Exhibition reviews: Derek Clarke RSA | William Gillies | John Bellany

Samson Setting the Philistine's Corn Alight by Derek Clarke
Samson Setting the Philistine's Corn Alight by Derek Clarke
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A remarkable collection of work by the RSA’s oldest member shows a search for spirituality that sweeps from the pre-war years to the present day, always focusing on clarity



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DEREK Clarke celebrated his hundredth birthday on Hogmanay 2012. A birthday exhibition, Derek Clarke at 100, opened at the RSA a few days later. The inference of that preposition “at” in the title is that this is an ongoing story, and he does indeed still paint every day. There is work here from 2012, while the earliest works in the show date from nearly 80 years ago. That might put me in a bit of a spot as a critic. I couldn’t turn around and say to someone after such a long career: ‘It’s all rubbish. It really hasn’t been worth it.’ Fortunately, I can say with a clear conscience that is not the case. His painting is remarkable, sometimes almost hallucinatory in its intensity. He has always been determined to be his own man and he has achieved it. You cannot pigeonhole his art and say it is school of so-and-so. It looks like Derek Clarke and no-one else, though as all artists of any humility will do, he also acknowledges those who went before and have inspired him.

This is not a full retrospective. The pictures on view are only those that are readily available, and the space in the RSA Library where it is being held is anyway very restricted. The show does nevertheless tell the story of his long career, as the actual pictures on view are supplemented by photographs and reproductions of works from throughout the 80 years or so that he has been a working painter.

When Derek Clarke was born, Picasso and Braque were painting Cubist pictures. He passed his childhood against the background of the First World War. He then went to Ampleforth, the leading Catholic public school, and from there to the Slade where he studied from 1931 to 1935. It was another age. Augustus John and Henry Tonks were the leading lights. Drawing was the key discipline. Setting out to make his living as an artist, he managed to secure several portrait commissions. An example here is of the pianist and composer Elizabeth Poston, whom he painted in 1936. It is strongly drawn and intensely coloured in a way that his work has continued to be ever since. She is wearing a dark blue dress against a yellow chair and curtain. A scarlet cushion is echoed in her red lips and nails and one bright red shoe just visible beneath her dress. Patterns in the fabric are echoed in patterns in the brushwork. These rhythms and the pure colours he uses suggest his acknowledged admiration for Van Gogh. That parallel continues too in his intensity and in his search for spirituality in painting of the actual world. A wood engraving of the same sitter, Elizabeth Poston, suggests an affinity with Eric Gill, another artist who looked for the spiritual in the mundane.

Clarke’s portraits took him to Ireland and there, following his urge to find spiritual inspiration unspoilt by the modern world, he went to Connemara. At the time Connemara was still a monoglot Gaelic community. It was a migration to a more primitive world, not unlike Van Gogh’s journey to Provence. After an initial brief sojourn he returned and spent a year in Connemara until the outbreak of war in 1939. What the Irish thought of the earnest young artist whom we see in a fine self-portrait drawing from 1935 history does not record, but he seems to have established a rapport across the language barrier and they let him paint them in their homes. The results are seen here in a number of reproductions, but also in one large painting, Connemara Mare and Foal, a boy holding a horse with its foal alongside, all seen against a background of a low hill, a stone hut, fields defined by stone walls that could be neolithic and the sea beyond. What is striking about the picture is the way it glows with light. Like Van Gogh, he has achieved this by using pure, unmodified colour with a surface animated by his brushwork. Yellow is dominant, but it is cut with its complementary, violet, to wind up the colour key even further.

At the outbreak of war, Clarke joined the Durham Light Infantry. A remarkable group of drawings record action in North Africa. He was wounded and a year’s convalescence gave him a chance to paint. Samson Setting Fire to the Philistines’ Corn begun at this time is again an essay in intense colour. Samson used 300 foxes tied together to spread flames through the Philistines’ corn. In the painting, their fur merges with the flames, brilliant red against the yellow corn. A contemporary biblical composition of the Gadarene Swine earned a compliment from Stanley Spencer, another artist with whom Clarke has a clear affinity. Indeed much later he painted a Homage to Stanley Spencer based on a famous photograph of Spencer pushing a pram laden with his easel, his paints and a large umbrella. In the painting, the black and white photo becomes a vision of supernatural brilliance, the supernatural endorsed by two Spencer-ish angels hovering over the artist, sprinkling him with what looks like magic dust. A study for a similar homage to Courbet, but including Clarke himself in the act of painting his great predecessor, is a riot of complementary colours. This is a small painting and its energy is contained by its scale, but that makes you realise how much more space some of the bigger paintings really need, much more than they can be given with so many pictures in this room. Nevertheless, there are some quieter paintings that sit more easily in the crowd, several beautiful watercolour landscapes, for instance, and a superb painting from the mid 1950s of Florence, not the tourists’ city, but the rough ground beside the Arno with a crowd of brightly dressed people enjoying the sunshine.

It was natural that a painter with Clarke’s interests would have turned to church decoration. One of his most ambitious schemes was painted in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Edinburgh’s Lauriston Street. There are studies for it and a photograph of it installed. Shamefully it was papered over. Recovering it would be a nice birthday present for this remarkable artist.

Clarke joined the staff of Edinburgh College of Art in 1947 and taught there till 1978. William Gillies was his colleague and later his boss. Gillies is the subject of a beautiful exhibition exclusively of drawings and watercolours at the Scottish Gallery. He was at his best in these informal media and these pictures are fresh, vivid and inventive. He paints sparkling blue water at Rockcliffe, green fields against the sea in Crofts in a Landscape. The fluency of his drawing is always the key. In simple pen line he captures the whole scene of boats and houses at Kippford. His spontaneous informality is very different from Clarke’s intensity. Nevertheless they do share an absolute dedication to their art and they passed this on to their students.

John Bellany was one of them, and at the Open Eye, he also has a show of works on paper which complements his major retrospective at the RSA with a selection of prints, watercolours and drawings. It is unexpected, perhaps, but when Bellany works directly from the landscape, you see a real affinity between his art and that of Gillies in particular. Like Gillies, he works constantly. Drawing flows out of him as effortlessly as breathing. Like Gillies too, composition seems instinctive. He fills a sheet of paper with perfect balance yet apparently without hesitation. The comparison between master and pupil suggested by these two shows offers a gloss on Bellany’s retrospective at the RSA and demonstrates, although he is so strikingly individual, how he belongs in a great tradition.

• Derek Clarke until 31 January; William Gillies and John Bellany until 30 January