19 October 2010 Archived
Strauss & Co, the top specialist auction house for South African Fine Art, offers its highest value sale to date with a stellar array of top quality paintings by many of South Africa's most sought-after artists on its 1 November auction at the Johannesburg Country Club, Woodmead.
Included are two outstanding still life paintings by Irma Stern of lilies as well as landscape paintings by J H Pierneef and Pieter Wenning, amongst others. White Lilies (R4 000 000 – 5 000 000) has excited interest since it was first seen on Irma Stern’s solo exhibition in Cape Town in March 1941. An unnamed art reviewer at the time declared under the sub-heading, A LOVELY WORK, that White Lilies was “among the best things she has done”.
All the hallmarks of Stern’s mature style are evident in this relatively early painting with its strong brushwork and thick, impasto paint. Evidence of the pleasures of reading, relaxing and feasting on figs, fills the foreground. By contrast the white lilies, set against the soft, rose-tinted background, lend a calm, almost ethereal atmosphere.
Also included is the picnic basket that Stern famously always carried with her and packed with substantial lunches and delectable edibles. It rests on fabric that Christopher Peter of the UCT Irma Stern Museum has identified as part of a favourite cushion cover that is still in the museum today. Probably of Indonesian origin, the fabric may well have been acquired along the east coast on one of Stern’s journeys en route from Cape Town to Europe.
In Lilies (R4 000 000 – 5 000 000), painted just three years later, the flowers appear to burst from the vase as if in a seasonal statement of spring. Here Stern has used a quiet palette and infused the painting with light by employing a predominance of crisp whites and creamy tones offset with splashes of lemon yellow pollen and a rich cadmium yellow background. The effect is one of harmony and subtlety, enlivened by complementary contrasts in the orange stamens and fruit against the blue vase and bowl and the red and green of the foreground apple.
Several major paintings by Jacob Hendrik Pierneef are attracting keen attention. Baobab Tree (R5 000 000 – 7 000 000) painted in 1946, captures all the majestic grandeur of the tree whose soaring verticality suggests power, dignity and oneness. Trees are significant in Pierneef’s oeuvre. Not only are specific trees characteristic of particular geographic areas which they assist in describing, but they are emblematic of his art where trees are both a compositional device and the key elements in conveying symbolic information. The trees in this bushveld scene have been painted with such devoted attention to detail that they are clearly recognisable. Pierneef’s ability to harness the principles of geometry, which stress precision through emphasis on linear elements, is perfectly employed in this superb painting to achieve harmony, balance and unity.
Pierneef’s Barbeton en Nelshoogte Kaapschehoop (R3 000 000 – 4 000 000), was acquired from the artist by Johannes Lambertus van Schaik (1888 – 1965) on 25th November 1949 and inherited by his son Jan Jacob van Schaik (1917 – 2009). The former came to South Africa from Holland in 1911 and joined the bookseller De Bussy in Johannesburg. In 1914 he founded the bookselling and publishing house J L van Schaik in Pretoria. The business flourished and on his death his two sons Jan and Hans continued to run the company until 1986 when it was sold to Nasionale Pers. It still continues to trade under the name Van Schaiks. Viewed from the Nelshoogte plateau along the southern part of the Mpumalanga escarpment area west of Barberton, the painting offers a spectacular view that is breathtaking in its scale and ability to evoke the vastness of the South African landscape. The foreground has an astonishing wealth of detail in the vegetation and thorn trees so emblematic of Pierneef’s landscape paintings. Kaapschehoop, one of the first places in which alluvial gold deposits were discovered in the 1880s, was named for its resemblance to Table Mountain and the prospectors’ incorrigible optimism. Pierneef’s painting thus becomes a cultural meditation on the origins of the gold industry that gave first Barberton and then the Witwatersrand their raison d’être.
Pieter Wenning’s remarkable painting of Pretoria in the early twentieth century, The Apies River and Union Buildings (R1 000 000 – 1 200 000), captures an image of a fertile place, populated with trees and lush undergrowth alongside the Apies River as it flows north through the city. In the distance are the Union Buildings on Meintjies Kop, selected by architect Sir Herbert Baker because it provided the ideal site from which this symbolic embodiment of unity would ascend above the city as did the Acropolis above the city of Athens.
Wenning’s landscapes show evidence of careful observation from nature, yet the painterly quality remains paramount. With broad brushstrokes loaded with various blues and greens, he evokes the vista over Pretoria with a vision that is fresh and assured.
Several works by Alexis Preller are sure to arouse interest. Amongst these, Angel (R1 000 000 – 1 500 000) represents the mythical status of god-kings and the ultimate release from earthly conditions by drawing on conventions such as the wide-open, almond-shaped eyes and the cicatrised markings of Yoruba masks and the beard symbolising the divine authority of Egyptian pharaohs. Kouros (R800 000 – 1 200 000) embodies the youthfulness of Apollo, the son of Zeus, who is recognised as a god of light and the sun; truth and prophecy; medicine and healing. Being supportive of all the arts and the very epitome of civilization, Apollo is seen to be both creative and handsome. While Preller’s experimentation with gestural abstraction is increasingly evident in the more painterly treatment that minimises contour lines and integrates the figure into the ground, the iconic status of this ideal of male beauty is enhanced through the addition of gold leaf.
With excellent examples of work by South African modernists such as Maggie Laubser and Maud Sumner as well as contemporary artists like Dumile Feni and William Kentridge, viewers and buyers alike will be spoiled for choice.
Text: Emma Bedford, Senior Paintings Specialist, Strauss & Co
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