose horse was heavily armoured. This bypassed a lot of equine anatomy problems (some way to go on this). The arrows also gave me little linear shapes which are quite useful, so that was handy.

Compositionally it’s the opposite of what I’m usually trying to do. The Bad Thing immediately dominates the painting, and the viewer only comes to appreciate the setting – if at all - as an afterthought. I’m actually quite pleased with the landscape here – there’s very little interruption of the flat snowy grass from the foreground to the far horizon, and altering the texture evenly to describe that distance was quite tricky. The grey overcast sky and hills were done with grey underpainting, and most of the colour there comes from glazes applied in the very late stages. I’m quite pleased with the Tartar’s posture, and in his facial expression too - it’s just about what I was aiming for. The gore is meant to be shocking, and the paint is rough, quick, and straight off the brush - contrasting with the controlled, stroked surface elsewhere. Colourwise, I used Paynes Grey and Raw Umber for general darks – the cool greeny/greys have worked quite well here. The featureless ‘steppe’ is actually tundra – snatched from the Dalton Highway in Alaska - but the hills are from near Chernogorsk, deep in the Central Asian Steppe. Screenshotted from Google Streetview of course.

There’s no particular music I was listening to when painting this, but if I was feeling very po-faced and serious I’d link to Sinatra’s ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Xmas’. The trouble with that is that Carl Foreman used it as an ironic musical backdrop for the execution scene of an American deserter in ‘The Victors’, and to be honest it was pushing it a bit even then. However, I’m not being po-faced and serious.

So there you go. You probably shouldn’t show this to young children, and yes, I do know that it’s only October…

*A short season that also featured ‘Mirror’ and ‘Stalker’. It was a revelation - I didn’t know films could be like that…