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Myself, a self-portrait by Paraskeva Clark
Petroushka, by Paraskeva Clark, 1937
Paraskeva Clark holds a unique place in the history of Canadian art. Considered one of the most accomplished Canadian painters of the 1930s and 1940s, she was one of few Canadian artists of the time who used her art to convey her passionate political convictions.
Paraskeva often proclaimed, proudly, that she was of Russian peasant stock. She was born Paraskeva Plistik, in 1898, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father, Avdey Plistik, worked in a factory and later owned a grocery store. He instilled in his daughter a love of books and learning. Her mother, Olga Fedorevna Plistik, was an expert in the old Russian folk art of artificial flower making, which supplemented the family's income. The money enabled Paraskeva to attend a secondary school and be educated beyond the basic primary training available to children of the Russian working class.
As a young girl, Paraskeva had her heart set on becoming an actress, but her father convinced her that there was no financial security in a stage career. After graduation in 1914, Paraskeva obtained a clerical job in a shoe factory; she took evening art classes at the Petrograd Academy of Fine Arts, hoping to eventually find employment in the commercial art world. By 1916, she had enrolled in private classes with the landscape painter, Savely Seidenberg.
After the Revolution of 1917, the Academy became the Free Studios, open to all persons interested in art. There was no tuition and students were paid a stipend to attend. Taking advantage of these developments, Paraskeva left her office job to join the Free Studios full time, working first under Vasily Shukhayev, who taught illustration. In 1920, she transferred to the group working with Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, a follower of Cézanne. This teacher had a strong influence on her, and his techniques and theories about the humanist purpose of art would influence her work in the years to come.
By 1920, Russia was in the midst of an economic crisis and Paraskeva and her family, like other Russians, faced a daily struggle for survival. Paraskeva's fortune turned in 1922, when she was hired to paint sets for the Maly Theatre. There, she met Oreste Allegri Jr., a young scene painter whose father was in charge of set decoration. They were soon married and in March 1923, a son, Benedict, was born. The Allegri family made plans to move permanently to Paris. Almost on the eve of their departure, however, Oreste drowned and Parakseva, at age twenty-five, found herself a widow with a baby to raise.
In the fall of 1923, she moved with her young son to Paris, to join her in-laws who were living there. She cooked and cleaned for the family in return for wages, in order to maintain a measure of independence. For the next six years, Paraskeva had little time to devote to her art, for she was busy maintaining the Allegri household, learning English and raising her son. In 1929, when Ben was six years old, she sent him to boarding school during the week and took a job selling art glass in an interior design shop. It was there that she met her future husband, Philip Clark, a Canadian accountant. The two were married in June 1931 in London, England, and shortly after, Paraskeva immigrated to Canada with her new husband and settled in Toronto.
Philip Clark was well connected in the Toronto art community and Paraskeva soon met some of the major figures on the Canadian painting scene, including Lawren Harris, Bertram Brooker and A. Y. Jackson. Through them, she became acquainted with Elizabeth Wyn Wood and Emmanuel Hahn, Francis Loring and Florence Wyle, and Charles and Louise Comfort. Encouraged to take up painting again, Paraskeva took part in the first exhibition of her career in November 1932, when she contributed a small self-portrait to the annual exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy at the Art Gallery of Toronto.
In the early months of 1933, while pregnant with her second child, Paraskeva Clark painted what is considered her masterpiece: the self-portrait entitled Myself. This dramatic painting is of a woman, elegantly dressed in black, with her arms folded across her waist and an air of supreme confidence. While Paraskeva is a petite woman, the woman in the painting is tall and imposing. Paraskeva stylized her strong facial features and, in the manner of her former teacher, Petrov-Vodkin, used the doorway in the background as a framing device. The dark, minimal colours in the painting draw the viewer's eye to the lighter tones of the skin and the noble bearing of the face.
Paraskeva Clark's second son, Clive, was born in June 1933 and the Clark family spent the summer at their cottage in Muskoka, where Paraskeva painted some landscapes. In November of that year, she was invited to participate in the first Canadian exhibition by the newly formed Canadian Group of Painters, held at the Art Gallery of Toronto. These eminent Canadian painters recognized Paraskeva's talent as an artist. She was welcomed into this important society, which had evolved from the Group of Seven and which would dominate the English Canadian art scene in the 1930s. Paraskeva was elected to full membership in the Canadian Group of Painters in 1936 and continued to exhibit with them until the 1960s.
Paraskeva Clark never took formal art instruction in Canada, yet her work continued to develop because she began a self-teaching process, guided by what she had learned from Petrov-Vodkin in Russia. Throughout the 1930s, she continued to paint both in oil and water colour, producing landscapes, still lifes and portraits. She received favourable attention from the press and from her peers.
The end of the 1930s marked the most significant period of Paraskeva Clark's career. Her work took on a new direction as she became increasingly involved in the political issues of the day. The Depression and the Spanish Civil War were forcing artists to re-examine their function in modern society. Clark developed a friendship with Dr. Norman Bethune, and became involved with the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. In an article entitled "Come Out From Behind the Pre-Cambrian Shield," published in the new leftist periodical New Frontier in 1937, she made her views on the role of the artist known:
Who is the artist? Is he not a human being like ourselves, with the added gifts of finer understanding and perception of the realities of life, and the ability to arouse emotions through the creation of forms and images? Surely. And this being so, those who give their lives, their knowledge and their time to social struggle have the right to expect great help from the artist. And I cannot imagine a more inspiring role than that which the artist is asked to play for the defence and advancement of civilization.
(New Frontier, Vol. 1, no. 12 (April 1937), p. 16)
Paraskeva Clark was as good as her word. She was virtually the only artist in Canada to combine her political with her artistic activities. In the late 1930s, she painted a number of works with political themes. Of these, Petroushka is her most famous and her most explicitly political. It was painted in 1937, in response to the killing of five striking steelworkers by Chicago police during the Republic Steel Corporation strike. Paraskeva reinforced her intent by attaching, to the back of the canvas, a newspaper clipping reporting the incident. The painting depicts a puppet show on a city street; a puppet policeman, encouraged by a top-hatted businessman waving bags of money, beats a fallen worker. The crowd in the foreground looks on with a mixture of amusement, despair and anger on their faces. One man in the crowd raises his clenched fist in a sign of defiance and worker's solidarity. The angular arrangement of the apartment buildings in the background heightens the atmosphere of oppression and resistance in the painting.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1939, Paraskeva Clark became increasingly concerned about her Russian homeland. She worked, through her art and through charitable organizations, to support the Russians against the Nazi threat. During this period, she was appointed by the National Gallery of Canada to paint the Women's Division of the Armed Forces. She also was offered a full-time commission as an official war artist, but was unable to accept due to increasingly pressing family obligations. In 1943, her oldest son, Ben, suffered a nervous breakdown, eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia. Paraskeva's artistic career was put on hold. While she resumed painting a year later, her family responsibilities restricted her time for painting and her ability to travel in the years to come. While she resented this, she could see no alternative. Towards the end of her career, Paraskeva reflected on this essential dilemma of her artistic life:
It's a hell of a thing to be a painter. I would like to stop every woman from painting, for only men can truly succeed. The majority of women who have really succeeded have not married or had children, but I don't envy them. I believe that women, by their very nature, by their mental and emotional makeup are so absorbed by their natural duties and responsibilities that they cannot truly gather that great volume of creative effort needed for truly great works of art. But I cannot complain, I have had a very good career, considering a great deal of my time has been spent on being a wife and a mother.
(Cameron, Eclectic Eve, p. 9)
Indeed, she had a "very good career." Between 1951 and 1956, she held four large one-woman shows at the New Laing Gallery (1951); Victoria College, University of Toronto (1952); MacDonald College, McGill University (1956) and at Hart House, University of Toronto (1956). From these shows, she received favourable tributes in the press one reviewer called her the leading Canadian woman painter since Emily Carr (Robertson, "CJBC views the show," in MacLachlan, Paraskeva Clark : Paintings and Drawings, p. 41). In 1954, she was elected to the Ontario Society of Artists. She became an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1956, becoming a full member in 1966.
In 1974, Paraskeva shared an exhibition with her son, Ben, at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto. From this show, the National Gallery of Canada purchased Myself. The painting was featured in the gallery's 1975 exhibition "Canadian Painting in the Thirties" and graced the cover of the exhibition catalogue, thus recognizing Paraskeva Clark's place in the history of Canadian art. In 1976, the Gallery purchased her most cherished painting, Petroushka. In 1982, the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax gave an exhibition of her paintings and drawings. Paraskeva Clark died in Toronto, in 1986, at the age of eighty-eight.
Vibrant, outspoken and controversial, Paraskeva Clark used her art to respond to the Canadian environment, reflect her personal and creative development and express her passionate views on social issues. For this, she holds a singular place in the history of Canadian art.
Bell, Andrew. "The art of Paraskeva Clark". Canadian art. Vol. 7, no. 2 (Christmas 1949). P. 42-46
Cameron, Janice et al. Eclectic Eve. [S.l. : s.n., 1974]. P. 7-9
Clark, Paraskeva. "Come out from behind the Pre-Cambrian shield". New frontier. Vol. 1, no. 12 (April 1937). P. 16-17
____. "Canadian artists : thoughts on Canadian painting". World affairs. Vol. 8, no. 6 (February 1943). P. 17-18
____. "The Artist speaks : a statement by Paraskeva Clark". Canadian review of music and art. Vol. 3, nos. 9 & 10 (1944). P. 18-19
Freedman, Adele. "In the shadow of the '30s : the winter of Paraskeva Clark". Toronto life. (February 1979). P. 127-129
Hill, Charles C. Canadian painting in the thirties. Ottawa : National Gallery of Canada, 1975. 223 p. Also published in French, entitled Peinture canadienne des années trente
MacLachlan, Mary E. Paraskeva Clark : paintings and drawings. Halifax, N.S. : Dalhousie Art Gallery, Dalhousie University, 1982. 80 p. Also published in French, entitled Paraskeva Clark : peintures et dessins
McInnes, G. Campbell. "Contemporary Canadian artists : Paraskeva Clark". Canadian forum. Vol. 17, no. 199 (August 1937). P. 166-167
O'Rourke, Kathryn. Labours and love : issues of domesticity and marginalization in the works of Paraskeva Clark. 128 p. M.A. thesis, Concordia University, 1995
Portrait of the artist - as an old lady [video recording]. Produced by Margaret Pettigrew (et al.). [Montreal] : National Film Board of Canada, 1982. 1 cassette, 27 min. : sd., col.
Sabbath, Lawrence. "Paraskeva Clark". Canadian art. Vol. 17, no. 5 (September 1960). P. 291-293
Tippett, Maria. By a Lady : celebrating three centuries of art by Canadian women. Toronto : Viking, 1992. 226 p.