Important South African and International Art

Live Auction, 7 November 2016

Evening Sale

Sold for

ZAR 250 096
Lot 268
  • Penny Siopis; Invention de l'Hysterie

Lot Estimate
ZAR 200 000 - 300 000
Selling Price
Incl. Buyer's Premium & VAT
ZAR 250 096

About this Item

South African 1953-
Invention de l'Hysterie


pastel on paper
125 by 83cm excluding frame


As winner of the first Volkskas Atelier Award in 1986, Penny Siopis had the opportunity of living and working at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. There she continued her critical interest in western painting, developing specific connections between illusionism, femininity and psychoanalysis. The Cité is in the vicinity of Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where Jean-Martin Charcot researched hysteria. A young Sigmund Freud was one of his students. Hysteria was popularly known as ‘woman’s disease’, something that Siopis counters as ‘woman’s dis-ease’ in works like Invention de l’Hystérie. She writes as follows:

‘Hysteria was an affliction of particularly intelligent women who desired (for instance) more in life – education and so on… Charcot, a late nineteenth-century neurologist, began using hypnosis in treating hysteria. His ‘presentations’ of hysterical patients became famous ‘scientific’ spectacles in which he displayed the afflicted patients before a select (male) audience. The patients’ ‘performances’ - lifting their skirts, bearing their breasts etc – made these exhibitions the occasion for male voyeurism under the guise of ‘objective science’.1

Invention de l’Hystérie presents figures in a dream-like space, appearing at once natural and artificial through a mix of illusionistic rendering and expressive mark. The lower register shows a woman’s torso, her hands wringing a cloth, and a jewellery box perched on a lace support. A similar jewelery box - a reference to Freud’s analysis of the dream of his famous ‘hysterical’ patient Dora - is present in Siopis’ later pastel, the canonical Dora and the Other Woman (1988).

The middle register of the work shows gestures of apparent distress as hands and bodies enter the visual field from left and right. Above is a black and white image depicting a photograph of Charcot demonstrating hypnosis on a ‘hysterical’ patient. Siopis used a copy of this photograph years later in her site-specific installation in the Freud Museum in London (2005). All the figurative elements are linked but also separated by a vertical serge of bright blue gestural marks that charge the image with energy.

Crowning the whole scene is a delicately wrought lace curtain marking the theatricality of the setting. The structure of the image evokes a visual disturbance that could correspond to a psychic state, or a faint, one of the apparent symptoms of hysteria. This unease is emphasized by the way the head of the main protagonist continues beyond the picture’s edge. Her face is left to the viewer’s imagination.

Invention de l’Hystérie represents a key example of Siopis’ Paris pastels demonstrating the conceptual and formal complexity she is known for and her command of a challenging medium. Three decades have passed and its vibrant colour has not faded. Nor has Siopis’ knack of drawing our attention to historical subjects that are still relevant today.

1 Penny Siopis ‘Dissenting Detail: Another Story of Art and Politics in South Africa’ in Brenda Atkinson and Candice Breitz (eds.) (1999) Grey Areas: Representation, Identity and Politics in Contemporary South African Art, Johannesburg: Chalkham Hill Press. Page 248.


The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, Pictures within Pictures, 1987


Kathryn Smith (ed.) (2005) Penny Siopis, Johannesburg: Goodman Gallery Editions. Illustrated in colour on page 23.

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