British artist Brian Clarke was quoted by American art critic, Robert C. Morgan, as ‘not an easy artist to absorb, let alone to classify’ into a specific genre. This is self-evident with the amount of creativity Clarke inputs into the arts, with his contemporary architectural flair and his roles as a printmaker, painter and mosaicist. Though, I have dedicated this article to his ‘rock star of stained glass’ title because I applaud his ability to turn a medieval medium into something new and contemporary.
I first caught eye with Clarke’s work at the Heni Gallery in 2017. I attended Blondey McCoy’s ‘Us and Chem’ exhibition, but as soon as I entered I could not help but notice the beautiful light that casted a yellow and turquoise blue shadow on the light oak floor. This was the result of his ‘Darkness Visible’ (2012) work, a stained and laminated glass window picturing spitfires. Clarke has exhibited at the Heni Gallery before, but the window is a permanent piece. The stained glass window is naturally illuminated by the light outside, which lights up the whole gallery with colour, a special addition to any exhibition that goes on there.
It is important to note that many people widely view stained glass windows to be associated with religion, for example, Marc Chagall is notorious for the numerous commissions of stained glass windows to churches all over Europe. However, Clarke advanced the art of stained glass to have more than one purpose, unrelated to religion. Clarke challenged the medium and developed the diversity of subject matter on stained glass windows. Clarke’s developments for stained glass windows included the involvement of photography, screen printing, and sculptural lead pieces within it. Not only that, most of his stained glass work is a moveable product on a portable screen, thus making the stained glass an isolated piece of artwork rather than built within a religious building. See ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Daffodils’ (2018).
Clarke’s stained glass windows manage to beautify images that would not naturally be seen in that way. For example, ‘Darkness Visible’ (2012) involves the depiction of heavy and mundane mechanical spitfires. But, Clarke manages to make these spitfires appear as dancing butterflies through the delicacy, colour and light from the stained glass, that brings the picture alive. Clarke still maintains some convention of stained glass work as there is always articulated, planned repetition and line that goes into the designs. Stained glass is a formulated, gridded and structured piece of art, and Clarke has stated before, the process is ‘unlike that of abstract art because you cannot simply get a canvas out and splat paint on it’.
Chagall’s work differs from Clarke’s in terms of subject matter. Chagall was Russian and Jewish, but included Christ in most of his work because he viewed Jesus as the ‘radiant young man in whom young people delight’, therefore, his stained glass work was dedicated towards his adoration for Jesus. Chagall’s divine-inspired talent is showcased at All Saint’s Church in Tudeley, West Kent, whereby each stained glass window is inspired by Psalm 4-8. Chagall’s stained glass windows enhance the spiritual experience for people walking into the Church. The otherworldly atmosphere of devotion that Chagall heightens in religious buildings with the colour and light of his work made him a reliable and popular artist to be commissioned, hence why more of his stained glass windows are situated in Chichester Cathedral too, inspired by Psalm 150.
Despite their clear differences, both Chagall and Clarke were known geniuses who understood the importance of colour and light within art, so it made sense for both artists to embark on stained glass work. Their key difference is subject matter. Chagall specifically dedicated his work to biblical scenes that reflected upon the religious nature of the building it was situated in. Whereas, Clarke shines a light on iconography that is important to him and to British culture. Chagall had once said ‘If all life moves inevitably towards its end, then we must, during our own, colour it with the colours of love and hope’. This clarifies Chagall’s devotion to his work which reflects on the viewers. Additionally, architect Norman Foster stated Clarke was ‘one of the very few artists that understood the spatial world of architecture, including the core issues of space and light’, but this resonates with Chagall too because they both used their knowledge of glass qualities and its placement in order for the light to shine upon it in order for the colour to burst into the room.
By Serena GuptaRecommended1 recommendationPublished in