Friday, 11 May 2018


The Bewitching of Anne Gunter

A stage play in three acts by Mike Healey

I am in the process of writing a new stage play. It is about a young woman called Anne Gunter who, it was claimed, was possessed by the devil

This is a true story

 When possessed, Anne became hysterical and vomited pins. Her case came to the attention of the new King of England - James I, himself an expert on witchcraft

As both writer and painter, I try to visualise events on stage. 

Sometimes I seek inspiration from other sources and in this case I am drawn to Peter Greenaway's 2012 film 'Goltzius and the Pelican Company'

This controversial films tells the story of a 17th century Dutch printer who publishes a book of erotica, based on Biblical stories

Greenaway, as a painter himself, brings to his work a highly refined sensibility and mastery of many digital technologies - which give his films their unique aesthetic

I like the sharp use of monochrome, in both the way it is shot and the black and white costumes

Much of Greenaway's work has the appearance of being performed on stage, with the camera placed centrally and the orthogonals studiously observed

This is something that I can use in my stage play.

I am aiming for a Brechtian austerity but want my Jacobean costumes to provide a rich contrast. This Greenaway achieves in this film - and elsewhere in his work.

It is something from which we can all learn and apply to our own theatrical efforts.

Watch this space!


The Tempest by Shakespeare

Why The Tempest?

If you are a regular follower of this blog (if not, why not?) then you will know of my long-term involvement with Shakespeare's The Tempest (1610).

The Tempest - diorama by Mike Healey

If you are not familiar with this play then all you need know is that it is set on a desert island to which Prospero - the former Duke of Milan - and his teenage daughter, Miranda have been banished.

Banishment! - collage by Mike Healey

On the island Prospero uses an airy spirit called Ariel to enact his magic. This beautiful painting (below) of Ariel flying on a bat's wing is by Fuseli, one of the most imaginative and accomplished of artists who have illustrated Shakespeare's plays:

 Henry Fuseli, Ariel (c. 1800-10)

Prospero also enslaves a 'savage' called Caliban yet it is Caliban who is the rightful owner of the island.

John Hamilton Mortimer, Caliban (1775-76)

This is Elizabethan colonialism at its most ruthless and one reason why perhaps scholars today have found that this play still resonates with political and social issues.

When Caliban attempts to rape Miranda, Prospero cruelly punishes him:

Henry Fuseli, The Enchanted Island: Before the Cell of Prospero (1797)

The play - like the island itself -  is imbued with Magic. One artist who captured the haunted nature of the place was Richard Dadd - an extraordinary, self-taught British artist who later murdered his father.

This is a scene (below) from the opening of the play when Prospero summons the spirits of the island he now controls.

Richard Dadd, Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1842)

Prospero has studied magic and is able to summon up weird and wonderful creatures to torment anyone - such as his enemies from Milan - who are themselves  later shipwrecked on the island.

Here Paul Falconer Poole has captured the moment when Antonio, Prospero's evil brother, resolves to murder his colleagues shipwrecked with them.As yet they are unaware that this is Prospero's island and that he is watching their every move.

 Paul Falconer Poole, (1856)

Prospero the magician is also able to fabricate Baroque palaces or elaborate masques in order to celebrate his daughter's engagement to Prince Ferdinand who, by chance, is also subsequently shipwrecked on the island.

Tempest Masque (Juno's Descent) - Diorama by Mike Healey

I have long wondered why this play, of all Shakespeare' great works, should so fascinate me - to the extent that I once created an exhibition of some sixty paintings solely devoted to exploring aspects of The Tempest.

Caliban and Miranda - drawing by Mike Healey

Since then I have also created at least seven large dioramas related to this strange, mysterious and entirely magical play.

Caliban's Garden - Diorama by Mike Healey

The question is: Why?

I first directed The Tempest when I was Associate Director at the Oxford Playhouse in the 1970's. My production starred Francesca Annis as Miranda.

Since then I have directed it twice in professional productions and several times with drama students in one form or another.

George Romney, The Tempest (c. 1790)

I suppose one reason is that as a painter/stage designer it offers countless opportunities for imaginative interpretations. For the Cumbria Institute of the Arts I created a short version of The Tempest, featuring the 'back story' to Caliban and Miranda.

 Miranda's Dream by Mike Healey, choreography by Gill Roncarelli 
(Photo - Sam Henderson)

Prospero's magic gives artistic licence for almost anything. Indeed, that may explain why Derek Jarman (1979) and Peter Greenaway (Prospero's Books, 1991) have both made film adaptations of this play.

John Guilgud as Prospero in Prospero's Books -1991

Recently, Helen Mirren starred in a new film adaptation by Julie Taymor (2010).

Helen Mirren as a female Prospero (2010)

For me, Prospero's ability to summon up extravagant architectural structures or visually complex masques appeals to my sensibilities as a stage director/designer. 

If he can do it, then so must I!

And then there are the wonderful characters.

Miranda, for example, has long interested other artists but each interpretation is largely a reflection of the times in which that artist worked. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, but it does make for some very strange Mirandas

Joseph Wright, Ferdinand and Miranda in Prospero's Cell (1800)

The nearest I ever got to creating a convincing Miranda 'look' was in a preliminary sketch in which she is a punk dressed in faded Gucci - or at least a Vivienne Westwood castaway!

Caliban for me is the hero of this complex tale, not least because he is the outsider and the victim of Propsero's particular brand of despotism.
 Caliban - Mike Healey

When I first  tackled him I conceived him as some kind of monster (as in the little charcoal/ collage above). Later I saw that he was more complex - a 'savage' capable of passion and feeling.

Caliban's Garden - Mike Healey

However, there is another reason why I love this play so much. It is a reason that I only remembered when I started writing this article.

Pencil drawing by Mike Healey

When I was about sixteen I would regularly cycle some thirty miles (each way) from my home to a wonderful second-hand bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, Kent (UK).

There, one day, I found a 19th Century copy of The Tempest. It was small, beautifully bound with thick, creamy paper. The act and scene headings were in red. I thought this was sumptuous and bought it, there and then!

Ariel - Mike Healey

So, my real reason for loving The Tempest so much is that little edition - my very first copy of the play. Do you remember Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941)? Well, that little edition of The Tempest is my 'Rosebud'.

Although Prospero's island is entirely invented by Shakespeare, some scholars and writers (including Lawrence Durrell) claim that it is really Corfu, Greece.

Guess where I now live! Corfu! Spookie, eh?

Mike Healey
Corfu, 1978
"What comes around, comes around!"

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Mik Healey - Retrospective 2

 Paintings You May Not Have Seen
Mike Healey

As I have explained elsewhere on this blog, I am currently rewriting a short story of mine called Journey to the dark side of the Moon

To that end I have been going through my portfolio to find paintings that might serve as illustrations for that story

Here are a few that you may not have seen before:

 Urban Angel IV

  Green Persephone

Galaxy Prostitute

Persephone and Mother

These are quite old and most of them are sold but I think some of them have potential for my story.

A new version of Journey to the dark side of the Moon will be available on Amazon  in June


Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Picture of the Month

Rembrandt's celebrated painting (1642) is the subject of Peter Greenaway's film 'Nightwatching'  starring Martin Freeman

The film explores events leading up to this commission and the nature of the Dutch militiamen who wished to be immortalised in a group portrait

During work on the painting, Rembrandt stumbles upon what appears to be a cover-up of a murder committed within the ranks of the civilian 'regiment'

There are other disturbing events within the militia's ranks, including one of its members using an orphanage for young girls as a brothel

The finished portrait therefore contains clues to the 'accidental' death of one of the members of the regiment, thereby exposing the dark story that lies behind this celebrated group portrait

According to Greenaway, the scandal associated with his 'exposure' of murder within the regiment's ranks had a profound and deleterious effect on Rembrandt's subsequent career

Greenaway has also produced a documentary film associated with this film -  'Rembrandt's J'Accuse' (2008)  - in which he provides 33 pieces of 'evidence' for his theory

Both films are currently available in one DVD from axiom/films

Mike Healey

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Brewery Arts, Kendal (UK)
An exhibition of paintings, drawings, collages and dioramas by

20 April - 22 June, 2018

It is widely thought that western civilisation owes its origins to cultural developments in ancient Greece

While historians acknowledge that Greece was probably subject to some influence from northern Europe, ‘Western Civilisation’ as we know it clearly sprung from the indigenous peoples of the Greek city-states and islands, subsequently shaping the Italian Renaissance and its later ‘re-discovery’ of all things ancient.

'Classical' Greek representation of Zeus

However, this ‘Aryan’ model is now highly contested and would appear to be largely the product of late 18th and early 19th century scholars anxious to reject long-held notions, not least by the ancient Greeks themselves, that Greece derived much from both the Phoenicians and the equally ancient civilisation of Egypt. 

Greek statues were painted, often in lurid colours

This scholarly suppression (mostly German) of non-European influences is, some have argued, racist and, above all, anti-Semitic

The Afroasiatic origins of Greek culture were first explored in detail in Martin Bernal’s controversial book ‘Black Athena: the Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization’ (Volume 1, 1987) in which he locates the origins of many ‘Greek’ myths, for example, in North Africa. 

Vase painting of Dionysus

He argued that Greek culture was initially shaped by these foreign influences and developed further by Phoenicians actually colonising Greece during its long history

'Hades, king of the Underworld'
Mike Healey

In this exhibition I will draw on this notion, giving Hades, King of the Underworld a Tuareg complexion while Persephone has a distinctly Egyptian appearance 

'Persephone' - work in progress detail
Mike Healey

This is contrary to ‘iconic’ images we have of these mythical characters based on white marble statues from ancient Greece or Rome

My Venus, for example, is also very different and captures – or so I hope – an atavistic and distinctly pagan sexuality not found in ‘classical’ Greek or Roman sculptures

Mike Healey

The two myths that most interest me are those associated with Dionysus (whom the Romans called Bacchus) and Hades’ abduction of Persephone

Dionysus, called 'Bacchus, god of wine' by the Romans

My Dionysus is a far more dangerous figure, associated with death and sexual indulgence and whose female followers would dismember any man who witnessed their secret rites!

'Libation' by Mike Healey

More details about this forthcoming exhibition will be given nearer the day but meanwhile put 20th April, 2018 in your diary!



La Lecon de guitare, 1933

My choice this month is Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola,1908-2001). This brilliant artist is one of the great Modernists yet he remains hugely controversial, not least for his subject matter.

Balthus was of Polish extraction. As a student he studied tempera wall paintings in Florence and from 1930 to 1932 lived in Morocco.

He moved to Paris in 1933 where La Lecon de guitare brought him instant fame - and notoriety!

Although primarily known as a painter of young, pubescent girls in 'erotic' poses, he was also an accomplished landscape artist, with a delicate colour sense and fine draftsmanship

I particularly like the above landscape, begun in 1941 and
finished in 1945

La Sortie du bain, 1957

However, it is a painter of the female form that Balthus is best known.

This beautiful painting (above) of a young girl emerging from her bath is equal, in my view, to anything by Matisse or even the late chalk or crayon drawings by Degas

Nu devant la cheminee, 1955

I have only ever seen one drawing (crayon on paper) by Balthus and it was this elegant study of a young girl in front of her mirror. The simplicity of its design and the clean lines of both figure and room
make for an enchanting picture

It also reveals a key component of the girls in Balthus' work, namely their utter self absorption in themselves

Although some critics have considered this painting (above) erotic, it is the girl's absorption in her pet cat that gives the languor of her pose its naturalness

An early sketch for this painting (below) is less emotionally charged, the focus being the girl's concentration on her pet cat whose paw emerges over the top of her chair or mirror

True, there is always a hint of voyeurism in these paintings and the suggestion of a (female) figure by the window in the finished oil painting, probably gazing at the girl, adds unease to this otherwise 'innocent' picture

La chambre, 1952-53

The idea of a nude figure being deliberately exposed to view is more explicit in the above painting.
Here a strange, dwarf-like female opens the curtain, flooding the room with saffron-coloured light that exposes the girl in what could be a post-masturbatory sleep

While, to a third party (i.e the viewer) this might make this picture blatantly erotic, in my view it represents the girl's possible guilt and  her own fear of exposure at her emerging sexuality

 This famous painting of a young girl exposing her legs whilst reclining on a bench is frequently seen merely as an erotic pose designed to titilate the viewer

In my view this is completely wrong.

Again, it is the girl's self absorption that renders her pose innocent and little more than someone aware, perhaps, of her own burgeoning sexuality - something any parent will recognize in their own daughters

Which brings us back to The guitar lesson

The notion that the girl is somehow being abused is in my view completely wrong.

The child's languid pose, peaceful smile (her eyes are closed, as if she were asleep) and  left hand straying towards the woman's exposed right breast suggest to me that this is a dream in which the girl herself is fantasizing about her 'teacher'

A crayon sketch dated 1949 (some fifteen years after La Lecon ) yet called Etude pour La Lecon de guitare is more difficult to explain

Here a male figure pulls the girl's clothing away with his teeth, his eyes resolutely fixed on her genital area while his right hand grasps the girl's arm in a dominant grip

Assuming the date (1949) is correct, then this is an entirely different treatment of the subject and one which some of us might legitimately find disturbing

Balthus died in February, 2001.

He was revered by other great artists - including Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, and writers such as Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau and Andre Breton

Illustrations for the above article are taken from Balthus by Jean Clair and published by Flammarion in 2001

To find this book and others, click on the link below