True innovators in any field are few and far between. Too much of what we call innovation has consisted of adding on to something that has previously been done. In my mind, true innovation is to take something old and make it brand new, or even better — start from nothing and make something original.
The Irish illustrator and stained glass artist Harry Clarke most definitely fits into anyone's definition of innovator. His illustrations, while spectacular pen and ink renderings, would not have been sufficient to secure him a seat among the geniuses of the twentieth century. But what he accomplished with stained glass had never been seen before him, and it is doubtful that many have approached him since his death for his use of colour and complexity of composition.
Clarke was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1889, the son of a stained glass craftsman. As most children of skilled craftsmen did in those days, he followed in his father's footsteps under the assumption that he would one day take over the business. When he started his apprenticeship at fourteen it became clear the young Harry had the family affinity for the trade, but he also had something else – true talent and artistic skill.
Not a stupid man, his father realized that Harry's skill should be nurtured instead of crushed under the boring routine of apprenticeship. Once he had mastered the basic skills needed for working with stained glass he went to The Dublin School of Art to refine his talents. In 1910 he was awarded the gold medal for stained glass work in the Board of Education National competition.
Upon leaving school he immediately began working in his father's studio and began filling commissions of his own. Unfortunately Clarke's life and work were curtailed by his chronic ill health. When he was born his mother was suffering from tuberculosis and it wasn't long before he too was struck with the illness. Working with the noxious chemicals involved with the creation of stained glass couldn't have been good for him, and, combined with his lifestyle of spending long hours in the studio, most likely led to his early demise from the disease in 1931 at the age of forty-two.
In an effort to cast light on this enigmatic and mysterious man and the demons that haunted him, film director John J. Doherty created the documentary Harry Clarke – Darkness In Light which not only traces the life of Harry but recounts the trajectory of his career.
Chock full of interviews with art historians, stained glass artists, and even poets who have an understanding of Clarke's sources of inspiration, the movie is part history and part art appreciation. It covers the territory of his biography in good and intelligent detail, especially as it relates to his artistic development. But more than anything else the movie focuses on what is important: his art.
Before I go any further I want to mention the amazing job that was done in filming the art. I would think that being able to capture stained glass on film, and the effect that natural light has on it, would be exceedingly difficult. Every pane of glass is lovingly framed and allowed to gleam with its own internal light. Delicate nuances of shade and hue stand out as much as they would have in their original surroundings. Figures as diverse as characters from Joyce and the Three Wise Men stare down at us from church windows for the latter, and a gallery for the former.
Instead of the flat, nearly Byzantine representation of figures that is usual for stained glass, these are faces full of animation and life. Perspective is utilized, just as it would be in illustrations and paintings on paper and canvass, so figures appear alive, right down to the creases and folds in their ornate, richly coloured clothing. A comment made by one of the critics interviewed was how amazingly accurate Clarke was in recreating the clothing of the medieval period when so many of the saints he depicted lived.
When Clarke had just graduated from art school, he became seriously ill for a year. When he was on the road to recovery it was thought that a season of sea air would do him good, so he was sent to live on one of the smaller islands off the west coast with some fellow students. It was here that he drew so much inspiration from the land and the sea for shapes that would appear in his work at a later date.
Look closely at some of the imagery and you will see depicted tiny sea creatures and other life forms from the islands making an appearance. It could be in the decorative scrollwork that strolls up the side of a window, or a design worked into a fold in a character's gown, but still their presence is felt.
What I found especially gratifying about the segment dealing with the island period of his life is an interview a poet who obviously shared the same affinity for the location. He was able to offer insight into what an artistic mind might have seen there that would have stimulated Clarke to such an extent that he would hold onto it for the rest of his life.
Of course no documentary on the life of Clarke would be complete without discussion of his illustrations. It's here that the "darkness" in the title of the film comes from. While his illustrations for the stories of Hans Christian Andersen were fairly respectable, when he turned to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, his vision became macabre to say the least.
Nightmarishly distorted bodies, flesh pulled back to expose muscles and veins, and faces expressing the horrors of the deep, they seem to be figures taken from the imagination of some sick perverted soul. One of the critics was obviously distressed by this aspect of Clarke's work and kept repeating that nothing in the artist's background or family allowed him to understand or explain where Clarke could have drawn his inspiration for these visions.
Unfortunately this attitude was prevalent during Clarke's lifetime and ended up having an effect upon his last work. He had been commissioned by the new Irish government in the 1920s to create a pane of stained glass for a League of Nations building in Geneva. Unfortunately Clarke's choice of material, scenes from the writings of great Irish writers, weren't what they had envisioned as appropriate to represent the new Ireland.
Clarke literally killed himself finishing this piece, and even though the Prime Minister of the new state initially said it was a stunning piece of creative art, something quickly changed his mind. Soon the word disposal, as in 'how can we be rid of this work', became the word most associated with Clarke's masterpiece. For years it actually vanished from sight because it ended up in private collection. But now it resides in, of all places, a museum in Miami Beach, Florida.
Director John J. Doherty has put together a beautiful documentary movie commemorating the work and life of the extremely enigmatic and talented Harry Clarke. Harry Clarke – Darkness In Light is a fitting tribute and intelligent critique of one of the twentieth century's true geniuses.