Archive for March, 2013

To understand the emergence of Modernism, the World Fairs that had a great influence on both Design and Art Movements, and movement away from realism.

Dr. Giuntini presents a lecture where she discusses modernity, popular culture, and the influence of the World Fairs.

 

Art History Unstuffed by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette have great Podcasts; they are also available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

“Painting 1: Preface to the Avant-Garde”

There is some historical disagreement over when and where the avant-garde movement in the visual arts began.  But it is clear that that the notion that changes in art come from the margins not the center came into existence and began to impact painting by the middle of the nineteenth century.  What were the aesthetic and cultural conditions that made the avant-garde possible?

Listen to the Podcast on “Painting 1: Preface to the Avant-Garde”

The Avant-Garde Before the Great War

The decades of the fin-de-siècle period in Europe were fruitful ones, years of innovation and experimentation in painting.  “Ism” followed “ism:” Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, German Expressionism, ended only by the Great War.  New independent Salons and the burgeoning artist-dealer system provided new opportunities for cutting edged artists to show their work.  Working experimentally, these artists developed a new language for a new art for a new century.

Listen to the Podcast The Avant-Garde Before the Great War

Painting 2: Manet to Post-Impressionism

Although the Pre-Raphaelite artists initiated the artistic interest in contemporary urban life and the problems of modern people, the Parisian artists are given credit for learning how to express modernitéin formal terms.  The French painters found the seventeenth century Dutch painters important precursors.  Inspired by the depiction of ordinary moments of daily life among the middle class in Holland, the emerging avant-garde artists began to rethink, not just how to handle modern content, but also how to use paint itself so that their art could be “of its own time.”  The result of this experimentation was an evolution of painting into the twentieth century.

Listen to the Podcast on “Painting 2: Manet to Post-Impressionism”

The few black artists who made any early inroad into the urban South African art scene occupy a position parallel to that of Africana painters, who were primarily producing an accurate pictorial record of the curious exotic details of fauna and flora, and studies of the indigenous people.

In tandem with the colonial and apartheid view that blacks were a ‘breed’ apart, what many white collectors expected of black artists was an art that, through their eyes, represented cultural apartness, or what was called “native studies”. Such works were those depicting the ‘authentic’, mystical and exotic African, showing ‘tribal’ life and customs –  like for example Gerard Bhengu’s ‘Smiling Young Man with Feathered Headdress’ (undated).

Gerard Bhengu, ‘Smiling Young Man with Feathered Headdress’, undated

Early Pioneers

The foundations of fine art by black South African artists were laid by early pioneers; John Koenakeefe Mohl, Ernest Mancoba, George Pemba and Gerard Sekoto. All of these early figures had produced artworks unprecedented in terms of the history of art by black South Africans. It was an art that was a response to the changing conditions of black experience, with an increase in Christian influence and pressure from a white controlled economy.

Their art was also formed as a result of the influence of a western approach to art making, and the introduction of materials and techniques associated with the European tradition. These artists had had the opportunity to study both locally and abroad.

John Mohl, Ploughing, 1956

John Mohl, Ploughing, 1956

Of the early pioneers only Mohl was able to have any direct influence on art developments in South Africa in the forties. And it is for this reason that he can be considered to be the father of township art. He was certainly the first black artist to work and exhibit as a professional fine artist in Sophiatown and Soweto, and the first artist who offered art classes in the township.

John Koenakeefe Mohl

In the 1930s and 1940s, Mohl and Sekoto painted images of the township and township life of the black and ‘coloured’ working class, against a backdrop which most whites, because of the divides of segregation and class polarisation, knew very little about black.  Through their art they revealed to whites, the primary consumers of art at the time, the lives of people who were confined to townships when they were not toiling in the white economy.

In depicting those who were considered only good enough to keep the wheels of industry turning and the kitchen sinks of leafy white suburbs clean, Sekoto, along with Mohl and Pemba, pioneered a genre that is today commonplace and a cornerstone of South African culture – ‘township art’. Every artist who has worked in this genre,  follows in the footsteps of Mohl, Sekoto, Mancoba and Pemba.

Township Art

The label, Township Art, was coined originally in reference to the movement that blossomed in the black townships during the 1960s. Correctly, therefore it applies only to that historical phenomenon and the works of art that issued from it. Township art became a kind of hothouse, in which a generation of  young black artists ripened.

The main identifying features of of Township Art were its subject matter and its source. The artists involved were mainly residents of the black townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg; most students of the Polly Street Art Center; and their primary theme was the everyday life of the community in which they lived. Township Art was essentially concerned with the human situation. Conceived amid the the daily angst and hardship of existence in a deprived society, it testified to the spiritual resilience of the artists.

Social circumstances were even less favourable than in Sekoto’s day. Sophiatown’s and District Six communities and culture had been forcibly removed and dispersed. The anonymity of life in the sprawling Soweto, the loss of community cohesiveness and the feelings of displacement that followed the destruction of Sophiatown gave rise to a yearning for self-affirmation and to give a definition to a collective identity. It is therefore not surprising that Township Art coincided with the dawning of Black Consciousness among the townships residents.

Yet, the wave of self-expressive energy that surged out of Soweto in the sixties was not motivated by political agendas. Though their records of daily life were often permeated by subjective emotions, there was little ideological content in the earlier work.

Fear, charcoal on paper, 1966 (Dumile Feni)

Lack of resources meant that many black artists had to rely on media other than oil-painting, and making a virtue of necessity gave added force to their work. Black artists also made striking use of the accessible and relatively cheap medium of the linocut, charcoal and pen drawing and watercolours.

Feni (known as Dumile), for instance, became a master of drawing, often in ballpoint pen. He encapsulated profound personal emotions in images of poverty, brutality and fear. Dumile’s powerful sense of anger, frustration and despair at the deprived lives of his fellow black South Africans fed into work of extraordinary power; his distorted figures seemed to have been physically deformed by the very forces of society. Called “the Goya of the townships”, he painted his own version of Picasso’s Guernica, a cry of pain at human suffering. (Ref)

African Guernica - Dumile Feni

African Guernica – Dumile Feni

By the Mid-seventies, perspectives shifted as Black Consciousness gained impetus and township residents became increasingly politicised.

Some Artists of this Era

Gerard Bhengu

Peter Clarke

Ernest Mancoba

Gladys Mgudlandlu

George Pemba

Gerard Sekoto

Michael Zondi

References

Esme Berman – Painting in South Africa

Archival Platform -Emile Maurice –  Gerald Seto
http://www.archivalplatform.org/blog/entry/from_the_art_archive_gerard_sekoto_resistance_artist/

Marie-Lais Emond – Township art: South Africa’s political writing on the wall
http://www.ifalethu.org.za/dmdocuments/Townshipart.pdf

Kayla Reid – Introduction to Township Art
http://www.a1articles.com/an-introduction-to-township-art-1304917.html

Polly Street Era
http://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/polly-street-era

South African art – emerging Black Artists
http://www.southafrica.info/about/arts/919961.htm#.UTcnCdZgdC0

 

There was a big difference between the general pattern of artistic activity in South Africa and the circumstances that gave rise to Modern Art movements in Europe.  Initially South African Art was extremely conservative, mirroring the prevailing cultural conservatism.

Introduction

Accepted Artwork in South Africa tended to be landscapes according to traditional Western Art Principles whose aims since the Renaissance period was to create art works that copy reality. Until Modernism, art was seen as an illusion of a small piece of reality in a frame. The principles of perspective were used to create an illusion of 3 dimensions on a flat surface.

Modernism is a term applied to the innovative development of the arts in the 20th Centuary which saw a break with realism and naturalism and other such traditional art forms. Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Expressionism were all born in this era and the artists saw themselves as shifting boundaries, the ‘avant-garde’; confronting the widely accepted ideas that already existed. Modernism can be seen to represent the breakdown of appearance in works of art of the form of the natural world into shapes, colours and materials. Exaggeration, distortion and abstraction are all tools used. (Ref)

Thomas Baines

In traditional South African art during the colonial era, artists’ artwork generally depicted images of South Africa in as  accurate detail as they could make it. Artists such as Thomas Baines travelled the country recording its flora, fauna, people and landscapes, which was a form of reporting for people, much like National Geographic would do today..
Later artists excepted by the South African public and institutions, like Jan Ernst Abraham Volschenk and Gawie Cronje still continued to use traditional Western Art principles to depict especially landscapes of farms and the country.

Jan-Ernest A. Volschenk

Gawie Cronje

Towards the end of the 19th century, several artists began, through their work, to show an artistic vision of life as lived in South Africa, for its own sake. With Union of South Africa in 1910 which brought the formal end of the colonial era, art was beginning to form its own national identity. Artists like Irma Stern and Grerard Sekoto started to use the techniques of post-impressionism, fauvism and expressionism, using bright colour and unusual composition, with a personal point of view. Artists like Pierneef and Walter Battiss also started to look at the indigenous rock art in South Africa with their stylistic form, simple outline and flat colour and overlapping planes, as well as using geometric interpretation of objects introduced by the Cubists.

Western Primitivism vs ‘”White Settler” Primitivism

In Europe the adoption of ‘primitive art’ motifs and themes served as a revolutionary tool against established ‘art’ in art-salons after the First World War. Utopian parallels were drawn between the ways ‘primitive man.’ White people in the colonies with European origins also called “White settlers” experienced an emerging preoccupation with a national identity. To form a national identity, that is different from their European origins, both the natural environment and the indigenous culture were incorporated as reference points in their art.

Unlike their European counterparts, South African Artists, had actual knowledge of the indigenous  people. Artists like Irma Stern and Mary Stainbank in their depictions of African people considered person and place to shape content.  In contrast, Western primitivism made references to cultural artefacts as a visual, formal and expressive tool without considering cultural identity.

The attempt of “white settlers” to define themselves as ‘native’ is often seen as a sort of cultural colonization. Often the suffering of the indigenous people are ignored, whilst elements of their culture are affirmed and displayed.  Settler primitivism, as opposed to European primitivism, where cultural expressions draw on native imagery, can be seen as an effort to find their own identity within the country in which they settled. Both Irma Stern and Walter Battiss use this element of “settler primitivism” in their art to find their own identity while at the same time being influenced by contemporary European Art Movements.

For both Irma Stern and Mary Stainbank images of black personages affirmed their identity as different, and it also acted as confirmation of the nature of that identity.

It is hard see from our current perspective just how revolutionary the work of Irma Stern and Mary Stainbank was to the conservative South African viewers and critics of their time. At that time (1920s) the use of the black person as a subject in art was hotly debated not only in  South Africa but also in Britain.

In 1926, the Durban based industrialist Karl Gundelfinger, donated an annual prize of 20 guineas for the ‘best painting of native life’ This event introduced a move beyond the colonial habit of constructing the ‘other’ as insignificant and degenerate. Gundelfinger’s intended to encourage the direct observation of indigenous peoples, not only to introduce an indigenous subject matter, but also to encourage artists to paint and draw the human figure in an art context ruled by landscape painting. This annual event helped to the lift the taboo that had existed in South Africa until about 1928 to use a black person as subject matter. Much interest in African and South African indigenous cultures emerged at this time.

However, both Stainbank’s and Stern’s work of indigenous black people, despite being representational albeit simplified and stylised, were also severely criticised by a literally minded audience who expected the art work to be a representation of a specific life-situation, and described by a suitably literal title. These works were not fully ‘abstract’; but certainly displayed modernist characteristics such as simplification, exaggeration and stylisation, features that the conservative South African audience found intolerable.

Helen Sebidi – The Child’s Mother Holds the Sharp Side of the Knife

During these years black artists were mostly neglected due to lack of training and resources, as well as a supportive gallery system. It is almost paradoxical that while  the white artists were looking for inspiration to traditional African Art, during the same time, it coincided with the phenomenon of Township Art – a wave of unprecedented productivity by black urban artists, whose art was characterised by the urge to identify with Western realistic tradition. In the nature of their themes, however, the township artists displayed a social consciousness and humanism, as opposed to the more abstract forms and followed instead figurative directions.

From 1950s

From the 1950s and especially during the 1960s the quest for identity had become a universal concern. It was spurred on both by greater awareness of the contemporary international art scene and by a growing consciousness of the dissimilarities in physical surroundings, cultural ethos and sociological habit, which distinguished the experience of South African Artists from that of their counterparts in Europe or the USA.

Although South African artists were influenced by International Art Movements there were other forces operating in their own environment that were pertinent to their particular situation. South African Artists searched for a closer identification with the traditional spirit of Africa itself, reflected in the ritual sculpture and surviving lore of tribal cultures. It was not so much the romance and mystique of Africa, as the character and essence of the African experience that South African artists of this period sought to realise in their paintings.

Questions arose for many South African artists; if the artist desired to be true to his personal experience, could he/she validly express themselves in idioms identical to to those of London, or New York, or Paris? Yet, in failing to to adopt the new international trends, were they not denying their awareness of their generation and their age?The questions were not just academic; nor were they limited to art alone. They reflected the dilemma of South African society. Not identical to in character or outlook with North Atlantic nations of the West, nor identical in populace or ethos with traditionalAfrica = Who were we? … What were our spiritual and moral anchors? … Where do we belong?

Alexis Preller. Hieratic Women 1955-57.

Most of the White artists who began their careers during the fifties were members of urbanised communities, they tended to be more preoccupied with the manipulation of form than with their urban lives and patterns of experience. However, associated with the search for personal commitment that gathered urgency during the next decade, there came about a reassessment of the role of content in a work of art, and a subtle alteration in the nature of the themes explored.

The signs were pointing to a growing humanism in South African expression. Those born just before or during World War II tended to steer away from pure abstraction and to search for figurative forms through which they might express their humanist inclinations.

Cecil Skotnes, “Visit to the battle site”, 1974

The idioms employed in the new figurative styles were quite unlike the former realist conventions and their messages were frequently encoded in unconventional symbolic forms. Although we may not easily recognise the objective sources of their subject matter, we cannot fail to be aware of the dramatic emphasis in all their work on the human condition and predicament – on human relationships, on pain, on isolation and on the desensitising and depersonalising influence of the modern technological environment.

Some examples of artists in the category;

Irma Stern

Walter Battiss

Cecil Skotnes

Sydney Kumalo

Alexis Preller

Helen Sebidi

Mary Stainbank

Edoardo Villa

Gavin Younge

Some Influences

San Rock Art

African tribal art

Ndebele architecture & wall decoration

Fauvism

German Expressionism

Cubism

Pop Art

New Abstraction and OP Art

References

Contemporary African Art – The Modernists
http://www.contemporary-african-art.com/south-african-modernists.html#sthash.o8GjtijL.dpuf

Esme Berman – Painting in South Africa, 1993, Southern Book Publishers

Chess In London
http://chessaleeinlondon.wordpress.com/page/4/?archives-list&archives-type=cats

Leslie Back, Memories of Irma Stern
http://www.showcook.com/2011/travel-culture/memories-of-irma-stern-by-leslie-back/

BE Liebenberg – Mary Stainbank, Modernism and the ‘Spirit of Africa’
http://scnc.ukzn.ac.za/doc/ARTS/ART/Liebenberg_BE_Mary_Steinbank_modernism_Spirit_of_Africa.pdf

Rsaart’s Blog
http://rsaart.wordpress.com/

SouthAfrica.info
http://www.southafrica.info/about/arts/art.htm#ixzz1n0qmw0Zs