This work revisits the iconography incorporated in a very important work after which a whole chapter in the book Listening to Distant Thunder, The Art of Peter Clarke – Phillipa Hobbs & Elizabeth Rankin, 2011, Standard Bank, is named and that is discussed at length in the book. The triptych with the same title is illustrated on page 136. The following text from page 136 is also applicable to this work:
“The emotive handling of gestural paintwork and lurid colours in Haunted landscape creates a sense of foreboding...the two squabbling birds that hover above this eerie dump site seem an ill omen. For Clarke, the birds symbolised frustrating political-party wrangles. Yet he observes that his symbol-formulation process in Haunted landscape was ‘all more intuitive than that and that meaning in this work is intended to be fluid. Birds, for example, could suggest quite different and more positive readings, as they had in the print series of 1963. Clarke recalls that people around Ocean View owned birds that formed benevolent flocks which would swirl in the sunset glow before they settled down for the evening. Or they could be a portent of the promise of a new day. (as it does in Homage to the poet Langston Hughes discussed and illustrated on page 161 – 163 of the book). But... Haunted landscape...casts these birds in a querulous embrace.” The 2 birds are also used symbolically in This is a hard world and Free flight illustrated and discussed on page 138 – 137 of the book as well as Afrika which way discussed and illustrated on page 142 – 143 of the book.
The symbol of the house on the hill is possibly adopted from the central panel of the triptych. Also on page 136 of the book it is described as “unwelcoming, possibly uninhabited, house on the hill beyond”. A clear sign that it is uninhabited in the 1978 version is the lack of smoke from the chimney of the rural house without electricity. The animal skull (possibly of a springbok, South Africa’s national animal, if one looks at the shape of the horns) in the foreground of this work certainly enhances the sense of desolation in the original work. The inclusion of the house in the original version is then also discussed in the book: “Because of the Group Areas Act, at that time, Clarke points out, one would ‘find little haunted houses because people were being moved out of homes everywhere’”.
The following text from page 137-138 of the book summarises the interpretation of the original work: “While the artist describes Haunted landscape as a ‘landscape of the mind’, he has acknowledged that the elaborate symbolism was at least in part intuitive. But over time, discussion and response to this celebrated painting seem to have worked some consensus into its interpretation, and Clarke, like many others, has come to speak of this vista as a harbinger of the trauma that children would suffer in South African townships: ‘ Strangely when people looked at it after the events that took place they found it prophetic’. The images were indeed prophetic in view of the ensuing breakdown of education in black townships following ... the enforcement of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction on a fifty-fifty basis with English, After some months of protests...twenty thousand Soweto pupils marched to deliver a memorandum of grievances to the Department (of Bantu Administration and Development) on 16 June 1976, which resulted in an outright clash with police, who opened fire at close range. The Soweto Uprising, as it became known, soon engulfed other black townships...and within a year some 600 to 700 people were dead...”
The original Haunted landscape is also illustrated and discussed at length in Elza Miles’ essay Triptych for Peter Clarke, page 61 – 81 of More Than Blood Brothers, Peter Clarke & James Matthews at 70 edited by Hein Willemse, 2000, Kwela Books. The following text on page 76 is also relevant to the 1978 work: “The two doves are oblivious of what is taking place on the ground...At the time, the two birds signified for Clarke, the ‘two political or parliamentary parties’. While they were opposing each other in the isolation of parliamentary debates, they did not notice the deprivation to which the youth was exposed.” On page 81 Miles summarises the meaning of the work as follows: “Here children are denied protected childhood and innocent games. Fear, whether of the ferocious animal or haunted shelter, is their daily companion. When eventually they grow up, their journey leads into desolation.”
One can only surmise what prompted Clarke to revisit this iconic work as early as the start of 1978, but a probable interpretation is that he wanted to show the scene after the fulfilment of the prophecy and illustrate the feeling of utter desolation that followed. In the 1978 version, the 3 panels have been reduced to one, the symbols of oblivious political-party wrangling are still present, but the scene is now devoid of all signs of human life and greenery (plant life), with the foreground dominated by the skull of a dead antelope (possibly of a springbok, South Africa’s national animal), picked clean to the bone. By contrast, the sky has now cleared and the scene is starkly illuminated in glorious sunlight, showing the subtle planes of the landscape. The most notable clipping used for 2 of the planes of the landscape reads: “Cape Town, to be opened by Prof JJ Oberholster” and “Director of the National Monuments Council”
The correlation between activity levels of the National Monuments Council (NMC) and oppression levels under the three historical development stages of Apartheid as defined by OMER-COOPER (JD. 1987. History of South Africa. James Currey: London) is highlighted in Franco Frescura’s paper “NATIONAL OR NATIONALIST? A Critique of the National Monuments Council, 1936-1989” (originally published as part of the proceedings of the National Urban Conservation Symposium held at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 12-14 July 1990):
“During this time the work of the HMC and its successor, the NMC may be seen to act as a broad reflection of these social patterns. Before 1960 the declaration of national monuments was relatively low key, marked only by an initial spurt between 1936 and 1938 and another in 1950. The tempo picked up perceptibly after 1960, the year of Sharpeville and the State of Emergency, and showed a slow but marked upward trend over the next 15 years. This reached a high point in 1975 following the independence of Angola and Mozambique and the breaking of the so-called Info Scandal. In 1976, the year of the Soweto student uprising, was relatively quiet for the NMC but the upward swing was picked up again the following year when Steve Biko was murdered and eighteen community organisations, including World newspaper, were banned. The period from 1976 onward was marked by the establishment of Bantustans as independent states, rising guerilla activity within the country and increased popular protests. This also marks the high point in NMC activity, and between 1983 and 1987, the years of greatest governmental oppression in this country, the Council created 826 monuments, 38% of the total number ever declared. Significantly once the incidence of violence began to decrease in 1988, so then the number of declarations show a marked decrease, reaching levels comparable to those experienced in the late 1970s.”
The racial bias in the NMC’s work is also highlighted in this paper: “The distribution of monuments among various language and culture groups indicates that the work of the HMC/NMC has generally focused upon the material culture of white Dutch settlers to this country. 97% of all declared monuments reflect the values of the immigrant white community whilst the remaining 3% represent the art, architecture and artifacts of 84% of this country's Black population. The majority of these were archaeological sites or the location of San wall art, thereby perpetuating white supremacist stereotypes of indigenous South Africans as a group of rural and poorly educated peasants possessing little material culture of any note.”
And lastly, the relationship between the HMC/NMC and ruling political ideology is highlighted: “Since 1969 about 71 people have been nominated to the NMC Council. Of these 54 have been Afrikaans speaking, only three have been women and two have originated from outside the white community. At least 12 are known members of the Broederbond, the secret society of Afrikaners which, since 1919, has sought to regulate South Africa's political, economic and cultural life. These included ... Prof JJ Oberholster, membership number 4444, who was a member of the Council from 1951 to 1976 and in 1977 became its first Executive Director.”
In light of the demise of Afrikaner-nationalism and the recent “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign that escalated to include all colonial monuments, the inclusion by Clarke of the remnants of an announcement of the opening of yet another Afrikaner-nationalist monument in a desolate landscape incorporating the skull of a springbok (another symbol of Afrikaner- nationalism), can once again be concluded to be prophetic and despite being executed in 1978, the works remains relevant to contemporary South Africa.
“It is this kind of layered subliminal reference that prompted Clarke’s artist friend, Lionel Davis, to describe Clarke’s method of oblique social commentary as ‘not the sledgehammer way. There is a kind of poetry about the way he expressed himself in his artwork’ (interview 2007).” – page 137 of Listening to Distant Thunder.
This work is also a very good example of the marked change in Peter’s work during the relevant period to incorporate collage. According to Listening to Distant Thunder (page 146) “the possibility of collage” was “a new avenue of exploration already broached in the scrap paper skies of his Norwegian paintings”. However it should be noted that this work pre-dates Clarke’s stint at Atelier Nord in Oslo, Norway and his visit to George Hallett in Boule d’Amont, near Perpignan in the south of France during the Northern Hemisphere spring of 1979. It may therefore in fact be the first documented work that signified the adoption of collage as an intrinsic element of Clarke’s technique.
On page 147 of Listening to Distant Thunder collage is described as follows: “The act of shredding and pasting was not only an intriguing tactile method but a subtle political statement in itself, charged with the contestations of free speech and censorship, improvised creation and destruction.” Clarke’s choice of scrap paper for shredding and pasting for the 1978 Haunted Landscape serves to confirm this statement.
From the relatively covert “oblique social commentary” delivered by the inclusion of these 2 particular shreds of small paper in Haunted Landscape (1978), the subsequent increased use of collage coincided with the increased directness of political commentary: “In Norway his works became more overtly political, and the trend intensified with his visit to Hallett.” – page 145, Listening to Distant Thunder.
On page 147 of Listening to Distant Thunder it is stated that: “By the late 1970s Clarke’s work had absorbed many different possibilities, continuing his habit of self-education. While this had constantly led to diversity in his oeuvre, a clearer divergence of approaches emerged over the next few years, when he increasingly worked in the dual modes of narrative relief prints of small scale, alongside progressively more abstract development of painting with collage. Clarke had long since become used to moving between literary and visual art forms. Now he had found another avenue, collage, which readily created links between these two forms by combining elements of both text and image. Incorporating text in his collages also facilitated more direct commentary on political events. It was a development that suited the acceleration of Clarke’s political awareness.” The last two sentences cannot be more vividly illustrated than by a comparison of the 1976 Haunted Landscape with the 1978 one and relative directness of political commentary achieved by Clarke’s inclusion of the reference to “Cape Town, to be opened by Prof JJ Oberholster, Director of the National Monuments Council” via collage.
Signature: Yes and dated 1978
About Peter Clarke
South African, 1929-2014