Since the renewed interest in Jack Heath after his major retrospective exhibition at the Tatham Gallery in Pietermaritzburg in 2009, this late modernist artist has begun to assume his rightful place not only among his peers in South Africa, but also as an important part of the “post-World War II diaspora of artists, art historians and craftsmen” from England who played an important role in the “dissemination of modernism”.
Juliette Leeb-du Toit argues persuasively in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue that Heath’s work represents the importance of local influences on “the nature of modernism as an international, not merely a Western phenomenon” and that Heath played a considerable role both as an artist and an art teacher “establishing a distinctive modernist-inspired contemporary South Africa idiom”.
Heath came to South Africa in 1952 after serving in World War 2. Up to that point he had been associated with the important British modernists of the time. He personally “knew many contemporary British painters working in or around London, such as Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash, and it is within the realm of their artistic milieu that Jack belongs,” Leeb-du Toit points out. In South Africa, his “responses to the new cultural and geographic terrain … resulted in changes in style and thematic content in [his] own work”.
Hot Day Karoo is from a period in Heath’s career in the late 50s when “[h]is works became almost entirely abstract”. Previously, much like his earlier peers, his work retained some sort of representational quality. Leeb-du Toit notes: “Ironically it was in South Africa that Heath was able to experiment with modernism and its many associated freedoms, largely unfettered by the critical gaze to which his work would have been subject in Britain.”
The present work is a good example of Heath’s distinctive use of colour, influenced by the writings of French modernist Andre Lhote. He “advocated the use of two main colours in any transcription of form, often a warm and cool tone one more saturated than the other”. The resulting tension results “in a controlled scumbling which ensures the resonance of the dominant tone, rather than in its being muted.”
Heath’s embrace of total abstraction has a metaphysical dimension, part of which involved the question of representing the horrors he saw during the war. A “non-representational visual language” allowed him to create “a more conceptual transcription of his visions and experience.” According to Leeb-du Toit, it related to “the ominous realities of a segregationist autocracy in South Africa that was perhaps all too reminiscent of the events of World War II”.
Hot Day Karoo day is an important example of both a hidden history of South African modernism and “an international diaspora of modernists”.
Juliette Leeb-du Toit (2009) Jack Heath: Mediating Modernism in KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg: Tatham Art Gallery.