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Face value: Striking portraits on offer Strauss & Co’s Joburg sale

25 May 2017   *Archived

An emphatically modern portrait by Irma Stern of an unknown young woman with stylishly waved hair and fashionable dress leads a group of remarkable portrait paintings on offer at Strauss & Co's forthcoming live sale at the Wanderers Club on 5 June.


"It is a captivating and unusual example of Stern's artistic and personal interests, produced at a time when she was at the height of her painterly powers," notes Professor Federico Freschi, executive dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, of Stern's 1954 oil, Malay Woman (estimate R3 - 4 million). "The dynamic interplay between modernity and exoticism in this work positions it at once as a fine period piece, and quintessentially representative of Stern's remarkable oeuvre," adds Freschi.

Strauss & Co's forthcoming Johannesburg sale includes a number of portraits by other respected moderns, notably Maggie Laubser, Johannes Meintjes and Alexis Preller. Portrait of Pat Philip (estimate R70 000 - 100 000) is an affectionate study of Preller's close friend, Pat Philip, who appeared in at least three other paintings by the artist. In November 2016, Strauss & Co sold another Philip portrait, Woman with Red Hair/Ophelia, for R2 273 600, well over the high estimate of R300 000. The sale cemented Preller's status as a canonical painter.  Although not a portrait, there is great anticipation around Preller's 1951 oil, Still Life with Thangka and Pomegranates (estimate R4 - 5 million), part of a series of still lifes marked by what Preller expert Karel Nel describes as their "sumptuous exoticism".

Laubser's charcoal Portrait of a Woman (estimate R40 000 - 60 000) affirms this much-loved colourist's great facility with sketching. Meintjes highlighted this overlooked aspect of her practice in his vivid Laubser biography from 1944. Three portraits by Meintjes are on offer: Kaapse Visserman met sy Dagga (estimate R100 000 - 150 000), Reclining Figure in the Mountains (estimate R70 000 - 100 000) and Portrait of John Rothman (estimate R30 000 - 50 000), a study of a personal acquaintance.

Two brilliantly executed figures by Anton van Wouw, Die Noitje van die Onderveld (estimate R300 000 - 500 000) and Kruger on the Station (estimate R250 000 - 350 000), direct attention to the exciting sculpture offering. Notable lots include Lionel Smit's 2010 bronze, Head (estimate R100 000 - 150 000), and two carved wooden figures by Julius Mfethe, including Man Riding Baboon Backwards (estimate R15 000 - 20 000).

Notwithstanding decisive shifts in post-war painting towards abstraction, the portrait endures as a means of expression and record of encounter. In 1983, Robert Hodgins, an artist whose career straddles the modern and contemporary, produced a withering profile study of art critic Clement Greenberg, entitled Clem (estimate R200 000 - 300 000). Hodgins attended a 1975 Johannesburg lecture by Greenberg, which he disapprovingly remarked on in a subsequent press review.

A 2000 group portrait by Hodgins, Clubmen of America: Mafiosi (estimate R500 000 - 700 000), builds a bridge to an expressive canvas work by Norman Catherine, Identikit (estimate R500 000 - 700 000). Painted in 1990, Catherine's gridded portraits explore ideas of individuality and difference with comic-book whimsy, this at a time when rigidly policed racial categories were being undone. Catherine's 1993 oil, Predator (estimate R550 000 - 700 000), offers a fantastical portrait of an anthropomorphic reptile in police uniform.

David Goldblatt's 2002 portrait, Man Laying Tiles (estimate R20 000 - 30 000), is one of four photographs by this internationally acclaimed master.

A group of 10 intimate photographs by Billy Monk show late 1960s revellers in The Catacombs nightclub in Cape Town. Strauss & Co is also offering Greg Marinovich's Dead Zone (estimate R250 000 - 350 000), a portfolio of 41 photographs that bear unflinching witness to the painful becoming of a nation.

Portrait painting endures as a genre, as is evident in Johannesburg painter Jessica Webster's Her Painted Face (estimate R40 000 - 60 000), a 2012 diptych that elaborates her interests in surface texture and layering. Webster is a doctoral candidate in painting at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her mentor is Penny Siopis, whose still life Allsorts (estimate R300 000 - 500 000) is dominated by bric-a-brac acquired from Clignancourt flea market during a 1986 artist residency in Paris.

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