Harry Clarke – Darkness In Light
(also known under it’s Irish language title Harry Clarke – Dorchadas i Solas)
Harry Clarke is one of Ireland’s most outstanding artists. He created an often bizarre world in stained glass and book illustration. His work is a heady mix of the beautiful and the grotesque. The ethereal and the demonic. The romantic and the obscene. His tragic story represents a fascinating collision of Church, State and Art and one man’s battle for freedom of expression.
“Documentarian John J Doherty (dir. Frederick Douglass and the White Negro) examines the life of Harry Clarke and the controversial nature of his work. The film culminates with his clash with the conservative Irish Free State over his ‘offensive’ masterpiece, the ‘Geneva Window’. Visually spectacular and poetically told, Harry Clarke – Darkness in Light is a fitting showcase of Harry Clarke’s unique and haunting vision.” Boston Irish Film Festival (see more publicity and reviews lower down the page)
Winner: Best Arts Documentary – Celtic Media Festival
Winner: Best Documentary – Fantasy Worldwide International Film Festival Toronto
Writer/Director: John J Doherty Producer: Catherine Lyons Camera: Steve O’Reilly/John J Doherty/Catherine Lyons Editor: Declan McGrath Music: Cyril Dunnion/Gerard Meaney
a camel production in association with: The Irish Film Board/TG4/Fingal County Council
Harry Clarke – Darkness In Light
Filmmaker John J Doherty in his film Harry Clarke – Darkness in Light traces the life and work of the Irish artist, book illustrator and stained glass artist Harry Clarke (1889-1931) with major contributions from his biographer Nicola Gordon Bowe as well as many stained glass artists, poets and historians. Harry Clarke was born into the church decorating business and went on to become one of Ireland’s most original artists, created an often bizarre world in stained glass and book illustration. The work he produced is a heady mix of the beautiful and the grotesque, the ethereal and the demonic, the romantic and the obscene. Struck down by TB in his prime his tragic story represents a fascinating collision of Church, State and Art and one man’s battle for freedom of expression in early twentieth century Ireland at a time of struggle for national independence and religious dominance. The film takes the artist’s work in stained glass, which was mainly religious & ethereal, and in book illustration, which was mainly dark & fantastical, as the basis for its title and tells a story of talent, struggle, success and the censorship of his final erotic masterpiece ‘the Geneva Window’. Harry Clarke brought his expertise in working in fine decorative detail in glass to his book illustrations, most notably in the tales of Hans Anderson and, perhaps most famously, Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination where he is often compared to Aubrey Beardsley and which are featured in the film and paralleled with German Expressionist cinema of the time. Clarke’s work seems to have anticipated many of the images and themes of these films as well as anticipating the psychedelic imagery of the 1960’s. The work of Francis Bacon is also possibly traced to this artist – the two coincidentally born in Dublin and having a morbid fascination with the darker side of life.
PUBLICITY/REVIEWS (Harry Clarke film)
Online review (Richard Marcus, Canada) on the Harry Clarke film –
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. 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. Combined with his lifestyle of spending long hours in the studio, this 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.
Harry Clarke at the Celtic Media Festival –
HARRY CLARKE – Darkness in Light brings a striking art form to life through strong and appropriate visuals, passion and a successful mesh of politics, art and personal struggle. It explores the complexity of an artist ‘bathed in light but immersed in darkness’. The torc award for excellence in the arts documentary category goes to HARRY CLARKE – Darkness in Light
Harry Clarke at the Sunday Times –
Ernest Jaeger, Libray Journal (USA) on the Harry Clarke movie-
Harry Clarke (1889–1931), Irish stained- glass artist and illustrator, brought the beautiful and the bizarre to his work, be it church windows or illustrations for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This very complete documentary traces the influences on Clarke’s work and on his life, e.g., the sea and Celtic design and the windows of Chartres Cathedral. Images from film, Russian ballet, and French art and literature moved Clarke to create dark and sensual works that bring to mind Hieronymus Bosch and Aubrey Beardsley. The Geneva Window, produced late in his short life, displayed all of these connections and brought down on him the wrath of the conservative Irish state. This excellent account of a fascinating artistic genius is recommended for Irish and large art collections. The sexual imagery might make this inappropriate for some high school classes.
Consumer reviews for the Harry Clarke DVD –
Foxtara (UK) says…
I had waited many years for a good DVD to be produced on the work of the Irish stained glass artist and illustrator Harry Clarke (1889-1931). I was thrilled to find this one on sale a few years ago. This documentary on the great artist does not disappoint. Harry Clarke created some of the most jewel-like and utterly entrancing stained glass windows. When people see them, they tend to fall head over heels in love with the artist.
I am familiar with the work of Nicola Gordon Bowe who has written brilliant books and biographies on the artist, and was delighted to see her interviewd in the film, amongst other experts. So is James Scanlon one of Ireland’s leading stained glass artists today. James has worked for many years in Cork in close proximity to Harry Clarke‘s windows in the Honan Chapel at University College Cork, and also at the Crawford Art Gallery. I first met both James Scanlon and Nicola Gordon Bowe [a visiting lecturer] at the Crawford College of Art & Design and always listened to them talk about Clarke with rapt attention. Jame’s work now hangs in the same Gallery building as Clarke’s.
Harry Clarke‘s status is forever growing. It is getting increasingly difficult to purchase his original illustrated books or sketches. Neil Gaiman and Johnny Depp were extremely lucky to find some of Harry’s drawings. See Neil Gaiman’s blog. This is a very special artist. If you can get a chance to locate a copy [of the film] snap it up – because it is a fantastic experience, just to sit and watch and listen to the experts talk about the life and techniques of Clarke.
Television and computer screens make excellent light-boxes for pictures of stained glass windows. What a treat when the windows are by Harry Clarke. John J. Doherty has created an excellent tribute to Harry Clarke and has my deepest thanks. Highly recommended.
I recently purchased this DVD online! May I say that it is absolutely gorgeous. I have put it on pause many times and sat a blubbering fool. Thank you so much for allowing everyone to see all the magnificent grace and powerful beauty Mr. Harry Clarke has harnessed. I am truly greatful. Cheers to you!
Mmm, pretty … agh, skeevy … uhhhmm, both. Have I been under a rock? Where have I been that I’ve never heard of Harry Clarke before? This afternoon I saw a documentary (shown through the Boston Irish Film Festival) about Harry Clarke, Irish illustrator and stained glass artist. His glass artwork is breathtaking, and his book illustrations and sketches are fantastically intricate. I was surprised by how much his line drawings remind me of Beardsley’s stuff. We’re talking a pretty decent foray into potential sick f*ck territory. A good amount of grotesques, distorted people, and skeevy eroticism. Needless to say, I was absolutely friggin’ fascinated.
Katherine Branch says…
It was fantastic! I will watch it over and over. I have searched and searched my whole life for information on Harry Clarke, and was beside myself when I found there was a film. Congratulations! You did a masterful job. You satisfied this girls hunger for information and knowledge on the artist Harry Clarke!