28 December 2011 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Listening to distant thunder

I finally made it to Distant Thunder: the art of Peter Clarke, on at the Iziko South African National Gallery until 19 February 2012. I walked away richer, humbled and intrigued by this unassuming artist who’s done so much for art in South Africa. The exhibition is titled after a 1970 painting of the same name; a 61 x 77cm work that depicts four figures, a mother with her   three children, next to a bare tree.

Clarke was born in Simon’s Town in 1929 and worked in the Simon’s Town dockyard for a number of years. He began his career as a full-time professional artist in 1956.  This is the first major retrospective exhibition for the artist, now 82, who still lives in the same unostentatious Ocean View House that he has occupied for decades. I thought that the exhibition does exactly what it aims to, namely; honour Clarke’s life and work . The media release was spot-on; it really is something for the people of South Africa, of Cape Town and the residents of Ocean View in particular, to be proud of.

Exhibition curators Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin have completed extensive research on the artist and co-wrote a book chronicling his work, also titled Distant Thunder: the art of Peter Clarke. They have done a brilliant job of finding representative art works in public and private collections that take visitors to the exhibition on what is a really extraordinary journey with the artist.

These include his early pieces, made as a school boy, along with works that reflect the social disruption of the Cape Flats, as well as his prints, for which he is renowned. Also on show are works from the late 1960s that refer to the trauma of forced removals from Simon’s Town, and the paintings he began making during his trips to America, Norway and France in the 1970s. In addition, the exhibition highlights his late works that look back on the apartheid years and celebrate the new South Africa. Reviewers seem to agree that there are few people who have documented   and captured what it was like to live during the apartheid years quite   like Peter Clarke and I was delighted by his ongoing scrutiny in   ordinary,  everyday experiences.

His earliest influences were the Mexican artists of the 1930s, 40s and 50s and the German Expressionists. He has also been very interested in Japanese art. With retrospect, Clark 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.”

Clarke, who also an acclaimed writer and poet, continues to work from his home in Ocean View, Cape Town.

I really enjoyed this interview by Sean O’Toole that sheds some light on the exhibition’s title painting, along with much more. He conveys the humour and modesty of this man who at 82, still beams when he talks about the work he does with school kids at the Ocean View library, as though this is his biggest achievement. Perhaps it is. I’m amazed that despite his experience and extraordinary body of work,  he has not always been given large amounts of recognition. With this exhibition, this is no longer the case.

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