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Top South African Paintings at Strauss & Co's October Auction

  23 September 2010     Archived

The top lots coming up on Strauss & Co's 11 October sale at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands are attracting keen attention from prospective buyers. Amongst these, punters are keeping a close watch on Irma Stern's Gladioli (lot 163, R5 000 000 to R7 000 000) after a still life painting by the artist fetched R7 575 200 on the company's Johannesburg auction earlier this year, breaking the record for the highest price achieved at auction for a South African still life.

Yachts and Houses (lot 165, R2 000 000 – 3 000 000) is a rare example of Stern’s adventures into abstraction. Painted in 1950, the year in which she visited Madeira, it shows the characteristic ceramic-tiled rooves, a mill and yachts in the bay. But rather than present a picturesque scene, the artist has compressed the elements into a shallow pictorial space, added dramatic diagonals and a circular rhythm to convey the excitement and passion she felt about Madeira and about the very act of painting.

It’s not difficult to understand why a conceptually clever work like Irma Stern’s Figure on a Beach (lot 168, R800 000 – 1 200 000) would have appealed to the late Professor Neville Dubow, former Director of the UCT Irma Stern Museum and highly respected author of many texts on the artist. In this late work, painted in 1962, Stern depicts a woman, with an arch, over-the-shoulder expression indicating that she’s both aware of being looked at and that she’s looking right back. The painted frame draws attention to the painting as a conscious construction, not a window through which to view the world.

The South African-born Edward Wolfe settled in England and soon became a member of the celebrated Bloomsbury set that gathered around artist and critic Roger Fry, writer Virginia Woolf and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. He enjoyed considerable success in Europe and his painting, The Spanish Girl, was well received at the Venice Biennale in 1923. As one of the first English painters to be influenced by Matisse, Wolfe’s dramatic palette of bright colours is infused with the light of his home country and of North Africa, where he spent many years living in Morocco. In his Portrait of Aisha (lot 189, R60 000 – 90 000) his admiration of Modigliani is evident in the dark, almond eyes, the sensuous lips and the elegant curve of her neck.

May Hillhouse, a still underrated artist associated with the New Group, has been compared to Sonia Delaunay, the Russian-French artist who, along with others, developed the Orphism art movement, noted for its use of strong colours and geometric shapes. Hillhouse’s early colour-science research conducted in London provided the stimulus for ongoing investigations into colour and form. Figures in an Archway (lot 202, R500 000 – 600 000) is an outstanding example of her unique style that brings together innovative combinations of glowing colours and rhythmic design. The Synthetic Cubism of Picasso and Braque, with its overlapping planes of flat, bright colour, is reinterpreted by Hillhouse with subtler colours like mauves and olives juxtaposed with delightful patterning.

Three years before painting The Bull in 1956 (lot 225, R300 000 – 500 000), Alexis Preller had undertaken a study trip to Italy and Egypt. The influence of the Quattrocento frescoes of Piero della Francesca and the symbolism of ancient Egypt are noticeable in his subsequent work in which bulls are associated with the rituals and mythologies of African and European beliefs and practices.

Strauss & Co’s October sale features many paintings that trace the development of landscape painting in South Africa over almost a century. Pieter Wenning’s painting, Durban (lot 135, R600 000 – 900 000), made in 1918, is a gem both for its rarity and for its exquisite painterliness. Wenning was well informed and deeply influenced by the Orientalism so prevalent at the turn of the last century. He brings to this painting of sub-tropical luxuriance the glowing, jewel-like colours, strong contours and sinuous lines that are also reminiscent of the Art Nouveau movement.

J H Pierneef’s Koringlande Agter Paarl (lot 146, R2 500 000 – 3 500 000) is a rare example of the artist’s Boland landscapes. It was acquired directly from the artist and has never come onto the market before. The Cape Dutch homestead with its pioniershuis, nestling at the foot of the dramatic Simonsberg mountains must have made an enormous impression on Pierneef and struck him as the very epitome of a typical Cape landscape. It also represents a slice of history in that these rolling hills, now covered in vineyards, were in the 1950s planted with wheat and tobacco which was much more profitable then. History, heritage and nature are brought together in a magnificent breath-taking vision by one of South Africa’s top artists.

A striking pair of paintings represents Maggie Laubser at her best. Flamingoes on the Beach (lot 155, R700 000 – 900 000) and Landscape with Blue Crane (lot 156, R600 000 – 800 000) demonstrate her wonderful gift for distilling the essence of a scene with strong drawing, simplified shapes and bold colours. Both landscapes are so typically South African that we feel we know them and yet they are quite obviously ideal scenes conjured from her imagination.

Two paintings by Pinker on this auction offer insights into the progressive development of abstraction in the South African landscape genre. An exquisite little painting of Castagniers (lot 252, R30 000 – 40 000) was made when he was living in the south of France from the mid-50s to mid-60s. The village is not far from L’Estaque, where Cézanne, Braque and Picasso painted similar scenes that were to become the cornerstones of early Analytical Cubism. Such a seminal painting that so clearly demonstrates the impact of Modernism on South African art belongs in a major collection.

Lazing in the Sand Dunes (lot 253, R300 000 – 500 000) demonstrates how Pinker developed those early experiments in abstraction into this later style. Broad sweeping planes of subtle colour are contrasted with the intensely blue sky and punctuated with bright accents in the foreground. While it evokes all the sensuous qualities of Matisse whom Pinker admired so much, its bold abstraction makes it a thoroughly contemporary landscape painting.It’s obvious why Stanley Pinker has become a firm favourite at auction. The Wheel of Life (lot  251, R700 000 – 1 000 000) is a major painting that featured on his solo exhibition at the South African National Gallery in 1983. The artist is playing an amusing game on a number of levels with the elements of art and with art history. The circle, sprinkled with local icons, is also a circus arena in which Pinker produces a carnival of socio-political commentary, delivered with the most incisive intellect and consummate wit.

Still life paintings by Cecil Skotnes do not come to auction often. Two are included in Strauss & Co’s October sale. Still Life with Figs (lot 257, R300 000 – 500 000) was affectionately produced as a gift by the artist and deemed so special that he surrounded it with a hand-crafted frame. Interestingly, he has chosen to present the items in a stylish, horizontal arrangement rather than clustering them together. Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit and a Coffee Pot (lot 256, R250 000 – 350 000) demonstrates the influences of Paul Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist vision, especially in the treatment of the bowl of fruit. Both are wonderful reminders of the hospitality of Cecil and Thelma Skotnes and their love of sharing, with family and friends, delectable food, excellent wine, good coffee and stimulating conversation.

Responding to the growing interest in South African art, Strauss & Co’s October auction offers a wide range of art and antiques. From top lots to affordable acquisitions, there’s something for everyone’s taste and pocket.

Text: Emma Bedford, Senior Paintings Specialist, Strauss & Co

Press Enquiries: Bina Genovese

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