After Life: On Patrick Procktor’s Long Live the Great Leap Forward (extract)
There is a short scene five minutes into Prick Up Your Ears (1987), Stephen Frears’ film dramatisation of the relationship between playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell. It is 5th May 1967, and Orton arrives at the Marylebone studio of Patrick Procktor, where he is to have his portrait drawn by the artist. Orton is played by Gary Oldham, and Procktor by his friend and one-time lover Derek Jarman. The scene opens with a close-up of a section of Procktor’s painting Long Live the Great Leap Forward, borrowed from the artist for use on the film set. The work is one of a series of tableaux painted in 1966 and 1967, and here, as a scene within a scene, it adds a piquant layer of artifice. Visible amongst its male figures – all painted from photographs – are a dozen Chinese young pioneers waving branches aloft. Raised on a stage behind them stand a group of teenagers enlisted to fight in Vietnam, whilst to their right, as though projected onto the wall, are large heads of Bob Dylan and Chairman Mao. In front of Mao a headless figure perches part way up a blue ladder. The predominant pinks and oranges of the painting fill the screen, forming an exotic backcloth as Orton enters the frame in figure-hugging red t-shirt. He peruses the painted scene fleetingly before turning to face Procktor. “Bollock naked?” he wryly asks. “No, leave your socks on” comes the reply. We then see the artist at work, capturing Orton in ink line whilst his subject languishes on a day bed in white socks.
Prick Up Your Ears is a period-piece, an account of the Sixties informed by the social attitudes of the Eighties. Made at a time when the Thatcher government, with the support of a complicit right-wing press, were promoting homophobia through its notorious Section 28 bill, the film’s sympathetic telling of the story of Orton and Halliwell seemed an important plea for tolerance. And whilst Jarman bore no physical resemblance to the six-feet-five Procktor, to cast him in the role of the artist appeared a political choice, for he was amongst the most high-profile and vociferous demonstrators against inequality and prejudice at the time.
Long Live the Great Leap Forward was included in Procktor’s third exhibition, held at The Redfern Gallery, London in May 1967. It was one of the two largest canvases in the show – both measured seven by twelve feet – which together with two more large-scale paintings formed the centrepiece of the show. Each depicted a large recessed space, as a kind of stage set in which Procktor disposed the protagonists of an all-male cast. In Pop-like appropriation, he took his figures predominantly from photographs in contemporary books and newspapers; along with young Americans, Chinamen, Mao and Dylan were leather boys and The Rolling Stones in drag. All were painted in dilute acrylic washes, form and volume indicated mostly in brush-drawn line. Like that of his drawing of Orton, Procktor’s use of line is here informed by the often schematised line of his friend Hockney, who at the time these paintings were made was working on his suite of etchings to poems by Cavafy.
These large paintings by Procktor are theatrical in both scale and intention, and akin to painted backcloths. In each there is a sense of performance, as though a play or opera has been stilled in a single frame. Theatre was an abiding interest for this most theatrical of personalities on the London art scene of the Sixties. In 1965 he had designed a mural for the play Saint’s Day by John Whiting, staged at Theatre Royal, Stratford. The mural included a painted ladder not unlike that of Long Live the Great Leap Forward. Subsequently he designed for the Royal Court Theatre; in 1968 a Twelfth Night, followed later in the year by Total Eclipse, Christopher Hampton’s play about Verlaine and Rimbaud. For this the proscenium and back wall were painted pink, and a pierced Moroccan lamp, borrowed from Procktor’s friend Christopher Gibbs’ Chelsea shop, was hung in the middle of the auditorium, where at certain points in the performance it was made to revolve, so that it spun shards of light over the whole theatre. Procktor was captivated by light. When colour television was first introduced in 1967, he found himself fascinated by it, explaining that his interest lay in: “The way in which colour is illuminated from behind and the fact that a person, or an object, reflects an intenser colour near to it.” [See The gentle world of Patrick Proctor [sic], Jeremy, Vol 1, No 3, 1969, pp12-15]
© Ian Massey 2014
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