Sunday 25 August 2019

What Lies Beneath: Balcony Scene by Genieve Figgis

Balcony Scene by Genieve Figgis, Acrylic on panel, courtesy of the artist

Balcony Scene by Genieve Figgis Acrylic on panel, courtesy of the artist
Balcony Scene by Genieve Figgis Acrylic on panel, courtesy of the artist

Niall MacMonagle

On New Year's Eve, New York's Metropolitan Opera presents a Gala Opening of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, starring Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo. When they sing together, according to The New York Times, "the temperature rises nearly to boiling".

In the world's most famous love story, Romeo and Juliet meet on Sunday evening, marry on Monday at noon, part on Tuesday morning and they're both dead, by their own hand, on Thursday. Though Irish artist Genieve Figgis hadn't much of a relationship with Shakespeare in the classroom - "I found my own interests and passions outside of school" - she happily accepted the Met's invitation to respond to their new production.

In doing so she joins a distinguished list of innovative and provocative artists including Chagall, Hockney, and Anselm Kiefer who also made Met opera-inspired paintings.

Last Wednesday, Figgis's show opened at the Met Gallery, Lincoln Place and of the many moments in the story, the Balcony Scene "was the hardest piece to make".

Did she deliberately set out to surprise the viewer, to mock expectation, to avoid a cliched image of that iconic scene?

"I just wanted to do it my own way." And this she did in her own experimental fashion. The garden is aglow with fairy-light flowers. Romeo in doublet and hose, is thrown back, carefree, head over heels in love, arms outstretched and fingers spaced in wild abandon.

Juliet stands tall, unreachable in pink on her wrought-iron balcony. Both are blue-eyed, both grin, but in those grins there is a more unsettling expression: are their faces shadowed by death, do we see the skull beneath the skin?

"I never set out to do that in the work but somehow it comes through. And Romeo is filled with hope and desire. He is so young."

Other paintings in her exhibition go beyond the familiar story and include Romeo and Juliet on horseback, another is of the young lovers ascending heavenwards. Figgis likes "to think of them living on and continuing their romance". She's on their side. "Death is not the ending. I wanted them to win in the end".

Romeo and Juliet, new work by Genieve Figgis, at The Arnold and Marie Schwartz Gallery Met, Lincoln Centre, New York, until January 21, 2017.

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