CLARK, Russell;

Study for Milford Mural 1–3

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1953
Gouache on paper
275 x 360mm (each sheet)

Born in Christchurch into an artistic family background, Clark was encouraged at an early age to develop an interest in painting and sculpture. From 1922 he was an evening student at the Canterbury School of Art where he drew from the plaster casts of classical sculptures. He studied at the school for six years, taught by Archibald Nicoll, Richard Wallwork, Cecil Kelly and Leonard Booth. Rita Angus was a contemporary of his. He also displayed an ability as a cartoonist. In 1928, out of necessity rather than inclination, he left art school to join an advertising agency and was thereafter forced to paint at weekends or in the evenings. At various times he lived and worked as a commercial artist in Wellington and Dunedin.

Clark’s most significant paintings were produced in the decade 1940–50 especially after 1947 when he was a member of staff at the Ilam. His pursuit of regionalism and nationalism provided him with distinctive subject matter including Māori and typically New Zealand flora. Influenced by English artists Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash as well as Australians Russell Drysdale and William Dobell and the American realist Thomas Hart Benton, Clark was more concerned with formalist structural concerns and colour combinations than the symbolic potential of his subjects — unlike Christopher Perkins.

Moore’s structural monumentality appears in Clark’s paintings of unglamourised Māori women of the Tuhoe iwi of Urewera. After 1939 Clark was an illustrator for the New Zealand Listener and later for School Journals. During World War II he illustrated army publications and in 1943 was appointed an official war artist in the Pacific, producing many pictures which were worked up in his Wellington studio after the war. After moving to Christchurch again Clark was closely associated with members of the group including Doris Lusk and W.A. Sutton and also with those people such as Charles Brasch and Allen Curnow who nurtured a growing sense of national identity in the periodical Landfall, edited by Brasch.

By 1960 much of Clark’s energy was directed towards sculpture and murals for which he received many public commissions. In 1964 he was awarded study leave to visit European art schools and galleries. He became ill in London and was unable to complete the trip. Returning to Christchurch he was back teaching in 1965 but died of cancer in 1966. Clark’s watercolour studies for a mural triptych to be painted at a hotel built by the Tourist Hotel Corporation at Milford Sound show the artist’s ability to combine into an abstract composition European modernist shape and structure with Māori motifs. It appears that the mural does not survive.

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