by Kim Gurney (September, 2003)
Peter Clarke is a highly accomplished and versatile visual artist, working across a broad spectrum of media. But he also has a literary side as an internationally acclaimed writer and poet. Of these three roles, he jokes: “Had I been triplets, it would have made it much easier because each could have his own jobÉ There are times when I go through a writing phase and there are times for phases of picture-making but there is never a dull moment.”
Clarke is best known for his graphic prints, particularly his woodcuts, and more recently he has moved into collage. He also uses leather, glass, found objects and other mixed media to produce his colourful work.
Born in Simons Town in 1929, Clarke’s artistic career spans many decades and he has unsurprisingly produced a large number of works and appeared in many exhibitions. Nevertheless, commentators generally feel that despite this experience and exposure, his work is not given the full recognition it deserves.
Clarke works from his home in Ocean View, Cape Town. He has never had his own studio and this fact impacts upon his work. Printmaking can be awkward if not impossible in a small space and this restriction has helped trigger Clarke’s recent move to alternative media.
The confines of home have also impacted on the scale of his work. Small artworks are more practical and Clarke says his work has therefore tended to be smaller. He says: “I do make tiny prints at home but one has to improvise terribly and [working from home] does have an impact on size and the amount of prints you can produce.”
Clarke works consistently, interspersed with other activities, in a natural rhythm that oscillates between writing and art making. “I work when the idea strikes. I don’t have a regime; while I work the ideas come. I’m not interested in waiting around for the muse,” he says.
Clarke’s poetry has more recently taken a back seat – largely because it requires substantial reflection. Clarke says: “Writing about a character is one thing but one needs to spend more time on poetry. It makes more demands.”
Although his work has naturally evolved over time, Clarke says its latest twist towards collage heralds a more abrupt and obvious change. He says: “Up to a certain time, I worked in a narrative manner. I had things to say and it was also expected of black artists to make statements about the state of affairs in the country. But it was a phase and I felt at the time that I also wanted to produce artwork without it necessarily making a statement about anything in particular.
“After 1994, I started feeling that one must also explore other things beyond the statement. I felt it was a time for liberation, a renaissance as being felt [in South Africa] in any case. So I gave free reign to working with various kinds of material like coloured paper, cloths, labels and whatever. I also became aware at this time of a lot of scrap material – like junk mail. Some of it is so colourful. I realized I could use it as material.
“South Africa is a very inspiring place. I am very much interested in people. If I decided only to work in a figurative way, there would be no end to what I want to say about people. People here are more involved with each other. The climate has a lot to do with it. And the variety of people – the physical variety – is very exciting in fact and the way people interact or not. I used to think of South Africa as a mad house but a mad house is far more interesting, really. Had I lived in Europe, my art would have been completely different and probably not at all figurative.
“My earliest influences were the Mexican artists of the 1930s, 40s and 50s and the German Expressionists. I have also been very interested in Japanese art. It has a very attractive style. In the early 1940s and 50s, I also began thinking about what an art teacher [at school] had said. And I took evening classes at St Phillips in District Six where I came into contact with others involved in that space. The interaction led to exploration through books and exhibitions in Cape Town.
With retrospect, Clarke thinks the theme of space is recurrent through his work. He says: “Physical space, mental space, these seem to have been a preoccupation throughout my life.” Even his poetry has reflected this concern, as the words of one of his poems describe: “Sunlight reflected in a distant window”.
Clarke is working on a series of collages, several of which are currently on exhibition at the AVA in Cape Town. Each artwork comprises a fan constructed with a particular person in mind. The character could be historical, Biblical, a literary figure, or drawn directly from Clarke’s life. Below the fan are a few paragraphs of beautifully written text describing that particular person’s thoughts. In some cases, as for artist Helen Martins, the words are lifted from their actual writings. In other cases, Clarke creates dialogue that he imagines would represent their thought process. The fan series therefore draws on both Clarke’s visual and literary talents – a fitting culmination of talents for an artist approaching 75 years of age.
Two years ago, Clarke had a residency at Caversham graphic workshop in Natal. He says: “The conditions were ideal so one can’t help feeling inspired. I happily worked on a bigger scale – and that is what I would like to do with my next print.”
And Before that
Clarke began working three or four years ago on collage books that fold up into boxes of various shapes and sizes that he handcrafts from leather. He says he draws much of his inspiration for these books from music: “A lot of them are inspired by jazz, although I’m more of a classics person. I enjoy music very much because my father always had a collection of records so music was heard quite a lot. I enjoy listening to music and expressing it in a different way.”
Clarke says of his books: “You can’t fold up a Monet or a Cezanne or any precious work of art. But with one like this, you can fold it up and carry it in a little box. You can sit next to somebody in a waiting room and say: ‘I’ve got something to show you’ and lift it out its box.”
And Even Before that
Clarke, at 74 years of age, has participated in so many exhibitions and appeared in such a myriad of journals that keeping track is a full-time job. He has appeared in many solo and group exhibitions in South Africa and abroad – as the list shows.
His life also spans a tumultuous period in South African history that saw both the instigation and later the demise of apartheid. Clarke says democracy has ushered in a decade of “very exciting” South African art: “Democracy created a lot of mental freedom and there are a lot of positive things happening. There is a great variety of themes, media and modes of production. There is also a lot of junk, but that is inevitable. In the process of finding oneself, one will always produce things that are not up to very high standards. But it is all part of the process and part of expression. It is quite exciting to see what is being produced in South Africa today. We can go to the rest of the world and show what is being made here.” a waiting room and say: ‘I’ve got something to show you’ and lift it out its box.”
Clarke is continuing with making his collage books. “The idea is just to have fun – like picture books for children, which take them into another world. These are meant to act in the same way. It’s just the artist in old age indulging in fun and games. I just want [viewers] to feel happy, not to look for a reason or a heavy explanation. It’s just shape and colour and forms for enjoyment.” This sense of fun is extended into the gallery when these books are on display. Clarke likes the fact that they break through the usual ‘look-but-don’t-touch’ environment.
And After that
Clarke’s series of fans is ongoing and he says he will not stop creating new characters in a hurry. However, he is intrigued by the idea of working on an “enormous” scale in print at some point because of the experimentation and exploration it allows.
Clarke produces collage with recycled paper and found objects, leather, metal, glass; he is also a graphic artist in particular known for his woodcuts; a writer and a poet.
1955: Drum International Short Story Award
1962-63 & 1978-9: Visited Europe, US, Botswana and Israel
1965: Awarded Accademico Onorario of the Accademia Fiorentina delle Arti des Disegno, Florence, Italy
1965: C.P.Hoogenhout Book-illustration Award for Snoet-alleen (Freda Linde)
1975: Elected Honorary Fellow in Writing, University of Iowa, US
1979: Art teacher at Kleinberg Primary School, Ocean View, Western Cape (formerly Cape Province)SA
1982: Diploma of Merit in Literature, Universita delle Arti, Italy
Book illustration award for ‘A Message in the Wind’ (Chris van Wyk)
1983: Diploma of Merit in Art, Academia Italia
1983: Honorary Life Member of the Museum of African American Art, LA, US
1984: Founder member of the Vakalisa Art Associates
1984: Elected Honorary Doctor of Literature, World Academy of Arts and Culture, Taipei, Taiwan
Has illustrated books published in South Africa, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Nigeria and the UK.
From the 1950s, has written short stories, essays and is an internationally acclaimed poet.
1947: Night classes at St Philips School under John Coplans, South Africa (SA)
1948: Technical Collage, Roeland Street, Cape Town, SA
1947-52: Member of various informal art groups in Cape Town, SA
1950: Formed own Art Group
1961: Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town – etching classes
1962-3: Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten – graphics
1978-9: Atelier Nord (Graphic Art Workshop) in Oslo, Norway
1957: Golden City Post, Cape Town, South Africa (first solo)
1960: Yugoslavia (SA Graphic Art)
1961: Galerie Schoninger, Munich, West Germany (SA Graphic Art)
1961: Sao Paulo Biennial
1963: 5th International Graphic Art Biennale, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria (International Graphic Art)
1964: Venice, Italy (Biennale)
1965: Mbari Cultural Centre, Ibadan, Nigeria (solo)
Chem-Chemi Cultural Centre, Nairobi, Kenya (solo)
6th International Graphic Art Biennale, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia
1968: Palazzo Strozzo, Florence, Italy (First Exhibition of International Graphics)
1969: Palazzo Strozzo, Italy (Second Exhibition of International Graphics)
1970: Edrich Gallery, Stellenbosch (solo)
1971: SA Graphic Art touring Netherlands, Belgium and W. Germany
1972: Buenos Aires, Argentina (Tercera Bienal Internacional del Grabado)
1973: Shell Harbour Art Centre, Shell Harbour, NSW Australia (solo)
Pratt Graphics Centre, New York, US (group)
1973-4: Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, US (solo)
1976: Kuumba Workshop, Southside, Chicago, US (solo)
1977-8: SAAA, Cape Town (Our World is a Ghetto – solo)
Community Arts Project, Mowbray, Cape Town (solo)
Public Library, Grassy Park, Cape Town (solo)
1978-9: Sandvika Kino Vestibyle, Sandvika, Norway
1979-82: Atelier Nord, Oslo, Norway (Graphic Art – group)
1979: Pratt Institute, New York
1981: Atlantic Art Gallery, Cape Town (Illusions and Other Realities – solo)
1982: South African Art, National Gallery, Gaberone, Botswana
1983: Kanagawa, Japan (International Exhibition of Prints)
1984: SANG (Masterworks on Paper), Kanagawa, Japan (International Exhibition of Prints), Jerusalem Artists’ House, Israel, Frederikstad, Norway (Norweigian International Print Biennale)
1985: FUBA (A Selection of Work by Distinguished Black Artists), Grenchen, Switzerland (X Internationale Triennale Fur Originale Graphik)
1987: Chelsea Gallery, Wynberg, Cape Town (solo), Campinas, Brazil (Bienal Internacional de Gravura), Museum fur Volkerkunde, Frankfurt, W. Germany
1990: Freedom Now, Namibian independence exhibition, Windhoek, Namibia
1992: Retrospective exhibition – The Hand is the Tool of the Soul at Natale Labia Museum, Muizenberg, Cape Town
1994: 3rd Triennial World Exhibition of Prints, Auvergne, France
1995: 18th Triennial World Exhibition of Prints, Kanagawa, Japan
1996: Drawings of Tesselaarsdal, Caledon Museum
1998: ‘Vital Expressions’, Association of Arts Gallery, Bellville
1999: Lipschitz Gallery – ‘A Personal View’, Cape Town, South Africa
1999: Vital Expressions at Natal Technikon Art Gallery, Durban
2000: Bertolt Brecht House, Berlin, Germany
2000-1: City Press exhibition called ‘Baggage’
2001: Manuscript Exhibition 3 (Art Studio), Johannesburg
2001: Solo exhibition in Exeter, UK
2002: Collection of books at Natal Technikon, KwaZulu Natal
2003: AVA, Cape Town: ‘Surface=/=Print’ (part of Impact conference)
Arnold Becher Museum, SA; Baerum Kommune, Sandvika, Norway; Caledon Municipal Museum, Caledon, SA; Cape Town City Library, SA; Community Arts Project, SA; Dennis W. Koles, Kiama, NSW, Australia; District Six Museum, CT, SA; Durban Art Museum, SA; Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, US; Fuba Collection, Johannesburg, SA; Hymie and Jean Berndt, Kenilworth, SA; Johnson Publishing Co., Chicago, US; King George VI Art Gallery, PE, SA; Kunsthalle Museen der Stadt Bielefeld, Germany; Library of Congress, Washington D.C., US; Livingstone High School, Claremont, SA; Municipal Collection, Fish Hoek, SA; Municipal Museum, Simon’s Town, SA; Museum of African American Art, LA, US; Museum of Contemporary Art, Skopje, Yugoslavia; Natal Technikon, Durban, SA; National Museum and Art Gallery, Gaborone, Botswana, PAM; Nasou Publishing Co, CT, SA; National Art Gallery, Gabarone, Botswana, Pentech, Bellville, SA; Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria, SA; SA Fine Worsted Co, CT, SA; Sasol Collection, Stellenbosch, SA; Stichting Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal, Holland; South African National Gallery; University of Fort Hare, Alice, SA; Univ. of the North-West, SA; Univ. of Stellenbosch, SA; Univ. of the Western Cape, SA; Univ. of Zululand, SA; William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley, SA.