Presents from Madrid is the first work with political content that Russian-émigré artist Paraskeva Clark (1898–1986) exhibited. Her new interest in the social role of the artist and her politicization were sparked by Dr. Norman Bethune—a leading surgeon and member of the Communist Party of Canada—in 1936. In Presents from Madrid, Clark demonstrates her sympathy for the Spanish Republican cause by painting mementoes Bethune sent her from Spain, arranged on a table against the wall. The items include a scarf or banner of the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), some medieval Spanish sheet music, a cap worn by the International Brigades, and the first issue of the magazine Nova Iberia (January 1937). It is an allegory of the fight for Spain—to preserve its ancient culture and build a brighter future for its people.


Paraskeva Clark, Presents from Madrid, 1937
Watercolour over graphite on wove paper, 51.5 x 62 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

In tilting the still-life objects upward to display them better for the viewer, Clark referenced her teacher Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878–1939). The accumulation of elements that zigzag across the surface read like a collage whose flattening effect is heightened by the typography. Her new interest in collage was sparked by the Russian art journals she ordered from New York in the fall of 1936, which contained illustrations of political posters by avant-garde artists such as Gustav Klutsis (1895–1938). Clark did not, however, go so far as to eliminate pictorial space entirely; depth is registered by the overlapping of objects and shading, particularly in the right-hand page of the manuscript, while the table recedes into the background at the right.


This Spotlight is excerpted from Paraskeva Clark: Life & Work by Christine Boyanoski.

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