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Strauss & Co sale casts a spotlight on pioneers of South African painting


  14 May 2019


Two triumphant still lifes by Irma Stern lead a strong selection of paintings by important post-war artists Walter Battiss, Christo Coetzee, Erik Laubscher and Alexis Preller on offer at Strauss & Co’s forthcoming Johannesburg sale on Monday, 20 May.

Susie Goodman, an executive director at Strauss & Co, says: “Earlier twentieth South African paintings have been a bedrock of the Strauss & Co offering since its first auction in March 2009, and no artist better represents the durable performance of this group of artists at auction than Irma Stern. She is Strauss & Co’s top-selling artist at auction, having grossed R420.5 million from 175 lots sold since 2009. Her still lifes continue to command a premium at auction and I am especially delighted with the two magnificent floral studies that form part of the upcoming sale.”

 

Both these still lifes originate from the painter’s high-water period of the 1930s and 40s. Painted a year after Stern’s second visit to Zanzibar in 1945, Still Life with Fruit and Dahlias (estimate R12 – 15 million) portrays a multicoloured bouquet of dahlias in a partially glazed Chinese martaban jar flanked by two bowls of fruit on Zanzibari woven mats and two sliced papayas, and is presented in its original Zanzibari frame featuring carved flower motifs. The work reveals Stern’s innovative use of colour and brush technique.

 

“At once a dramatic and captivating assertion of Stern’s unchallenged mastery of expressive form and an unapologetic celebration of exoticism and sensuality, it is unsurprising that this painting set a record for the highest price paid to that point for a twentieth-century South African artwork when it last appeared on auction in 1999,” says art historian Professor Federico Freschi, who is Executive Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg.

 

Still Life with Basket of Flowers (estimate R4.5 – 6 million) is an earlier work, from 1937, and shows Stern’s still recent and fervent embrace of an exciting colour palette that include splashes of red, pink, purple and orange in her description of the zinnias.

 

Strauss & Co is offering ten Stern lots. Other highlights from the May catalogue include a 1962 portrait of an anonymous Malay Woman (estimate R2 – 3 million) wearing a pink headscarf and cerise dress. The work forms part of a consignment from the estate of the late Sonia Lapin (née Kalmanson), a New Yorker who settled in Johannesburg.

 

The Lapin Collection includes paintings by Gwelo Goodman, J.E.A. Volschenk and Pieter Wenning, all early pioneers of the landscape genre, as well as 1931 maritime scene in gouache by Stern, Fishing Boats on the Beach (estimate R300 000 – 500 000).

 

Born 17 years after Stern, Alexis Preller continues to outpace his New Group contemporaries like Wallter Battiss and Jean Welz. Strauss & Co is offering seven Preller paintings spanning various periods. They include two early works, the exquisite still life A Box of Mangoes (estimate R300 000 – 400 000), which was painted in 1938 after his return to South Africa from London, and Two Male Nudes (estimate R250 000 – 400 000), a homoerotic student work from 1934.

 

The highlight of the Preller offerings is a genuine rarity, a pristine mosaic depicting five towering figures (estimate R6 – 8 million) that was originally installed at a private home in Waterkloof, Pretoria.  It is the first time that a Preller mosaic appears on the secondary market.

 

In situ murals are all too often destroyed when the buildings of which they are an integral part, are renovated or demolished. So, it is both a pleasure and a relief that this remarkable mosaic by Preller, the only one of its kind, has survived, and remains pristine and intact more than sixty years after its completion,” notes artist and leading Preller expert Karel Nel.

 

The top lot by Walter Battiss is a vividly coloured abstract painting (estimate R400 000 – 600 000) containing forms and marks typical of syncretic style. Gordon Mckintosh, a prominent architect who designed the Pretoria Art Museum, was a past owner of this work. The ten Battiss lots on offer form part of a thematic focus on artists who were or are still educators. Alongside Battiss, who was a professor of fine art at the University of South Africa, the sale includes work by Erik Laubscher, who founded the Ruth Prowse Art Centre, Cape Town, in 1972. Still Life with Urn (estimate R350 000 – 500 000) is a striking example of Laubscher’s mid-century decompositions of still life and landscape subjects.

 

Mentored by influential Wits University teacher Heather Martienssen, Christo Coetzee achieved remarkable international prominence when he relocated to London after graduating. Harlequin Fish (estimate R300 000 – 500 000) is one of Coetzee’s best still lifes from his exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in London in 1955, when he became part of a group of British and continental Modernist artists in the Governor stable that included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Alberto Giacometti.

 

South African modernist painting remains an attractive proposition for collectors. In March, Strauss & Co sold three Stern portraits from her esteemed Zanzibar period (1939–45) for a combined total of R52.3 million. The top-selling lot was a 1945 portrait of an Arab nobleman, previously owned by the late Sol Munitz, which sold for R 20.5 million. On the same sale, Preller’s Collected Images (Orchestration of Themes), an enigmatic cabinet painting from 1952, sold for R10.01 million.

 

The forthcoming sale also includes castings from five different foundries used by Van Wouw, including the previously unknown Buongirolami foundry for his bust of statesman Louis Botha (estimate R200 000 – 300 000). But the undisputed highlight is a full-length bronze maquette of the larger Church Square (Pretoria) sculpture depicting Paul Kruger (estimate R2.2 – 3.2 million), produced by the Nisini foundry and previously owned by Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, who gifted it to the Rand Club, the consignor. Van Wouw’s Kruger bronze is among the sale’s top-five lots by value, ranking alongside a rare mosaic by Alexis Preller and three paintings, including a magnificent still-life by Irma Stern, South Africa’s leading artist at auction.


Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg sale commences at the Wanderers Club on Monday 20 May at 3pm, with the premier evening session starting at 7pm. Works will be available to preview from Friday 17 May to Sunday 19 May, from 10 am to 5 pm. The sale includes an extensive programme of social and education events.

 


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