Peter Clarke: portrait of a life in art

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A retrospective exhibition of South African artist Peter Clarke is showing at the SA National Gallery until 15 February.

Here, we share the portrait of this extraordinary man that was published in WANTED’s March issue.

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A SPRY OLD MAN

From humble beginnings as a dock worker, Peter Clarke has overcome racial hierarchies to become a significant figure on the South African art-scene. He looks back over his life with SEAN O’TOOLE

Peter Clarke, the octogenarian painter, print-maker and man of letters from Ocean View, has for nearly four decades lived and worked in the same double-storey terrace home in the Noordhoek Valley. Established as a coloured enclave under the Group Areas Act, Ocean View is situated on a bare, weather-beaten stretch of land overlooking Wildevoelvlei, a wetland near Kommetjie. Clarke’s home is at the top end of a gently ascending road that passes a long row of date palms and a school. His yard is fenced off with a low wall and has an emerald-green pedestrian gate.

I flip open the old-fashioned latch, wave at the inquisitive neighbour with curlers in her hair listening to music in her doorway, and follow Clarke, a spry figure with far fewer grey hairs than his 81 years would have you expect, into his home.

Asked once about living and working in relative isolation, Clarke, a bachelor and the sole occupant of his home, told dealer Michael Stevenson, “I think what is good about my situation is that, living out of town, I see only those people whom I want to come and see me. They make these pilgrimages, which are quite funny at times.”

Funny because, confused and delighted by the modest circumstances of his home, where everything is neatly ordered and almost within arm’s reach, visitors have tended to behave “as if they were in a house museum, and touched things and looked around inquisitively”.

I do a bit of this too, albeit without moving from the couch. Here’s what I see. On my left, stacked near the front window, horizontal piles of books and vertical rows of paintings. The spines of the books have titles like Folk Art, Hiroshige and Aztec. There is also a book on Italy’s avant-garde Arte Povera movement; a recent biography on Johannesburg painter Moses Tladi; also British Museum curator Chris Spring’s 2008 compendium of contemporary African art. Cumulatively, these books offer an insight into Clarke’s omnivorous appetite and promiscuous taste for art from all over the world.

On the opposite end of the room, on a display cabinet filled with teacups and various objets d’art, is a floral arrangement comprised mostly of dry branches. A statuette commemorating his Arts and Culture Trust Lifetime Achievement Award from last year and a colour photograph of Clarke receiving the Order of Ikhamanga for excellence in art and literature from former president Thabo Mbeki in 2005 flank the vase filled with dried flora. There are many more things I could describe in Clarke’s lounge-cum-studio, but I am here to talk with the bespectacled, bearded man in front of me, not catalogue his intimate surroundings.

Of course, these surroundings have a way of infiltrating the story. I ask Clarke, who is the subject of a forthcoming retrospective at the Standard Bank Gallery in May, what he makes of his neighbour’s loud taste for contemporary music. It drifts in, welcome or not, through his front door. “I’m trying not to notice,” he mischievously replies.

Given his long association with District Six writers like James Matthews, as well as the Drum magazine short story award he received in 1955, I venture that his head must be filled with jazz.

"I enjoy jazz but I really appreciate classical music," he responds, singling out Rachmaninov and Brahms, quickly adding that his list of favourite composers is really quite long. From the aurally serene I veer suddenly towards the hardened actual, Simon’s Town, where on June 2, 1929, he was born in a stone cottage overlooking False Bay.

"My father was a labourer in the naval docks. He worked in the Royal Navy for many years until he eventually retired. My mother was a domestic worker. I have three brothers and had two sisters, one of whom passed away," he says.

Clarke attended Livingstone High School in Claremont, where art teacher Johannes Esterhuizen gave him his first taste of an artistic sensibility. Despite his proficiency with watercolour, he left school at 15 and became a dock worker.

"At that stage, if you were not white you were not expected to be an artist," says Clarke. "Art was for white people only."

Despite the racial hierarchies of the period, and the modest expectations they imposed on people of colour, Clarke nonetheless enrolled in night classes at St Philips School in District Six.

It was 1947 and his teacher was a young South African war veteran and painter named John Coplans — two decades later he would introduce California to Warhol and found and edit the influential US art magazine Artforum. For his part, Clarke continued with more part-time studies, and also joined various informal art groups.

While still working at the docks, Clarke’s watercolours received modest press attention. “Dockyard Worker plans Career in Art,” read a Cape Times headline from June 24, 1952. The notice bolstered his confidence. Four years later, aged 27 and still living with his family, Clarke decided to quit the harbour job and pursue painting. He had sufficient savings to keep him going for three months.

"I wanted to paint, and whatever else happened as a result would happen," he recalls now. "I had no further plans. It was a great urge that had gotten hold of me and I had to paint."

His telephone rings. Clarke swivels around on his chair to face his work desk, which is wedged in a corner beneath the stairs. I look at the art on his wall, which includes work by his friend Sam Nhlengethwa, some portraits, also a gorgeous cubist landscape made by a deceased friend. He swivels around to face me, hikes his right leg over his left knee, and sighs.

The call is from the Iziko South African National Gallery. They would like him to open an exhibition of photographs by the celebrated photographer Ernest Cole. (The show runs until end April.) In 1967, Cole published the photobook House of Bondage, a graphically audacious description of black life under apartheid. Clarke, whose paintings from the 60s and 70s depict what Cole in 1967 described as the “extraordinary experience to live as though life were a punishment for being black”, met the photographer in New York before his death in 1990.

Clarke is well-travelled, despite the machinations of the apartheid state, which often frustrated plans by black artists to travel abroad. His first trip north was in 1962, a year after he studied etching at Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. Like artist Moshekwa Langa three and half decades later, he was a guest of the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam.

One of his more noteworthy trips abroad happened in 1975, when he received a last-minute offer to attend the world famous University of Iowa writing programme. Clarke substituted for the historian and mystic Credo Mutwa — the magician couldn’t go so they sent the realist, I joke. Clarke chuckles, a favoured habit.

In his many interviews Clarke has often parlayed earnest talk about his modest circumstances and steady production of art over the years with humour. It is a logic that he has sporadically applied to his work too. Three years after his visit to Iowa, Clarke crafted a curious mixed media painting with a collaged strip of paper across the middle, like a wall plastered with posters. Seagulls bob in the right corner. Uncharacteristically, there is no human subject. The work is titled “There are no sharks in Iowa”.

Despite his literary background, Clarke has been far less baroque than, say, Robert Hodgins in titling his works. You don’t need to see his oil on board works “Wind blowing on Cape Flats”, “The Lonely Wanderer” or “The Mourner” to figure out what they portray. Were things that simple with “Listening to Distant Thunder”, an extraordinary flame-coloured painting made in 1970. The 61 x 77cm work, which depicts four figures, a mother with her three children, next to a bare tree that recalls the dry branches of his flower display, lends its name to the title of Clarke’s forthcoming Standard Bank Gallery show (in May).

Clarke tells me that the JAG Gallery, which owns the work, gave it another name. Yes, says JAG’s librarian Jo Burger, listing “Abandoned Family” and “Wood Drifters” as two of its past names, but it is now officially agreed that the work will travel into the future as “Listening to Distant Thunder”. The oil-on-board work echoes a barren, windswept scene Clarke drew in 1961. Unlike Pierneef, the Pretoria painter who singularly eschewed depicting weather in his many landscape studies, Clarke is deferential to the Cape’s mighty and irritable southeaster.

His invocations of storms prompt an interpretive flight of fancy from me. Was “Listening to Distant Thunder” a forewarning of the June 1976 revolt?

"I would like to say yes, but it would be incorrect," he giggles. "It wasn’t that I was being prophetic or anything like that."

That settled, I ask about the figures in his famous painting, which last year travelled to Cape Town on loan for an outing on Riason Naidoo’s exhibition 1910—2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective. Like so many of Clarke’s works, whether executed in oil, watercolour, gouache or pencil, “Listening to Distant Thunder” underscores his abiding commitment to the human form, his singular, stout figures recalling, in volume at least, Picasso’s neo-classical portraits from the early 20s.

I ask Clarke what has sustained his interest in the human form, especially given that so many of his more immediate contemporaries — David Koloane, Durant Sihlali, Cecil Skotnes — moved through figuration, becoming increasingly abstract over time.

"I think amazement at people, the person, the great variety that we represent, and the situations we get into." He pauses. "It’s difficult for me to voice. There are so many things about people that I find endlessly fascinating."

It is useful to mention that amongst Clarke’s many influences, notably German expressionism and Japanese woodblock, Mexican social realist painters like José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera feature prominently. Especially since the uptake of photography by the artworld, local social realism has tended to suggest a practice with little imagination or magic.

While committed to picturing singular, sometimes wounded figures in desolate, ghetto landscapes, Clarke does not paint from life. Unlike many younger painters, he also doesn’t paint from photographs (although he has consistently been taking photos since his adolescence). For the most part, he paints what comes into his head while standing or sitting in his small lounge.

"I tend to want to record a situation, but not turn it into propaganda because so often that kind of thing, in the wrong hands, ends up … it has no longevity."

The tack of the conversation bores him. He begins to tell me about his admiration for photographer Marc Shoul’s black and white studies of contemporary Johannesburg. A few weeks after his exhibition Flatlands opened in Cape Town in 2009, Shoul received a handwritten letter in the post. The note, its sentences rendered in neat, disciplined cursive, congratulated the Port Elizabeth-born photographer on his show and offered encouragement for the future.

"Who is this Peter Clarke guy?" asked Shoul when he showed me the letter.

"He’s an important artist," I responded. "You should send him a photo as thanks."

Shoul did, Clarke reciprocating by sending him a small lino-print.

"I used to be a great letter writer," says Clarke. These letters, despatched from the edge of nowhere, initiated friendships with artists like Skotnes, whose adoption of African forms into his work Clarke greatly admired.

Across his lengthy career Clarke has befriended a great many South African artists, amongst them Lippy Lipshitz, Gregoire Boonzaier, Durant Sihlali, also writers like Jack Cope and Richard Rive, and poet Ingrid Jonker. Many are now dead, others solidly into their late careers.

I ask if he gets frustrated always having to speak about himself in the past tense, as opposed to speaking speculatively about what he still wants to do.

"The unfortunate thing about being older is that so often people expect you to be dead," he says, hands folded in his lap. "Therefore they don’t ask you about the future. What are you going to do in the future? It is a difficult question. The artist doesn’t retire, the artist can’t turn off his think tank." He taps his noggin.

"I thought it would be interesting to sit outside on the little bench my father made in 1936 and twiddle my thumbs, but I haven’t got the guts to try it out. I’m sure my neighbours would say, ‘Shame, his mind is gone.’ So I will probably find things to do."

The statement is unaffected, quietly exuberant, a settled fact. This is how the future will be.

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Peter Clarke, A Moment Hinged on Time, print, 1982.

Listening to Distant Thunder: The Art of Peter Clarke, South African National Gallery. Until 19 February