During my second year of university (2008 – gosh, is it really that long ago?), I waitressed at a local art gallery in Petone, Wellington with a friend. I can’t now remember what for, or why. What I do remember is that on that day I fell in love with a piece of art by an iconic New Zealand artist, Philip Clairmont. It’s not what you would call conventionally beautiful, but I was struck by the size, the colours and composition.
Of course I wasn’t in a position to buy art, being a poor student living in ‘Rat Palace’; rat infestations and never-ending mould were my priorities at that time. But the memory of that Philip Clairmont work stuck with me, and I know I talked about it to my parents, friends, anybody who would listen to me!
In early 2009 my parents were in town to help me move into a new flat – a far more classy establishment (thanks parents!) with dry walls and not a rat in sight. I think the stars must have aligned that day, because my Dad and I happened to be in Petone, and we happened to be in that very same gallery. There was the Philip Clairmont piece – “Black Crucifixtion” – in all its breathtaking glory. In truth it wasn’t quite the same one, but it just so happened to be another in the series of only 90 screen prints Clairmont had made of that image. It was perfection. Dad bought it for me and I was just filled with glee.
Several years on and ‘Philip’ (as he came to be known) has really settled in. He’s not one for fading into the background; he is a commanding presence in our living room and often provokes comment. Not everybody loves the way he looks, but I think you have to admit he is spectacular.
I said I wanted this blog to tell the stories of the beautiful things, so here’s a little bit about Philip Clairmont and this much-adored piece of art.
Philip Clairmont was a Nelson-born painter who lived from 1949 – 1984. His work is often considered Neo-Expressionist because of the clear links with German Expressionists of the early 20th century. An artist never has just one source of influence, and I know that close friendships with fellow New Zealand artists such as Tony Fomison were also very important to the development of his art.
Clairmont created 90 screen prints of “Black Crucifixtion” in 1981. In the later years of his life, his work had lost some of its earlier intensity (for really intense, see his painting “Scarred Couch”). Despite that, I think you can see in “Black Crucifixtion” a real affinity with the German Expressionists; the vivid contrasting colours, the rough strokes, the harsh shapes. A review from 1976 (so before “Black Crucifixtion” was made) criticised suggestions that Clairmont might be following on from the legacy of the German Expressionists, and maybe that’s true if you know about that sort of thing 1.
But actually I remember watching a video (back when videos were a thing) about Clairmont in Art History class at high school. Funny what things really stick with you. We had only just learnt about the German Expressionists – Die Brucke, Der Blaue Reiter, Munch, Kandinsky – and then here was this Kiwi artist some 70 years later echoing those earlier artists right here on our doorstep. From what I know of his life, particularly the later years, Clairmont embodied the idea of a tortured artistic ‘genius’, and I think that comes out in several different ways in this stunning and at the same time disconcerting piece of art. That struggle with life seems in the true spirit of Expressionism to me.
Until next time…