Preller press release November auction

Quality artworks at Johannesburg Auction Week, including show stopper Preller’s iconic human figure Adam and Eve

7 Nov 2021

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

Not even the downpour that descended on Johannesburg on Thursday, November 6, 2021,  late afternoon could stop art lovers and collectors from congregating on 89 Central Street in Houghton, Johannesburg, for a preview of what will rate as one of the biggest auction sales in the past two years in Johannesburg.

We were at the cocktail preview function of Johannesburg Auction Week at Strauss &Co.’s offices where we were able to view in person and at ease, an intergenerational selection of quality art works from South Africa visual talent dating back to the 19th century to the present time. The range is huge with regards to quality, style, media, materiality, technique and diversity of the subjects the huge body of work deals with.

From JH Pierneef to Zanele Muholi, there is an intergenerational selection of real good art works for bidders to choose from, suiting a wide range of tastes and pocket sizes of course.

From art works whose reserve price is in the millions of Rands to those whose is in the tens of thousands of Rands, collectors will be spoilt for choice at the Johannesburg Auction Week sale, a virtual live event scheduled for 7-9, November, 2021, hosted from Strauss &Co.’s Johannesburg offices.

When invited guests arrived at the cocktail preview, they were spoilt for choice with regards to food, which was soulful, to beverages ranging from great wines to a new gin with a notably good name of Muthi Gin. I for one chose the gin when I arrived, which I found to be quite mellow before retreating to my  usual favourite drink of this season, white wine. But not before lingering on the Muthi gin, during which time  someone whispered in my ear that this is a new brand emanating from Cape Town.

It did not matter to me where it came from as it was just too good to my taste buds to just have one glass when I could have two before I immersed myself in art and more art in the Strauss &Co. Gallery within the premisesI could not have enough of this art work as I kept on going back and looking at the same art works several times in the evening,amid imbibing the drinks and the food as one chatted to fellow guests  as we marveled at the range of the art works available for bidding at this auction sale. When people sometimes say there is no such thing as overdosing when it comes to viewing art, they are right because I went back and back again to the same art works that caught my eye, and each time, it  was as If I was seeing these pieces  for the first time. I was not the only one though. There is simply a lot of good art at this auction sale.

But here is the highlight of this auction sale. Alexis Preller’s stylized portrait of a couple, and this one had many heads turning its way to have a proper look. I even saw a gentleman insisting that a picture be taken by his partner while he is standing next to it. And I cannot blame this gentleman as this piece is likely to be one of the mostly fought for art work during this forthcoming Strauss &Co. Johannesburg Auction Week sale, among others.

And here is the thing with this particular sale. The human figure, a recurring subject of art throughout the ages, is strongly represented in catalogue for Johannesburg  Auction Week. The diverse offering includes seated figures by Alexis Preller and Robert Hodgins, embracing figures by Deborah Bell and Peter Clarke, as well as figures engaged in entertainment by George Pemba and Vladimir Tretchikoff. 

The extraordinary range and depth of the compositions appearing in the catalogue for Johannesburg Auction Week point to centrality of the figure in South African art. This wasn’t always the case. “We are in danger of too many veld-yearnings, too much Karoo-urge, too frequent sunsets of the Drakensberg, and moonrisings on Groot Constantia,” lamented author William Plomer in a 1925 letter to the Natal Mercury critical of the predominance of landscape in local painting. “A little less landscape and a little more portraiture would be highly stimulating.”

Leading the selection of works privileging the human subject is Alexis Preller’s Adam and Eve (estimate R7.6 – 8 million). Executed in 1955, this symbolically loaded and joyously intricate portrait of a seated couple is one of the artist’s mid-career masterpieces. The painting was first exhibited at the Lidchi Gallery in Johannesburg in 1956, the same year Robert Hodgins held his first solo exhibition at the gallery.

Hodgins, a painter of figure par excellence, was a huge admirer of Preller. Writing in 1962, Hodgins heaped praise on Preller, describing him as “a creative artist, uniquely communicative amidst the welter of obscure pattern-makers who inhabit the contemporary art scene”. Hodgins is represented in the sale by a half dozen compositions. They include the spry watercolour Two Nudes (estimate R120 000 – 160 000) and oils Two Figures (estimate R400 000 – 600 000) and Figure by a River (estimate R500 000 – 700 000).

“Strauss & Co is particularly pleased to be offering works by three influential Thirties generation painters: John Koenakeefe Mohl, George Pemba and Gerard Sekoto. All three painters privileged the human figure in their narrative compositions. Mohl’s oil on board Miners at Sunset, Some On, Some Off Duty, near Carletonville (estimate R70 000 – 100 000) presents a montage of figures in a mining landscape. Sekoto’s Casamance Dancers and Policeman (estimate R300 000 – 400 000) is a post-exile gouache executed during the artist’s 1966 visit to Senegal,” says Strausss&Co. In a stamen released ahead of the auction.

Pemba has two works in the sale. Open Air Concert (estimate R350 000 – 500 000) was executed in 1981 and depicts a musical concert watched by an informal audience sprawling on the grass in front of the performers. The work was included Strauss & Co chief curator Wilhelm van Rensburg’s recent exhibition Social Stances: George Pemba and Robert Hodgins

George Pemba had many admirers, among them Peter Clarke who in 1989 gifted Pemba a copy of a handmade brochure made by Clarke two years earlier. Clarke is represented in the sale by four works. They include two risqué nudes from the late 1960s, the acrylic and gouache Lovers (estimate R90 000 – 120 000) and double-sided watercolour Lovers in a Garden/ Holding Basin (estimate R120 000 – 160 000).

Strauss & Co is delighted to be offering Clarke’s important composition Icarus (estimate R300 000 – 400 000). The work features a sun motif made from torn strips of paper and card, painted in degrees of blistering orange and red, and Icarus figure made up, in part, of a contemporary photograph.

Notable contemporary figure painters in the sale include Deborah Bell, Penny Siopis and Simon Stone. Bell and Siopis are represented by three figural compositions apiece. Bell’s oil The Lovers (estimate R120 000 – 160 000) is dated 1985 and records her refined painterly sensibility. Siopis’s Skirmish: Never, Ever Again (estimate R80 000 – 120 000) is an enigmatic composition from 2012 made with oil, ink and glue. Stone’s large oil Couple (estimate R120 000 – 160 000) presents a montage of contemporary and classical figures against a ground of quoted landscapes. 

Since 2009, Strauss & Co has successfully sold works by a number of prominent international artists, among them Banksy and Joan Miró. The catalogue for Johannesburg Auction Week includes figure paintings by well-known Congolese painter Moké (Market Scene, estimate R100 000 – 150 000) and Dominique Zinkpè from Benin (Ambiance Nocturne, estimate R60 000 – 80 000). The catalogue also feature two figurative works by German artist Jonathan Meese executed in 2004 and 2005, shortly after coming to prominence at the Berlin Biennale.

The catalogue for Johannesburg Auction Week includes a number of figurative sculptures. They range from the classical, such as the posthumous bronze of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Little Blacksmith (estimate R140 000 – 160 000), to the contemporary. Highlights from the modern selection include Edoardo Villa’s The Meeting (estimate R600 000 – 800 000), a painted steel maquette from 1975 for the full-size version of the work that stands on the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway Campus, and Dumile Feni’s bronze Anguished Woman (estimate R250 000 – 350 000), which is from the original edition of six pieces cast by Vignali Foundry, Pretoria.

Notable contemporary figure sculptors represented in the sale include David Brown, Wim Botha, Norman Catherine, Mashego Johannes Segogela and Angus Taylor. Botha’s work Head (estimate R120 000 – 160 000) is carved from a stack of burnt books with metal rod piercing through them. Taylor’s triptych Grounded Relativity (estimate R100 000 – 150 000) depicts a male figure bearing a rock on his head. Catherine’s The Five Senses (estimate R250 000 – 350 000) presents five carved and painted wood figures transposed from his psychological works on canvas.

Johannesburg Auction Week concludes on Tuesday, 9 November 2021 with two sessions devoted respectively to the ceramic sculpture of Hylton Nel and Nico Masemola, and the property of a single-owner collector. Nel, a renowned ceramicist based in Calitzdorp, is an influential mentor of a new generation of talent. Masemola, a former apprentice of Nel’s, died in 2015. Both have figurative pieces in the 50-lot session.

Professor Jan K Coetzee was a respected collector and well-known participant in South African intellectual life. His collection includes figurative sculptures by, among others, Deborah Bell, David Brown, Percy Konqobe, Joss Nell and Stanley Nkosi, as well as works of paper and paintings by Marlene Dumas, Robert Hodgins, Penny Siopis and Diane Victor.

All the works mentioned are available to purchase at Johannesburg Auction Week (7–9 November 2021). The works can be previewed at Strauss & Co’s dedicated exhibition space at 89 Central Street, Houghton, Johannesburg. Covid-19 regulations apply.

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