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Abstraction: South African Art from the 50s to the 70s

  26 July 2017     Wilhelm van Rensburg, Art Specialist, Strauss & Co     Archived

Thursday, 3 August 2017 AT 6.00pm
R60 per person: proceeds will benefit Welgemeend and the Boerneef Art Collection
Booking essential: Helena Le Roux 082 461 9753

The art of the 1950s to the 1970s can effectively be book-ended by the Overseas Exhibition of South African Art at the Tate Gallery in London in 1948, a veritable inventory of the local development of early modernism, and the State of the Art in South Africa conference at UCT in 1979, charting a perilous journey of the manner in which the arts could contribute to the demise of apartheid. South Africa was less isolated from the West in the immediate period after the World War II (gaining access to the Venice Biennale in 1952 and the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1957, Edoardo Villa winning a prize on that occasion), and came into its own with such ventures as art magazines (ArtCheck, ArtLook), a flurry of new, avant garde galleries (for example, Goodman Gallery) and even an own art history (Berman’s Art and Artists of South Africa, 1970). Abstraction, the dominant artistic thrust in this era, encompasses such diverse stylistic tenets as Abstract Expressionism, Action Painting, Informalism, Hard Edge, Geometric Abstraction, and Colour Filed Painting. Excellent examples of these different forms of abstraction from the Frank and Lizelle Kilbourn and Pieter Colyn collections on display at Welgemeend, will be discussed in the lecture. It will be argued that the dominance of abstraction is well-complemented by, what Esmé Berman calls ‘’an interest in humanistic figural expressionism’’, especially among Black artists, and notably the primitivism of the Amadlozi Group (1963) (among others, Sydney Kumalo), spearheaded by Egon Guenther, as well as a more subjective look at human relationships, given prominence by such artists as Kevin Atkinson, Nils Burwitz, Judith Mason and Helmut Starcke. The combination of an emphasis on formalism/abstraction, and the interest in the human condition, inevitably led to the development of a social consciousness in the late-1970s when the South African art world had to articulate its political position in a troubled country. The lecture focuses on the major forces that shaped the art of the early 50s, such as the Wits Group (Christo Coetzee, Nel Erasmus, Larry Scully, Cecil Skotnes, Gordon Vorster, and art historian, Esmé Berman); the influx of immigrant artists (Armando Baldinelli, Guiseppe Cattaneo, Pranas Domsaitis, John Dronsfield, Alfred Krenz, Maurice van Essche, Edoardo Villa, Jean Welz); returnee South African artists (Bettie Cilliers-Barnard, Sydney Goldblatt, Georgina Ormiston, Douglas Portway); and such South African outliers in exile as Ernest Mancoba in Copenhagen, joining the CobrA group, Selby Mvusi in New York, and Gerard Sekoto in Paris. In addition, the impact of such movements as Op Art (Cecily Sash and the revolution in art education at Wits in the late-1960s), and Conceptualism (under the auspice of the young Willem Boshoff at Wits Tech, together with Michael Goldberg, Wopko Jensma and Claude van Lingen) will also be discussed. The lecture concludes with a look at the 70s and a renewed isolation from the West through a series of cultural boycotts and the rise of protest/resistance art (Gavin Jantjes, Paul Stopforth, Gavin Younge), together with vigorous debates at the Michaelis Art School at UCT as to whether photography is a proper medium of fine art; the first performance piece, Crying Earth, staged by Shelley Sacks in Thibault Square, Cape Town in 1975; and a belated (and, if you like, an ‘’endorsing’’, yet obsolete) visit by Clement Greenberg, high-priest of formalism in the  same year. Abstraction in the art of the 50s to the 70s, then, is best described by Hayden Proud when he called this period, a ‘’random collision of energy’’. Perhaps Walter Battiss’ Fook Island project of the late-1970s, with its magical realism, was not such a farfetched notion after all.

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