This painting dates from Peter Clarke’s formative Tesselaarsdal period. Situated below the Kleinrivier Mountains near Caledon, the village of Tesselaarsdal (also spelt Teslaarsdaal) is named after Johannes Jacobus Tesselaar, a wealthy landowner who in 1809 bequeathed one of his five farms to nine workers. The village was established in 1832 following the death of Tesselaar’s wife and was initially known as Hartebeesrivier before it received its current name in 1930. Clarke first visited Tesselaarsdal in 1949. At the time he was employed as a dockworker in Simon’s Town and producing art in his spare time. He spent his December holidays in Tesselaarsdal in 1950 and 1951, and from 1956 to 1960 continued to return to Tesselaarsdal annually for three-month stays.
“I want to get away from everybody and everything that is hot air, pretentious,” wrote Clarke, who lived in a thatched cottage with friends. “I come to Teslaarsdaal to mix with ordinary people. When I get back to Simon’s Town, and after staying here, I regain my sense of balance.”1 Tesselaarsdal, though, was not simply a refuge from the urbanity of post-war Cape Town, but also functioned as a sanctuary from the escalating brutality of high apartheid, a theme that came to feature more prominently in Clarke’s later works.
At Tesselaarsdal Clarke combined being an artist (he sketched and worked en plein air) with farm work, in particular shepherding. The reciprocity and kinship he experienced working in close proximity to the land prompted him to write: “My heart is in this place and I love it. That is so true and so definite.”2 Tesselaarsdal has been characterised as Clarke’s Pont-Aven or Le Pouldo by art historian Elza Miles, referring to the Breton villages where Paul Gauguin lived before his first visit to Tahiti in 1891. “In some of his Tesselaarsdal landscapes, he touches on the clarity of Gaugin’s ‘Synthetism’ which implies autonomy of colour, shape and line.”3 Miles however cautions against viewing them as copies of real scenes. At Tesselaarsdal the young Clarke learned to transmute his experiences into pictorial metaphors.
The graphic style and considered differentiation of pictographic space evident in this work is typical of Clarke’s paintings of Tesselaarsdal. The pairing of the birds in the foreground is echoed by the distant figures walking across the landscape, scenes of roving communality that are a recurring trope in Clarke’s work. The unspecified black figures in this composition walk in the same direction as a generic flock of birds. The symbolism of the action should not be overlooked. Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin speculate that the “hovering and swooping” birds that frequently appear in Clarke’s early prints of birds symbolise a yearning for freedom and sanctuary.4 The artist, who frequently depicted unspecified flocks of birds, however related them to childhood memories of homing pigeons owned by his uncle. In 1992 he told how at his uncle’s funeral the pigeons were ceremoniously released – and promptly returned home. “I thought about it a lot as an adult, and about the bondage of indoctrination,” said Clarke.5
1. Peter Clarke. (2000) More than Brothers: Peter Clarke and James Matthews at 70, Hein Wilemse (ed), Cape Town, Kwela Books. Page 55
2. Ibid., page 58
3. Ibid., page 70
4. Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin. (2014) Listening to Distant Thunder: The Art of Peter Clarke, Johannesburg, Standard Bank. Page 103
5. Ibid., page 104
The Peter Clarke Private Collection