British artist Chris Klein moves effortlessly between set design for Hollywood blockbusters and painting compositions inspired by theatre and opera costumes.
How did you start your art practice? I am interested in hearing more about the link between your paintings and your work as a scenic artist working in film, theatre and television.
I feel I have always been an artist, from as far back as I remember. I recall my sister showing me a technique to draw trees, I think I was around five or six. It was also my sister who bought me my first set of oil paints when I was around thirteen.
I didn’t get into scenic painting until I was in my thirties. I started out working in theatre, but I feel I went straight in at the deep end. My first job was drawing the designs for backdrops for the Royal Opera House in London. The show was opening with the Queen present and going out on National television. It wasn’t a small project! This was quite a moment in my life, it was the first time I was making a living from painting, albeit I was painting for someone else, but it was art nonetheless, and on a grand scale.
After I moved to Canada I started working more in films as the world of theatre was much smaller. There were theatre jobs but on such a scale, or frequency. I also did lot’s for the Cirque du Soleil. But an opportunity came up for me to be the Head of Scenic Art for the Stratford Festival in Ontario. This is the largest classical theatre in North America, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity and it was good to get back into a larger theatre again.
I would say that initially that my own artistic style influenced my scenic style. But we were much more experimental in theatre and film, often having to develop new techniques to achieve a certain effect. Also, painting backdrops for films, we had to paint fast but they had to look photographic from a distance, so this started to influence the way I painted my own work. So it sort of works both ways, my own art influenced my scenic work and later my scenic work helped develop my own personal style.
Can you tell a bit about your collaboration with British designer Zandra Rhodes?
This started when I had the honour of accessing the costumes stored by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There was quite a diverse collection of costumes from which I painted and one of them was a dress designed by Zandra in the eighties. The dress was quite stunning in its design. Zandra was influenced by the Elizabethan style and she called it Renaissance Cloth of Gold. I actually cropped it so much that it was not really recognisable so much as a dress, more an abstract piece. I focused on the forms taken by the folding materials, gold and transparent materials with pinks and blues.
I sent the image of my painting to Zandra and she wrote back. I wasn’t expecting to hear from her but she loved my painting and invited me to visit her in her London studio so that I could paint more from her collection. I also took photographs of the original top that Freddie Mercury loved, he wore this design for his Bohemian Rhapsody tour. I’ve already worked out a composition of this to paint.
Zandra is an incredible fashion designer and this year she is celebrating 50 years in design. Along with Freddie Mercury and Brian May, she’s designed many dresses for Princess Diana, Princess Anne as well as countless celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Helen Mirren, Jackie Onassis and Lauren Bacall.
You are preparing for a show this summer at the Bernarducci Gallery in New York. What sort of work can people expect to see there?
I’m still hard at work painting for this show. It’s going to be predominantly theatre costumes but I’m trying to keep it diverse. There will be some from classics like Romeo and Juliet and Misanthrope. But also some more contemporary like The Nutcracker. I will have at least one painting from Zandra Rhodes’ collection. Also I’ve just started to paint the costumes from the Phantom of the Opera. The designer, Maria Bjornson, was an amazing designer and I’m honoured to be able to paint some of her stunning designs. I am going to work hard to get at least one piece from the Phantom into the gallery for the opening reception.
All in all, the show will be lavish and colourful, spanning centuries of fashion from Elizabethan to contemporary. I’ve tried to capture a broad selection of fabrics and textures to catch the eye.
You are British, currently based in Canada and you seem to have been involved in various creative projects across the world. How do you think this informs your art practice?
A couple of people have told me that my painting style, or subject matter, is very British, or European but I really don’t see this myself.
Realism itself is very international.
I am fortunate that I frequently travel around Europe and of course now I live in Canada. Perhaps traveling has broadened my perspective without me noticing it.
I could never close myself off from the world, we need to travel to experience life and gain inspiration. Life’s far too short to be boxed into one perspective.
Can you tell us more about your future plans?
There are a few projects under way with more on the horizon. Currently I have started on a series of costumes from the famous choreographies of Fernand Nault, a name that will be back on the map for Canada, particularly Quebec for the oncoming two of years. His “Nutcracker” has been performed in Montreal for more than 50 years during the Christmas season. “Carmina Burana” is being restaged with the Colorado Ballet this spring. And Tommy, choreographed on The Who’s Rock Opera was another landmark for ballet.
I’ve also been allowed to photograph the collection of Martin Kamer and Wolfgang Ruf, they have one of the most important collections of period costumes in the world.
I’m working on more costumes from the Royal Ceremonial Collection from Kensington Palace as well as from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
I’ve mentioned that I’ve started to paint costumes from the Phantom of the Opera and hopefully some other shows designed by the incredible Maria Bjornson.
And lastly I have been talking with movie director Tarsem Singh and producer Nicholas Soultanakis for permission to paint some of the stunning designs of the late Eiko Ishioka. Her incredible, dreamlike designs were used in all of Tarsem’s films until she passed away. She won an Oscar for her costumes in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.
I have more plans on the horizon but I think I’ve said enough for now!
More information about about Chris and his work can be found at www.chrisklein.com.