Peter Clarke (artist)

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Peter Clarke (born 2 June 1929 in Simons Town, South Africa, died 13 April 2014, Ocean View, Cape Town, South Africa) was a highly accomplished and versatile South African visual artist, working across a broad spectrum of media. Clarke was also involved in literature as an internationally acclaimed writer and poet. Of these three roles, he joked: "Had I been triplets, it would have made it much easier because each could have his own job... 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 was best known for his graphic prints, particularly his woodcuts, and in later years he moved into collage. He also used leather, glass, found objects and other mixed media to produce his colourful work.

Clarke's artistic career spanned more than 6 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 was not given the full recognition it deserves.[1][2]

Modus operandi[edit]

Peter Clarke, award winning artist and poet died at his home on Sunday 13th April 2014. Born in 1929 in Simonstown, his professional career spanned 6 decades and won him national and international acclaim. In 2005 he was awarded the Order of Ikhamga (silver) by President Thabo Mbeki and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. His 2011 exhibition was entitled Listening To Distant Thunder and received with high praise. He was born in Simonstown, 1929, Cape Town. Much of his work is inspired by this beautiful coastal village where he lived until 1972, when he was forced to move to Ocean View under the Group Areas Act. He left high school in 1944 and was a dock worker until 1956 when, aged 27, a three month holiday to Teslaarsdal, a small farming village near Caledon in the South West Cape, began his artistic career. With assistance from his life-long friend, poet James Matthews, Clarke held his first solo exhibition in the newsroom of the newspaper, The Golden City Post, in 1957. At that time he said: ‘Before my exhibition, I was just another coloured man. Our people took it for granted that only whites could do such things. Now they are becoming aware of the fact that we can do these things too; that we are human beings.’

He studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town in 1961, the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam, Holland in 1962 and 1963, and Atelier Nord (Graphic Art Workshop) in Oslo, Norway in 1978 and 1979. He has received six international as well as six national awards for his art and writing and had more than 70 solo exhibitions since 1957 in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Australia, USA, Norway, Israel, Austria & the UK. He has also had many group shows in South Africa, Yugoslavia, Germany, Brazil, Austria, Italy, USA, Argentine, Norway, Botswana, Japan, Switzerland & France.

Artist's statements[edit]

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 [sic] 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".

Recently Clarke worked on a series of collages. 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 85 years of age.

Two years before the collages, Clarke had a residency at Caversham graphic workshop in Natal. He says: "The conditions were ideal so one can help feeling inspired. I happily worked on a bigger scale - and that is what I would like to do with my next print."

Clarke began working eight or nine 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."

Clarke, at 84 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."

Clarke continues to create 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.

Clark'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.

Curriculum Vitae[edit]

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 delle Arti del Disegno, Florence, Italy
  • 1965: C.P. Hoogenhout Book-illustration
  • 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.

Education[edit]

  • 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,

Awards[edit]

Six international awards for writing and art (Italy, USA, & Taiwan), including Honorary life member, Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles (1984). Six South African awards for writing and art, including three since 2000, not least Order of Ikhamanga, silver class (2005), and the Molteno Award (2000) for services to the visual arts, awarded by the Cape Tercentenary Foundation.[3]

Selected exhibitions[edit]

  • 1944: Peter Clarke's mother was born
  • 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: São 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, Gaborone, 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 (Norwegian 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)

Collections[edit]

Arnold Becher Museum, SA; Baerum Kommune, Sandvika, Norway; Caledon 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, Gaborone, 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; Bruce Campbell Smith Collection.

References[edit]