Contemporary Art

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Contemporary  |  6:00pm Sat 15 Feb 2020


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Helmut Starcke; Susurration (Karoo Travelogue #5)
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Lot 20

South African 1935-2017
Susurration (Karoo Travelogue #5)
signed twice, dated '69 and inscribed with the title on the reverse; inscribed with the title and numbered 14 on a Biennale São Paulo label on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
151.5 by 151.5cm excluding frame

Sold for R 110 000
Including Buyer's Premium and VAT R 125 180

Estimate R 120 000 - 160 000

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Susurration is part of a series of works collectively titled Karoo Travelogue, which constitutes a highlight in Helmut Starcke’s artistic development. It exemplified a major shift in his style of painting at the time and was exhibited at the 1969 São Paulo Biennale.

His practice is best described as a layering of disparate images and other compositional elements, one behind the other in order to create an essentially ambiguous postmodern ‘whole’. In the present lot, Susurration: Karoo Travelogue #5, the first layer consists of screens of fairly even-sized dots; the second layer is occupied by the silhouette of a standing nude, half turned away from the viewer; and a third layer comprises what appears to be a landscape.

Turning away from the commercial art scene to practise fine art, his first works drew on the aesthetic sensibilities of Pop Art, resulting in what Esmé Berman calls “a social realist phase: satirical commentary on the surrounding scene, [but] essentially illustrative, not interpretive.”1

The shift that occurred in Starcke’s work in the late 1960s was away from Pop Art towards Op Art (along with other South African artists, including Cecily Sash and Kevin Atkinson). Starcke depicted the very common Ben-Day or half-tone dots that were used to achieve tonal effects in the colour printing process before the advent of laser and digital printing.

Starcke enlarges these dots to cover the whole surface of the present lot, and then ‘colours them in’ with shades of blue at the top, fading to shades of red and pink at the bottom of the canvas.  The resultant effect is of an optical illusion of a vibrating, even shimmering, landscape with a bright blue sky in the background, and a red-hot landscape in the foreground. The title, Susurration, meaning whispering, murmuring and/or rustling, seems apt in describing this singular landscape.

The appearance of the figure – as if derived from a high-contrast photograph – reflects Starcke’s background as a commercial artist in the adverting industry. “I use the photograph as an agent in the simplification of visual information,” he says. “Through its technological idiosyncrasies, it provides alternative ways of seeing in a kind of ‘pre-processed’ way. A photograph, composed through the view-finder, becomes a sketchbook-page.”2


1. Esmé Berman (1983) Art & Artists of South Africa, Cape Town: AA Balkema. Page 436.

2. Frieda Harmsen (1985) Looking at South African Art: A guide to the study and appreciation of art, Pretoria: Van Schaik. Pages 85 and 86.

Biennale São Paulo, Brazil, 1969.

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