Thursday, January 7, 2010

Margaret Clarke, Irish painter


Her painting, "Christmas Gifts," from 1948, at the Limerick City Gallery on Pery Square, there crammed in rather delightfully in a tiny museum stacked floor to ceiling with frames, arrested my attention within a crowd of contenders. The girl sits, the dollar bill from America and the toy plane-- a gift from there? a memento from here-- a reminder of her own future, paralleling or diverging from the writer of the letter home. I realized after writing this entry's draft that my birth-mother, born a couple hour's drive from this museum, then living in Belfast through past WWII, was about the same age as this girl-- ten or eleven-- at least when this portrait was painted by Clarke.

Frank McCourt, decades before his own career as a writer began, would have left Limerick for New York about the time this was painted over in Dublin. The City Gallery of Art near People's Park sits in a far more elegant setting than the slum it was when Frank grew up around the corner of Pery Square-- near the bus station that may well have been his first leg of his family's emigration before WWII.

Margaret Clarke fits into the period of art I seem to gravitate towards, perhaps from my young encounters with WPA murals from the Depression in local post offices in Burbank, Pomona, and Claremont, over here. I took a quiz on which 20c decade fit me best, and the '30s it was. José Alfredo Siquieros and Diego Rivera, or the he-man engineers of the Griffith Observatory depicted, speak to me of a proletariat pride, a socialist ideal, and a folkloric motif that despite its "realism" so distorted by Popular Front ideology at times as to veer into agitprop, still enchant the part of me that saw such ambitious instruction to we the huddled masses as my first public art. Eric Gill, David Jones, some of Jack B. Yeats, a bit of Rockwell Kent, and especially Stanley Spencer in all his distorted mystical perspectives convey to me the drawings and engravings and illustrations in half-recalled library books.

Clarke comes out of this ferment, among what in Ireland during the emergence of a halting independence must have resonated oddly with the prevailing Catholic ethos. Modernism and leftist yearning appear to my untutored eye to jostle against reality. The basics of her life can be summed up at the ambitiously titled "Encyclopedia of World & Irish Art" and the more modest "Ulster History Circle."

Born 1884 in Newry, Co. Down, neé Crilley. Died 1961 and buried at Greystones, Co. Wicklow. A long career as an art teacher in Dublin, where her paintings from 1913-53 were shown at the Royal Hibernian Academy, where she was a member from 1927. Married to stained glass master Harry Clarke in 1914, after 1905-11 as an award-winning protegé to William Orpen.

To me, her art shares with theirs a boldness in its execution and a directness in its color. Like Orpen, nudes in a rather frank, pre- or post-coital display appear, to me at least, to comprise her studies of the female form. She used her children and family for many models. Like Seán Keating, as in her 1917 "Mary & Brigid" on my blog's right-side panel, you can see Clarke's combination of a rurally based setting with a dynamic, confrontational aggression that places the gaze of those under scrutiny giving you, via the artistic medium, as close a look as she gave to them. She shared with her colleagues a love for oils, and how to unlock their power. This softer "Interior of a Room" (ca. 1920) shows her talent at light and shadow with less of a figure--her husband's in their studio-- to fill the frame and more of a mood to suggest.

I wonder who viewed her nudes, yet at the RHA, even in the censorious times of the Irish Free State they found exhibition. Perhaps her husband's acclaim and her own continuation after his 1931 death of his stained glass gallery allowed her to continue her own career? She did portraits of Éamon de Valera, Lennox Robinson (a study that resembles me I might add, once upon a less grey time), and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, so she must have stayed on the side of the right men in power. Not much can be found about her later decades, from my admittedly cursory examination.

Here are two nudes I did find for you to compare.

This first "Nude" was sold at auction in 2004. The woman appears more Spanish than conventionally "Hibernian," certainly what my parents called "black Irish," and it suggests Goya's splendid "La maja desnuda" if in a more downward glancing, less come-hither gaze. if not that, at least in her coiffure.

This "Reclining Nude" auctioned off in 2006 shows an oddly unsettling pose, as much pain as pleasure. The ambiguity between rictus and rapture, between prolongation and alleviation of the body's demands, makes a statement I find almost Gothic in tone.

For a clothed woman, as with Goya's "La maja vestida," the contrasts are evident. See her 1926 "Ophelia."
I like this less. It reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite William Morris with "Guinevere" awakened from her debauchery, the cat still curled in rumpled bed, along with Holman Hunt's allegorical "The Awakened Conscience" in its dotty mien of our (former) maiden. Her cat's underneath the table. No felines for John Everett Millais' waterlogged, flowerladen virgin. But, speaking of Gothic elements, the madness and the black dress do make a statement. See also a painting I featured in my blog post on "An Exegesis of Squalor? Magic via Shambhala?" for sartorial parallels and emotional resonance. I suspect if in my ignorance that Clarke's modelling herself in both paintings, given the fashion and the predicament of a woman caught and finding herself wanting in a harsh age surrounded by a vindictive audience.

Thanks to the long arm of the bishop's crozier? Clarke may have had to make amends. Via a fine blog, "Rainbow Stamp Club," that reminds me of another boyhood visual influence, postage stamps, here's another contribution to Irish culture, a more practical one too, nearly fifty years after her long life ended: 2009 issue. It's based on her painting of Patrick climbing the holy mountain Croagh Patrick in Mayo, for Lá Fhéile Phadraig, St. Patrick's Day. I hope this was not exacted in elderly restitution for her earlier nudes.

1 comment:

patricia odoherty said...

Really enjoyed this!Thank you!♧