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.
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)
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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;
San Rock Art
African tribal art
Ndebele architecture & wall decoration
New Abstraction and OP Art
Contemporary African Art – The Modernists
Esme Berman – Painting in South Africa, 1993, Southern Book Publishers
Leslie Back, Memories of Irma Stern
BE Liebenberg – Mary Stainbank, Modernism and the ‘Spirit of Africa’