Cape Town - In spite of his renown in the art world, Peter Clarke will be remembered in his home community of Ocean View as an “uncle, a gentleman and a teacher”. Clarke, one of South Africa’s most celebrated visual artists and poets, died peacefully at his home on Sunday at the age of 85.
He did not marry or have children, but spent much of his time giving free art classes to Ocean View’s children at the local library.
An extensive traveller, Clarke remained humble and grounded. As his younger brother, Richard, told the Cape Argus on Monday: “It was in this community and surroundings where he found his muse. Everything that he needed was right around him – in the people and the environment that he loved so much.
“He would look at some people walking down the road, sit quietly and sketch them.
“An hour later, it would be the most beautiful painting.”
During artistic sabbaticals in Teslaarsdal, outside Caledon, Clarke found expression for his love of nature, landscapes and animals.
His optimism about Ocean View, seen as a ghetto built by the apartheid government, is reflected in his reaction to the forced removal of his family from his birthplace, Simon’s Town, in 1972.
“He said: ‘This could be a good thing for us, we need the change.’
“In many ways it was an opportune time for us to expand as a family, and for him to expand as an artist,” Richard said.
Indeed, the optimism with which Clarke transformed one of apartheid’s most cruel features into an opportunity is a theme reflected throughout his work.
Clarke’s “coolness” and “lack of bitterness” when commenting on apartheid society through his work was one of the enduring motifs of his work, Richard said.
Hayden Proud, senior curator at the Iziko SA National Gallery, who wrote a tribute to Clarke on Sunday, agrees: “His paintings, prints and drawings, surprisingly, were without any reflection of rancour or bitterness. Instead, with a loving and acutely perceptive eye, he recorded, as perhaps no other artist ever has, the realities and the humour of life as it is lived in the Cape by the majority of its inhabitants.”
Spending time viewing exhibitions at the National Gallery was one of Clarke’s favourite pastimes. As Proud points out, he was there last Thursday. It was there, a few years ago, that a massive retrospective of Clarke’s work was staged.
Clarke 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, the US, Norway, Israel, Austria and the UK. In 2005 he was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga (silver) by President Thabo Mbeki.
Clarke will be buried in Simon’s Town on April 26.