Archive for the ‘Visual Arts Theory Sections’ Category

Spiritual Expression in the Romantic Era

In Romantic art, nature—with its uncontrollable power, unpredictability, and potential for cataclysmic extremes—offered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought.

 “… all that stuns the soul, all that imprints a feeling of terror, leads to the sublime.” –  Denis Diderot

In French and British painting of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the recurrence of images of shipwrecks and other representations of man’s struggle against the awesome power of nature illustrates this view. The Raft of the Medusa became an icon of the emerging Romantic style.

The Raft Of The Medusa,1819, Theodore Gericault

William Blake

William Blake, He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.

William Blake (1757-1827) is a mystical artist and poet whose work was born out of authentic spiritual vision. Against all authority, he devised his own personal mythology to illustrate his mystical view of the universe.  He was one of the most original visual artists of the Romantic era. Whereas notable contemporaries such as J. M. W. Turner and John Constable found the subjects of their art in the landscape, Blake sought his (primarily figural) subjects in journeys of the mind.


Born in London in 1757 into a working-class family with strong nonconformist religious beliefs, Blake first studied art as a boy, at the drawing academy of Henry Pars. He served a five-year apprenticeship with the commercial engraver James Basire before entering the Royal Academy Schools as an engraver at the age of twenty-two. His conventional training was supplemented by his private study of medieval and Renaissance art, Blake sought to emulate the example of artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Dürer in producing timeless, “Gothic” art, infused with Christian spirituality and created with poetic genius. (Ref)

Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the Church of England – indeed, to all forms of organised religion – Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions, as well as by such thinkers as Jakob Böhme and Emanuel Swedenborg.

William Blake, The Ancient of Days Setting a Compass Upon the Face of the Earth ( Proverbs, viii. 27), Frontispiece to “Europe: a Prophecy,” printed 1794


Blake did not like oils , but devised a wholly original method of “relief etching,” which creates a single, raised printing surface for both text and image. The relief-etching of the illuminated books such as Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), along with the line-engraving or intaglio printing of the illustrations of the Book of Job (1825) and Dante (unfinished at his death), utilize different and opposite techniques: as such they can be interpreted on the one hand as representing the visionary form and spiritual unity of Blake’s imagination and on the other, the power of pure line engraving to evoke tradition and the perfect union of style and content. (Ref)

His illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. He then etched the plates in acid to dissolve the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief (hence the name). This is a reversal of the usual method of etching, where the lines of the design are exposed to the acid, and the plate printed by the intaglio method, designed to facilitate the mechanical reproduction of images for mass consumption. (Ref)

Pouring Acid onto a Copper Plate: Blake’s Relief Etching Method

 His technique tries marry form and content, body and soul.

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

William Blake, Jerusalem

Blake described his technique as “fresco,” using oil and tempera paints mixed with chalks, Blake painted the design onto a flat surface (a copperplate or piece of millboard), from which he pulled the prints simply by pressing a sheet of paper against the damp paint. He finished the designs in ink and watercolor, making each, rare, impression unique, using yellow ochre, green, and raw sienna pigments mostly in the early years, which were the least expensive pigments in London at the time

Relief-etched plate on the bed of the press and impression before watercolors and pen and ink finishing.

Relief etching allowed Blake to control all aspects of a book’s production: he composed the verses, designed the illustrations, printed the plates, coloured each sheet by hand, and bound the pages together in covers. The resulting “illuminated books” were written in a range of forms—prophecies, emblems, pastoral verses, biblical satire, and children’s books—and addressed various contemporary subjects—poverty, child exploitation, racial inequality, slavery, tyranny, religious hypocrisy.

Although Blake has become most famous for his relief etching, his commercial work largely consisted of intaglio engraving, the standard process of engraving in the 18th century.

Blake’s Vision

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun (1805) is one of a series of illustrations of Revelation

He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star. – William Blake

William Blake who had experienced visions since his childhood, and throughout his life can be described as a mystic, but he also had an amazing insight into contemporary economics, politics and culture, and was able to discern the effects of the authoritarianism of church and state as well as what he considered the arid philosophy of a rationalist view of the world which left little scope for the imagination. He abhorred the way in which Christians looked up to a God enthroned in heaven, a view which offered a model for a hierarchical human politics, which subordinated the majority to a superior elite. He thus challenged this depiction of God as a remote monarch and lawgiver, and the use made of such imagery to justify authoritarianism. (Ref)

“May God us keep from Single vision and Newton’s sleep.” Blake

Newton (1795-1805)

He also criticised the dominant philosophy of his day which believed that a narrow view of sense experience could help us to understand everything that there was to be known.

“Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets”, he wrote, thereby including everyone in the task of speaking out about what they saw. Prophecy for Blake, was not a prediction of the end of the world, but telling the truth as best a person can about what he or she sees. (Ref)

Spirit of a Flea

Swedenborg’s theory that natural phenomena actually represent, or rather shadow, unseen spiritual conditions and existence can be seen as reflected in much of Blake’s work.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things through narrow chinks in his cavern.” – William Blake 

To Blake all things exist in the human imagination,” and “in every bosom a universe expands.” He believed that in the human imagination lay man’s only source of divine illumination. Blake used his visions as the inspiration for his art.

The Crucifixion: `Behold Thy Mother’ (1805), William Blake

His Influence

Blake’s apocalyptic and revolutionary beliefs, as expressed in his art, never found a popular audience during his lifetime and he was considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views.  His paintings and poetry have been characterised as part of the Romantic movement and “Pre-Romantic”. Although Blake struggled to make a living from his work during his lifetime his influence and ideas are possibly the strongest of all the Romantic poets and artists on the twentieth century.

Blake’s work was neglected for a generation after his death and almost forgotten when Alexander Gilchrist began work on his biography in the 1860s. The publication of the Life of William Blake rapidly transformed Blake’s reputation, in particular as he was taken up by Pre-Raphaelites, in particular Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

While Blake had a significant role to play in the art and poetry of figures such as Rossetti, it was during the Modernist period that this work began to influence a wider set of writers and artists.  William Butler Yeats, who edited an edition of Blake’s collected works in 1893, drew on him for poetic and philosophical ideas, while British surrealist art in particular drew on Blake’s conceptions of non-mimetic, visionary practice in the painting of artists such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland.

William Blake, Time

William Blake, Time

After World War II, Blake’s role in popular culture came to the fore in a variety of areas such as popular music, film, and the graphic novel.Blake had an enormous influence on the beat poets of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s, frequently being cited by such seminal figures as beat poet Allen Ginsberg, songwriters Bob Dylan, Pete Doherty, Jim Morrison, Van Morrison, and English writer Aldous Huxley.

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin “Christ in the Garden of Olives” 1889

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin ( 1848 – 1903) was known for his experimental use of colors in the Synthetist style and the closely related movement Cloisonnist style which was directed at the appearance of forms. Line and colour, as well as the artist’s personal response to those forms was integral in Synthetism. Sythetism placed emphasis on the two dimensional plane that were influential to the French avant-garde and many modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

The Yellow Christ (Le Christ jaune), 1889

His  The Yellow Christ (1889), is often cited as a quintessential cloisonnist work. Gauguin reduced the image to areas of single colors separated by heavy black outlines. In such works he paid little attention to classical perspective and boldly eliminated subtle gradations of colour.

The yellow color links Christ to the landscape… The agricultural cycle is seen as a parallel to the religious cycle of Christian life – birth, life, death, and rebirth in Heaven. It also follows more specifically the Passion Cycle of Christ: fall, when crops are harvested, would be equivalent to the crucifixion; then follows winter, when nothing grows, parallel to Christ’s three days in the tomb; and finally springtime arrives, when everything comes back to life, a celebration like Christ’s resurrection.” (Ref)

Gauguin was also an important figure in the Symbolist movement as a painter, sculptor, print-maker, ceramist, and writer. The major themes of the Symbolist movement expressed longings for transfiguration “anywhere, out of the world” and  is related to the gothic component of Romanticism. Symbolism was a reaction against naturalism and realism, anti-idealistic styles which were attempts to represent reality as it is, and to elevate the humble and the ordinary over the ideal. Symbolism was a reaction in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams.This name came from the artists’ desire to create art that symbolizes thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In the late 1800s, the idea of painting to convey emotion rather than physical reality was truly revolutionary. (Ref)

Machinery Section at the Great Exhibition of 1851

The Industrial Revolution began in England in the middle of the 18th Centuary,and by the late 1800s the automobile, airplane, camera, and telephone were invented. As the industrial age, Western society witnessed a significant change – the birth of sprawling cities, urban culture, mechanized production, and an increasing emphasis on capitalism. It was in this time that the modernist movement also came about, questioning the new world order that industry and machinery were creating. Many modernists noted that modern society has also been industrialized in a sense, and that personal lives had degraded to an artificial, mechanized, and impersonal routine. (Ref)

Industrial Revolution Landscape

Unlike the Impressionist artists before him, Gauguin was a member of a group of painters and poets who sought to escape the stress of the modernizing world. Many Impressionist painters created scenes of modernity and city life using large brushstrokes and textured surfaces. Gauguin too painted with large brushstrokes and patches of color but instead of depicting European modernity, Gauguin painted serene images of the pre-industrial world which paved the way to Primitivism and the return to the pastoral.

Raro te Oviri, 1891

Spirituality in Gauguin’s Work

Gauguin’s interest in non-European culture was thus part of the nineteenth-century European colonialist interest of “going native” in order to distance themselves from European society and to discover a native “authenticity” through experience and cultural knowledge.  It is within the cultural and political framework of the nineteenth century and the larger movement of spiritual universalism that Gauguin developed a personal interest in non-European forms of spirituality. Gauguin’s association with the Theosophists and his references to Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufi mysticism, and Tahitian religion in his paintings are products of his individual interests as well as products of colonialism. His interest in different religions and spirituality become his primary means of depicting other cultures as well as his own. (Ref)

Spirit of the Dead Watching 1892

In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,
but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.

A common theme among all religions is the need for an origin story. It was this search for origin stories that became a dominant theme to his religious works as well as his self-portraits, and lead him to search out places closer to an idyllic Paradise.

In order to find appropriate subject matter Gauguin traveled to the quaint countryside of Brittany, France, and later to the island of Tahiti and the Marquesas. Gauguin wanted to return to an earlier period of civilization in which mystical rituals and ancestral worship provide a mythical, rather than rational, system of meaning. 

Self-portrait(Gauguin) with Halo 1889

Self-portrait(Gauguin) with Halo 1889

It is suggested that Paul Gauguin’s interest in origins is synonymous with his desire to cast himself in the roles of different religious figures in his paintings, and that his self-portraits and religious works are a means of working out his questions and uncertainty regarding his personal beliefs and spiritual existence. His taking on of other roles and his shifting modes of self representation in self-portraits, writings, and other works provide viewers and readers with a fluid understanding of a man seeking answers to the great questions of existence.

He for example paints Self-Portrait with Halo, which recalls the Christian creation narrative in Genesis through the symbols of the snake and apples, and casts himself in the dominant role. As Gauguin had a lifelong interest in questions of identity, it is reasonable to interpret his symbolic role-play as a form of identity exploration. Gauguin, however, never places himself within his Tahitian scenes of landscape, daily life, or religious ceremonies. His choices to include himself in his Christian works and to remove himself from his Tahitian paintings shows his role as ethnographic observer; a witness rather than a participant. Although Gauguin removes himself from Europe and the European settlement in Tahiti, he calls attention to his identity as a European within a foreign colony on account of his status, appearance, and relationship with the native population. (Ref)

White Horse, 1891

Gauguin painted the White Horse during his second stay in Tahiti. He liked to roam through the countryside and explore the mountains and forests of the interior. These out-of-the-way places swarmed with all sorts of wildlife and plants which enchanted him. (Ref)

Analysis from Musée d’Orsay

This scene was however, not taken from real life; it is an imaginary, synthetic vision of a Tahitian landscape. The contorted branches of a native tree called bourao, a sort of hibiscus, along with lilies and imaginary flowers in the foreground make a decorative frame for the main motif. The sky and the horizon are locked out of this enclosed space.

A white horse, its coat tinged with the green of the vegetation, has given the painting its title. It is drinking, standing in the middle of a stream which flows vertically through the composition. The solitary animal probably has a symbolic meaning related to the Tahitians’ beliefs about the passage of the soul into another world. In Polynesia, white is associated with death and worship of the gods.

Behind the sacred animal, two nude figures are riding bareback into the distance. The tiered arrangement of these three animated motifs in the landscape accentuates the vertical, flat vision of the scene. To intensify the decorative effect, Gauguin has used a sumptuous palette. The greens – from grass green to emerald – and the deep blues contrast with orange and pink notes and the coppery colour of the riders’ skin.

 An impression of paradisiacal serenity emanates from this canvas which has become a veritable icon. The pharmacist in Tahiti who commissioned the picture did not appreciate Gauguin’s daring use of colour. He refused it on the grounds that the horse was too green.

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897

Gauguin had received a seminary education in his youth. His religious beliefs never deserted him although he increasingly questioned the strictures of the traditional Catholic church.  This questioning reached a peak during his last years in Tahiti – when he was dying, destitute, isolated from the Tahitians because of his illness, and mourning the death of one of his daughters.

Gauguin vowed that he would commit suicide following this painting’s completion. After completing this masterpiece Gauguin failed in his attempt to kill himself and continued to paint for another six years.

The painting is meant to be read as a story – from right to left, with the three major figure groups illustrating the questions posed in the title. Initially, an age of childhood is shown, followed by youthfulness and the daily activities of adulthood. Lastly, on the left-most side, the aged and contemplative is shown as a final stage in life. The painting is also rich with symbolism, which serves to convey more spiritually related messages.

In this work Gauguin asks broad, philosophical questions about identity, meaning, and the afterlife. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? This painting can also be seen as a composite work that incorporates figure studies, religious imagery, and animals all within a Tahitian landscape. The title of the work and Gauguin’s own religious and cultural position support the interpretation that the painting is the culmination of his personal research into with unfamiliar cultures and religious beliefs.

The central figure reaching above his head for an apple from the Tree of Life and recalls Adam or Eve in a pastoral setting, suggesting that the painting it is a type of Tahitian Genesis scene. The Christian idea that all human folly originates from this singular moment explains why Gauguin placed the figure in the center of the canvas. The figure and the scene from Genesis directly answer Gauguin’s first question for followers of the Christian faith. (Ref)

Similarly, Gauguin incorporates figure groups from his other canvases to form a pastiche. The nude figures in the lower right of the painting can also be seen to form a nativity scene complete with animals, and this group continues the theme of society’s origins. Jesus becomes a second Adam whose birth leads to the redemption of humankind and represents his own beginning on earth. Gauguin also includes an homage to artistic origins, citing Degas’ bathers by including the two crouching nude figures whose backs are turned toward the viewer. Although Gauguin incorporates fragments of other works of his own and others, the painting itself is a complete work with the unifying theme of a search for meaning. It also refers to the Gnostic belief in second baptism.

He attempts to reconcile the uncertainty of human origin and the fate of the soul in a way that traditionally derives from one’s religious beliefs. Gauguin’s curiosity about being and his engagement with other cultures led him to explore meaning through the archetypal symbols of religion. Although Gauguin believed that Christ’s model was an ideal one for humans to emulate, he did not believe that Christ was the only such model. He believed, for example, that Buddha was another ideal example of what humanity could become.

Visually, Gauguin includes figures from the story of Christian origin, the Hindu pantheon, and Tahitian religion. It is possible that the idol in the background is possibly not a Tahitian religious artifact, but another icon (probably Buddha-inspired) as by the time Gauguin arrived in Tahiti, “virtually nothing remained of the ancient Tahitian religion and mythology…” and the predominant religion was Christianity through missionary work. Gauguin however, was familiar with Tahitian cosmology and refers to particular deities in his writings and art, so that Scholars generally assume that the figure is the goddess Hina whose mystical union with Ta’aroa results in the birth of the universe.

This indicates that Gauguin had ignored the fact that Christianity was the dominant religion, and sought to represent the spiritual beliefs of the ‘primitive’ people through an idol that is less familiar to Western society. In a way, he is trying to allude towards the original, untouched spiritual culture and religion of the Tahitians before the process of colonization began. (Ref)

Gauguin also uses unconventional images and style as a means of rebelling the dogma he decried in his letters and notebooks. The backdrop of the painting, especially in the right half, seems to be clearly out of proportion with flattened areas and a lack of three-dimensional space. This is in fact a method Gauguin employs to abstract away from nature and express his primitivism.

He uses lack of natural scale to convey the state of the mind, rather than a physical observation – he is abstracting away from nature to express his feelings and emotions. This can be viewed as the early age of abstract expressionism and the Symbolist movement in which the goal is emotional expression and the odd proportions are a tool for achieving it

By contrasting and balancing western illusionism with non-western patterning, uniting Christian and non-Christian religious symbols, using religious morality tales as vehicles for narratives about eroticism and the abundance of nature.  Gauguin breaks open myths which are well-known, uses their structure but fills them with contradictory and new meanings.  Through his radical treatment of color, shape, and myth, he becomes a model for the 20th-century abstraction of Kandinsky and the later 20th-century surrealist goals of revitalizing mythology. (Ref)

Wassily Kandinsky, “Rider of the Apocalypse”. 1911


Expressionism developed during a period of history that saw Germany undergo severe social, political, and economic dislocation following the country’s defeat in World War I.  There was a widespread feeling of anxiety, a feeling of loss of authenticity and spirituality. German Expressionism conveyed a feeling of chaos through dark violent images that reflected the state of mind of both the artist and society in general.

They depicted the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality. Abstraction’ stood for metaphysical anxiety, and primordial psychic anguish associated with jarring formations and non representational, abstract art. (Ref)

Crucifixion, Nolde, Emil [German, 1912

From 1911 European avant-garde art was divided between two needs: the need for individual subjective expressiveness and a striving for order in a time of pending chaos.  Both needs were rooted in a desire to escape through an inward journey into feelings or to an ideal structure. Both needs were part of the culture shock that swept Europe at the beginning of the century, as the implications of the Industrialization were sinking in.  The avant-garde artists tried to create a new language to respond to these needs: the Cubists searched for a near scientific logic to the construction of the world and the Expressionists sought the answer in the irrational and a return to a more primal spiritual state. (Ref)

For the Expressionists, art and religion were closely intertwined, as both involved surrender to an inner, spiritual energy and a preoccupation with the human soul. Although they lived in an age of intellectual skepticism and philosophical nihilism, the Expressionists were still drawn repeatedly to the Christian themes and motifs that had shaped German life and culture for centuries.

A desire to comprehend events in spiritual terms was reflected in the artists’ recurrent images of prophets and seers, and the belief that theirs was an age of apocalyptic transformation manifested itself in various archetypally Christian motifs of creation and rebirth. The incomprehensible horror of World War I led several artists to turn to Biblical themes of salvation and redemption, and to the woodcut technique, which had a strong association with German medieval and Renaissance religious imagery. (Ref)

There were two schools of German Expressionism. Whereas Die Brücke (The Bridge) focused on the depicting the spiritual inner struggle, Der Blaue Reiter, (The Blue Rider) spiritual depictions were of a more mystical nature.

Where the Brücke artists used distortion to signal tensions in the artist and sharpen viewers’ responses, Blaue Reiter artists typically wished to involve us in a more meditative communication. Whereas some of the Brücke artists wished to be seen as 20th-century Germans developing a truly German art in a country too long dominated by French values and manner, the Blaue Reiter circle was of its nature international, and viewed art in global, even eternal terms. Der Blaue Reiter was defined by its focus on the spiritual and also on a more personal experience of art. For these artists, synthesis meant the unity of stylistic development in terms of color, which was linked to mysticism. (Ref)

Der Blaue Reiter combined two currents: the general European Expressionism and French Fauvism and added to these currents an interest in inner and mystical construction, stemming from Theosophy.  Despite the close affinity between Der Blaue Reiter and the Fauves, the approach to art making was radically different—the French artists were more interested in a formal extension of Post-Impressionism while the German artists were interested in mysticism.  (Ref)

Max Beckmann, Descent from the Cross, 1917

In this work, painted in the midst of a seemingly never-ending war,  Max Beckmann focuses on corporeal suffering. His controlled application of color conveys the lifelessness of Jesus’s body, which is covered in bruises and still mirrors the shape of the cross in its rigor mortis. Black blood pools around the gaping holes of the stigmata. Beckmann was influenced by the exaggerated depictions of bodily decay and torment he saw in medieval German paintings. (Ref)

Emil Nolde, Christ and the Children, 1910

Emil Nolde’s heavily textured brushwork conveys the intensity of religious belief. He contrasts the innocent faith of the children, who all appear in rich, warm tones, with the restrained and cool blues of the skeptics to Christ’s left. (Ref)

Otto Dix, The Nun, 1914

Otto Dix portrays a nun’s internal struggle between her hope for eventual heavenly rewards and her desire for immediate worldly pleasures. The jarring, acidic colors on the nun’s face and hands contrast sharply with the anguish and torment conveyed by her downcast eyes and furrowed brow. The deep lines and fractured planes of her face parallel the soaring vaults of the Gothic cathedral. (Ref)

"Der Blaue Reiter" (The Blue Rider), painted 1903 by Wassily Kandinsky

“Der Blaue Reiter” (The Blue Rider), painted 1903 by Wassily Kandinsky

Der Blaue Reiter, led by Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, wanted to create the blueprints for an enlightened and liberated society which emphasized spirituality as opposed to cold industrialization.

Marc and Kandinsky shared similar ideas on art: both believed that true art should possess a spiritual dimension. For Marc the spiritual aspect of art was more concerned with representing the inner soul of a being, and Kandinsky represented the spiritual by abstract means.

Franz Marc, Blue Horses, 1911

Franz Marc, Blue Horses, 1911

In Blue Horses also called The Large Blue Horses the simplified and rounded outlines of the horses are echoed in the rhythms of the landscape background, uniting both animals and setting into a energetic and harmonious organic whole. Like the Byzantine religious icons which Marc was familiar with, which were meant as an aid for the worshipper in prayer, and an encouragement to contemplate the life of the saint or the biblical figure depicted, Marc invites the viewer to connect with the animals in his paintings and to contemplate the spiritual beauty that he strove to depict.

His paintings are, more often than not, devoid of humans as though it is an animal-only world. When viewing it, humans are allowed to become a part of the work it, since the viewpoint is often at the level of the animal. The viewer is given the chance to get closer to the animals in his paintings and experience their beauty. Marc’s compositions, especially those before the influence of Orphism and Futurism, are often formed by a sculptural mass of animals at the centre of the picture plane, with curved lines dominating in order to underline the sense of harmony, peace, and balance.

Die Grossen Blauen Pferde (The Large Blue Horses) demonstrates this compositional technique, and together all of these elements further emphasise the spiritual beauty of the animals depicted.

I am trying to intensify my feeling for the organic rhythm of all things, to achieve pantheistic empathy with the throbbing and flowing of nature’s bloodstream in trees, in animals, in the air. Franz Marc

Marc was a deeply religious person and his depiction of animals and nature reflects this “pantheistic empathy,” which is the belief that beauty is equated with God, and that God is present in nature and all substance. Marc uses animals as his chosen means of expression just as the human figure was for Michelangelo. Marc was primarily concerned with representing the spirit and thus the beauty of the animals, in order to represent a sense of the pantheistic.

Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay and spiritual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour to be opposed and overcome by the other two.

Franz Marc painted animals in symbolic colors, especially the primary colors: red, yellow and blue.  Marc devised an elaborate theory of art and its colors—blue was masculine and spiritual and yellow was female and joyful—and used them to indicate the inner life of the animals, not the animals themselves.

Franz Marc, The Tiger

He did however on occasion deviate from strictly sticking to this in for example The Tiger which is depicted in yellow but the sense of playfulness and joy, as outlined in Marc’s colour theory, is far from the mood evoked. In this painting it is the geometrical composition and angular shapes and lines which dominate as opposed to colour. Marc has used shapes and lines here in order to convey the sense of terror. This was perhaps necessary when his colour theory did not allow for sinister moods or emotions to be represented. (Ref)

Franz Marc, 1913, The Tower of Blue Horses

In contrast, the Turm der Blauen Pferde (Tower of Blue Horses) (1913; missing since the Second World War and known today through reproductions considered to be one of his masterpieces), is exemplary of Marc’s dogmatic application of his colour theory. The Tower of Blue Horses draws strength in its unification of colour and composition. His belief in blue as the “male principle, stern, and spiritual” is here underlined through the verticality of the composition, which emphasises male virility and strength, yet still maintains a sense of elegance and spirituality.

Franz Marc, The Trees Show their Rings, the Animals their Veins, 1913

Around 1912 and the years leading up to the First World War, his work and representations of animals began changing. The animals within  these compositions become smaller and are often spread out; the sense of calm and contemplation is absent since the picture plane begins to be cut up and divided by lines and geometric forms through the influence of Cubism, Futurism, and Orphism. There are more evidence of human life, as in The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol as Marc’s idealised animal kingdom begins to give way to reality.  Animal Destinies, The Trees Show their Rings, the Animals their Veins, 1913 typifies this period. (Ref)

This work is also characteristic of the sense of apocalypse and doom which began to taint Marc’s work at this time and could be related to his feelings on the impending war. In a 1915 letter to his wife Maria, Marc explains that this change in his art occurred because he began to see the ugliness in animals which he had previously thought only existed in humans. He states that he was no longer able to see the beauty which animals had once represented for him.

The animal motifs which once conveyed a sense of emotion no longer held their appeal and possibility. The application of paint and the division of the
picture plane through the use of lines and geometric shapes now carried the emotional charge previously conveyed by animals. This change may be related to Marc’s ideas on the impending war. Marc no longer saw animals as separate entities in their own perfect kingdom, as he had once represented them. At the point when Marc began to identify the ugliness in animals, he recognised them as part of the universe which man also inhabited and which was in need of redemption. (Ref)

In Marc’s very final works before the outbreak of the First World War, it is extremely difficult to identify any animals, since non-representational form and abstraction have taken over. Fighting Forms is dominated by two swirling shapes, one red and the other black. Some claims that the red form on the left is an abstracted the image of an eagle with beak-like and claw-like shapes. If this had been Marc’s intention, it would seem, therefore, that even when his art appears to be the furthest from his earlier representations, the use of animals as emblems of emotions and expression is still prevalent. The image of war is thus perhaps represented here by a bird of prey and the conflict in the contrasting colour shapes.(Ref)

Fighting Forms may be viewed as a composition on violence and, have lost the “prettiness and polish” of his earlier works. His identification of the harsh realities of the world, led him to depict what he believed to be purer and more beautiful than man, namely animals. Since at the end of his career Marc could no longer recognise the beauty and purity in animals, as he had once been able to, and with his country on the threshold of war, it seems that he could no longer create an idealised world but had to bow to reality.In 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War (1914-18) Marc volunteered for military service, and in 1916 was killed in action, at the age of 36. (Ref)

Franz Marc – Fighting Forms

Like Marc, Wassily Kandinsky believed that colors had symbolic meanings, but his theories stemmed from his readings of Theosophy, especially those of Rudolf Steiner, a follower of Madame Blavatsky.  Involved in the realm of the spiritual, Kandinsky ceased to even see reality itself and he replaced the objects that once populated his paintings with his “inner aspiration,” which led to his development of pure abstraction. (Ref)

Theosophy influenced many late-19th- and early-20th-century artists. The Theosophical Society, was founded 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Kandinsky’s belief in the spiritual power of art, and that the artist was a kind of messiah or prophet (or even magician) whose job it was to communicate a higher truth to humanity, stem from Theosophy. The Theosophy philosophical or religious teaching encouraged mystical insight into the nature of God and the world through direct knowledge, philosophical speculation, or a physical process, such as painting. Deeper spiritual – , or  transcendental states were achieved through intuition, meditation, and other practices, common to many mystical belief systems.

‘Our minds are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal. The nightmare of materialism which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip.‘ Kandinsky

To Kandinsky colours on the painter’s palette evoke a double effect: a purely physical effect on the eye and a deeper effect, causing a vibration of the soul or an “inner resonance”—a spiritual effect in which the colour touches the soul itself.

For example; yellow is a typically terrestrial colour, whose violence can be painful and aggressive. Blue is a celestial colour, evoking a deep calm. The combination of blue and yellow yields total immobility and calm, which is green. For him clarity is a tendency towards white, and obscurity is a tendency towards black. White is a deep, absolute silence, full of possibility. Black is nothingness without possibility, an eternal silence without hope, and corresponds with death. The mixing of white with black leads to gray, which possesses no active force and whose tonality is near that of green. Gray corresponds to immobility without hope; it tends to despair when it becomes dark, regaining little hope when it lightens.

In his writings, Kandinsky also analyzed the geometrical elements which make up every painting—the point and the line. He called the physical support and the material surface on which the artist draws or paints the basic plane, or BP. He did not analyze them objectively, but from the point of view of their inner effect on the observer.

A point is a small bit of colour put by the artist on the canvas. It is neither a geometric point nor a mathematical abstraction; it is extension, form and colour. This form can be a square, a triangle, a circle, a star or something more complex. The point is the most concise form but, according to its placement on the basic plane, it will take a different tonality. It can be isolated or resonate with other points or lines.

For example; a horizontal line corresponds with the ground on which man rests and moves; it possesses a dark and cold affective tonality similar to black or blue. A vertical line corresponds with height, and offers no support; it possesses a luminous, warm tonality close to white and yellow. A diagonal possesses a more-or-less warm (or cold) tonality, according to its inclination toward the horizontal or the vertical.

Wassily Kandinsky, Blue Mountain (Der blaue Berg), 1908–09

Wassily Kandinsky, Blue Mountain (Der blaue Berg), 1908–09

Wassily Kandinsky’s use of the horse-and-rider motif symbolized his crusade against conventional aesthetic values and his dream of a better, more spiritual future through the transformative powers of art.

In 1909, the year he completed Blue Mountain, Kandinsky painted no less than seven other canvases with images of riders. In that year his style became increasingly abstract and expressionistic and his thematic concerns shifted from the portrayal of natural events to apocalyptic narratives. By 1910 many of his abstract canvases shared a common literary source, the Revelation of Saint John the Divine; the rider came to signify the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who will bring epic destruction after which the world will be redeemed.

The Apocalypse is a common theme among Kandinsky’s first seven Compositions. Writing of the “artist as prophet” in his book, Concerning the Spiritual In Art, Kandinsky created paintings in the years immediately preceding World War I showing a coming cataclysm which would alter individual and social reality. Raised an Orthodox Christian, Kandinsky drew upon the Jewish and Christian stories of Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the whale, Christ’s resurrection, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelation, Russian folktales and the common mythological experiences of death and rebirth. Never attempting to picture any one of these stories as a narrative, he used their veiled imagery as symbols of the archetypes of death–rebirth and destruction–creation he felt were imminent in the pre-World War I world. (Ref)

kadinsky 28

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 28 (second version), 1912

In both Sketch for Composition II and Improvisation 28 (second version), Kandinsky depicted, through highly schematized means, cataclysmic events on one side of the canvas and the paradise of spiritual salvation on the other. In Improvisation 28, for instance, images of a boat and waves (signaling the global deluge), a serpent, and, perhaps, cannons emerge on the left, while an embracing couple, shining sun, and celebratory candles appear on the right. (Ref)

Wassily Kandinsky, Great Resurrection (Grosse Auferstehung) (plate, folio 52) from Klänge (Sounds), 1913

In Great Resurrection, Kandinsky combined Bavarian and Russian folk imagery with an abstracted visual language to create this frenzied scene of the Last Judgment. In the upper left, an angel trumpets the coming apocalypse. In the lower right, a kneeling decapitated figure, holding its head aloft, returns to life as foretold in the Book of Revelation. (Ref)

Composition IV and later paintings are primarily concerned with evoking a spiritual resonance in viewer and artist.  he had intended the work to evoke a flood, baptism, destruction, and rebirth simultaneously. As in his painting of the apocalypse by water (Composition VI), Kandinsky puts the viewer in the situation of experiencing these epic myths by translating them into contemporary terms (with a sense of desperation, flurry, urgency, and confusion). This spiritual communion of viewer-painting-artist/prophet may be described within the limits of words and images. (Ref)

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913

Composition VII is the pinnacle of Kandinsky’s pre-World War One artistic achievement. The creation of this work involved over thirty preparatory drawings, watercolors and oil studies, documenting the deliberate creative process used by Kandinsky in his compositions. Through all of the preparatory works and in the final painting itself, the central motif (an oval form intersected by an irregular rectangle) is maintained. This oval seems almost the eye of a compositional hurricane, surrounded by swirling masses of color and form. In Composition VII’s  final form, Kandinsky has obliterated almost all pictorial representation. Art scholars, through Kandinsky’s writings and study of the less abstract preparatory works, have determined that Composition VII combines the themes of The Resurrection, The Last Judgment, The Deluge and The Garden of Love. (Ref)

Tapestry, Christ in Glory, designed by Graham Sutherland, 1950s – 19662

After the Second World War spirituality and religion became disconnected. A new discourse developed, in which (humanistic) psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions are being blended, to reach the true self by self-disclosure, free expression and meditation.

The distinction between the spiritual and the religious became more common in the popular mind during the late 20th century with the rise of secularism and the advent of the New Age movement.

Francis Bacon’s (1909 – 1992) provocative and disturbing images carry a raw sense of anxiety and alienation. They reflect that existential fear, loathing and incomprehension at the atrocities of the Holocaust that came to light at the end of World War Two. Bacon’s art was seen as a metaphor for the corruption of the human spirit in the post World War Two era.

Painting is the pattern of one’s own nervous system being projected on canvas’. Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944

In 1944, one of the most devastating years of World War II, Francis Bacon painted Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. In this  triptych depicting anthropomorphic creatures writhing in anguish, Bacon established his reputation as one of England’s foremost figurative painters and a ruthless chronicler of the human condition. During the ensuing years, certain disturbing subjects recurred in Bacon’s oeuvre: disembodied, almost faceless portraits; mangled bodies resembling animal carcasses; images of screaming figures; and idiosyncratic versions of the Crucifixion. (Ref)

The three ‘figures’, bestial mutations of the human form, were Bacon’s interpretation of the Furies: the three goddesses of vengeance (Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone) from Greek mythology. Their task was to punish crimes that were beyond human justice. Bacon painted the work at the end of World War Two, as the accounts of the Nazi death camps were beginning to emerge. The three deformed ‘Figures’ were a metaphor for the corruption of the human spirit and the artist’s revulsion at man’s inhumanity to man. (Ref)

Picasso “Bathers with a Toy Boat”. 1937

The form of the Furies is borrowed directly from Picasso’s late 1920s and mid-1930s pictures of biomorphs on beaches, in particular from the Spanish artist’s The Bathers (1937). 

The theme reflects human suffering on a universal scale while also addressing individual pain. The Crucifixion appeared in Bacon’s work as early as 1933. Even though he was an avowedly irreligious man, Bacon viewed the Crucifixion as a “magnificent armature” from which to suspend “all types of feeling and sensation.”The crucifixion in Bacon’s work is a “generic name for an environment in which bodily harm is done to one or more persons and one or more other persons gather to watch.” (Ref)

For Bacon there was a connection between the brutality of slaughterhouses and the Crucifixion. Bacon believed that animals in slaughterhouses suspect their ultimate fate. Seeing a parallel current in the human experience, as symbolized by the Crucifixion in that it represents the inevitability of death; “we are meat, we are potential carcasses.” (Ref)

The triptych, was a devotional format that was first used in Christian altarpieces. Bacon used this form of display for two reasons. First, exhibiting such despairingly secular subjects in a religious format could only be viewed, in the context of the time, as a calculated act of desecration that would amplify the shock value and emotive response to his images. Secondly, the adjacent frames of a triptych arrangement allow Bacon to conduct a kind of abstract or psychological narrative between the consecutive images. The idea to use a triptych format was probably inspired by the expressionist paintings of Max Beckmann which Bacon would have seen in Berlin.

Francis Bacon, ‘Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X’, 1953(oil on canvas)

If Velazquez’s ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ portrays the public face of power while hinting at the private flaws of the man behind it, then Bacon’s ‘Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ broadcasts his inner psychoses.

Bacon’s Pope inhabits an ethereal world of perpetual torment – a living hell from which there is no escape. He is paralysed with pain and fear, and jolted with shocks from his golden throne which has been transformed from a symbol of authority into an instrument of torture. The composition reaches its focal point as a primal scream shrieks from the pope’s mouth. This scream echoes back to birth expressionist art – ‘The Scream’ of Edvard Munch. (Ref)

Francis Bacon’s art is full of paradox – he both repulses and seduces his audience simultaneously. He repulses them with his shocking subject matter, however, he also seduces them by the rich sensual qualities of his beautiful paint surface with its rich brushwork and expressive colour.

The same kind of contradiction confounds his subject matter. While ‘Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ attacks the authority of the Catholic Church, the social and religious establishment of his Irish childhood, it is also part of an obsessive fascination with its iconography. Bacon, himself, revelled in such ambiguities, ‘The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery………If you can talk about it, why paint it?’ (Ref)

The Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Photo © Robert Lautman

Abstract Expressionism can be divided into two kinds of paintings; Action Painting like Jackson’s Pollock’s paintings, and those that can be called still paintings, or are called Colour Field Painting, like the work of  Mark Rothco.

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko has been called a spiritual and a religious painter, but he is a religious painter for a secular age, providing what the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard called “a space to daydream”. It is a space in which we can contemplate not only the natural grandeur of the world, but the silence and stillness at the core of who we are. (Ref)

“Seeking to represent a spiritual experience, Mark Rothko invoked the power of color in his work.”

Rothko’s rectangles developed after a long maturation process, in which his painting moved from an expressionist-grounded realism, through a surrealism in which classical, mythological, and Christian subjects provided the ground for exploring the unconscious, to the final form he arrived at with his breakthrough work in 1949 that culminated in the dark murals for the Houston chapel, painted between 1964 and 1967—“imageless art that sought great religious and moral depth.” (Ref)

While Rothko was concerned about the moral and religious content of his work from the beginning, his classic period arrived a moment in the history of art and religion in American culture when both were in crisis. Post-war America, in its burst of affluence, was going through what many saw as a secularization process, while art was experiencing a crisis of representation following the exhaustion of Social Realism (William Gropper) and American Scene painting (Thomas Hart Benton).

Rothko’s response was to try to figure his sense of the discomforting of transcendence without figuration, in the pure abstraction of luminous rectangles and their sensuous suggestion of portals, their hint that something existed, perhaps a kind of light, behind the surface. By emptying the canvas of obvious story Rothko could paint a more emotionally accurate “portrait of the soul,” as he sometimes called his paintings.(Ref)

Mark Rothco,

His paintings may appear calm, even serene, inviting restful contemplation, but they are far more demanding. They require sustained attention, and what at first appears to be stillness is actually very alive, almost pulsating in the soft, undefined borders between the colors and the edges of the paintings. The blocks of color invite you into an intimacy that draws you out of yourself, but at the same time the size of the painting requires you to keep your distance. There is the sense of a presence—beyond, behind, within—but it is invisible,  inexpressible.

While the paintings are completely emptied of narrative content, Rothko insisted they were not formally abstract.

I’m not an abstractionist, I’m not interested in relationships of colors or forms or anything else.…I’m interested in only expressing basic human emotions, tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures, are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”

For some viewers, the shimmering rectangles and ambiguous relations between foreground and background, as well as the tensions among the blocks of color, suggest a mystical dialogue between absence and presence. (Ref)

Mark Rothco, No. 14, 1960

The only only valuable subject matter in paintings are the tragic and the timeless. Mark Rothco

In some ways his work serves the same purpose for the mid 20th centuary man as did the Byzantine religious icons for their contemporaries; for spiritual contemplation and focus. His work also evokes the same mood and feeling for his mid 20th centuary contemporaries as the landscapes of German Romantics did in the 19th centuary for their contemporaries. The German Romantics’ work conveyed the sublime through their landscapes where the vastness of nature overpowers man in its smallness; it is at the same time beautiful and terrifying, and it creates a feeling of longing and absence.

The Monk by the Sea (German: by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. It was painted between 1808 and 1810

For Rothco nature, or a beautiful landscape could no longer express the same spiritual feelings in us as it did in the 19th centuary. It could no longer reach us with its religious language. With scientific advancement of the 20th centuary much of nature has become demystified. Powerful beings no longer speak to the modern contemporaries through volcanoes and cascades. For Rothco representational landscape no longer evoked such powerful experiences in us and reflected the spiritual crisis of the times.

He uses a vertical format that is normally used for portrait paintings, whereas horizontal format is used for landscapes, The vertical format is however, divided into horizontal bands, or blocks that can be seen as remnants of the landscape, as for him the non-representational is the only way to evoke the same powerful spiritual feeling in his contemporaries.

His works therefore reflects the sense of the sublime and attempts to speak the unspeakable, to bring the viewer into contact with that which escapes your grasp, that which is beyond things and escapes understanding, creating a strong feeling of yearning reminiscent of the feeling created in the German Romantic landscape. It leaves the viewer with a longing for that which cannot be see, cannot be grasped or understood.

Rothco Chapel, Texas

His paintings (1964 – 1967) for the Rothco Chapel in Texas, appears black at first glance, but with contemplation hues of colour emerges from black. These are said to represent “the unbearable silence of God.” The blackness and figurelessness representing a visual silence.

In a Rothco painting you have three or four different layers of thinly washed paint, hazy blocks of colour on top of colour, all interacting with each other, almost swimming into each other. It is actually not easy to establish what colours are in which layer, which adds to mystical mysteriousness of Rothco’s paintings.

We favour the simple expression of concrete thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for the flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth. Rothco and Motherwell

When you look at a Rothco painting you realize what is meant by the overall, which is often used in regard with the Abstract Expressionist’s paintings. The edges, or sides are of no less importance than the core. You cannot complete your experience of the painting without letting your eye wander all over the surface of the work. It is like being in a zone of no gravity, or a weightless zone.

Like other Abstract Expressionists he did not want his paintings to be framed. A framed painting is understood as an illusion of an imagined space or scene. For the Abstract Expressionists their work were not alluding to another space; what they were making was the reality that they wanted to present to the viewer. A frame would separate the painting’s reality from the viewer’s reality. What they wanted was a joint reality.

Like the other Abstract Expressionists’ all the traditional conventions of painting is subverted. There is none of the past illusions of representation; no focal point, no depth, no positive or negative space.

The sense of boundlessness in Rothko’s paintings has been related to the aesthetics of the sublime, an implicit or explicit concern of a number of his fellow painters in the New York School.

No. 5/No. 22, 1949

The rectangles within this painting do not extend to the edges of the canvas and appear to hover just over its surface. Heightening this sensation is the effect of chromatic afterimage. Staring at each colored segment individually affects the perception of those adjacent to it. The red–orange center of the painting tints the yellow above it with just a bit of green. The yellow above seems to tint the orange with blue. Despite these color relationships, Rothko did not want his pictures appreciated solely for their spectral qualities. He said, “If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”

No. 3/No. 13, 1949

Magenta, Black, Green on Orange follows a compositional structure that Rothko explored for twenty–three years beginning in 1947. Narrowly separated, rectangular blocks of color hover in a column against a colored ground, their edges are soft and irregular. The green bar in Magenta, Black, Green on Orange, appears to vibrate against the orange around it, creating an optical flicker. In fact the canvas is full of gentle movement, as blocks emerge and recede, and surfaces breathe. Just as edges tend to fade and blur, colors are never completely flat, and the faint unevenness in their intensity, besides hinting at the artist’s process in layering wash on wash, mobilizes an ambiguity, a shifting between solidity and impalpable depth. (Ref)

These two lectures by Jon Anderson on the The (Spiritual) Crisis of Abstract Expressionism gives an excellent perspective on the subject focusing on Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko



David E. Anderson, Anecdotes of the Spirit

Arty Factory – Francis Bacon

Magdalena Dabrowski, Kandinsky: Compositions

Der Blaue Reiter Painting


 Gauguin: Primitivism and “Synthetic” Symbolism

Gauguin: Primitivism and “Synthetic” Symbolism

Guggenheim – Francis Bacon

Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Bronner Kellner – Expressionism

Gabi La Cava, The Expressionist Animal Painter Franz Marc

Irene Lanridge, William Blake – A Study of His Life and Art Work

Daanish Maqbool, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Metropolitan Museum of Art – William Blake

MoMa Learning, Abstract Expressionism

MoMa – Expressionism

Musée d’Orsay – Gauguin, White Horse

New York Times article on William Blakefrom 1910

Nancy Spector, The Blue Mountain

Swindle, Stephanie Nichole, Paul Gauguin and Spirituality

Sue Hubbard, Rothko Retrospective

The Art Story – Expressionism

The Art Story – Paul Gauguin


William Blake and his Contemporaries

William Blake Archive

What is the definition of Spiritual?

Sibusiso Duma, When we were young, acrylic on board

 ‘ … the way some person lived within his or her historical context a chosen religious ideal in sensitivity to the realm of the spirit or the transcendent’. – Walter Principe

The definition by Principe is the definition from which most current definitions of what is spiritual is derived from. What we understand today as “being spiritual” is actually a relatively new but shifting concept to define that which is purely spiritual as opposed to that which is religious.

The modern connotations of what is spiritual originated from the thoughts of several religious thinkers in their attempts to relocate authentic religion outside or beyond the sphere of churches and institutions. The word spiritual was actual very rare in historical texts. (Ref) The attempt to define what is spiritual is parallel to the development of intellectual thinking, or stems from the time when ordinary mortals first realized that we have the power to inquire into the hidden nature of the universe. In earlier cultures there would have been no need to define what is spiritual. The question, ‘what is spiritual’ is thus really a more modern Western concept.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Guardian Angels, 2004, Oil pastel on pape

The word spiritual is derived from the Hebrew word Ruach, the  Latin word spiritualitas and the Greek word Pneuma. All three has the original base meaning of ‘moving air’ – whether in the form of breath, a breeze, or violent storm winds, or that which animates life. Most English bibles translates ruach as spirit. Immaterial beings are called ruachot; such ghosts, and angelic beings and spirits. Ruach has also been translated as ‘mind’, in the sense of thoughts, convictions, dispositions, drive even courage. (Ref)

According to the Greek philosopher Anaximenes, “just as our soul (psyche), being air (aer), holds us together, so do breath (pneuma) and air (aer) encompass the whole world.”

With this in mind one can perhaps define spiritual as shifting definition for that which is transcendent, unseen, except in unusual circumstance, but which nonetheless has a visible effect and without which there would be no life.

More useful concepts for defining spiritual:

What is a Belief?

Whatever an individual is willing to subjectively accept without direct verification by experience or without the support of evidence, resulting in assumption which is taken as a basis for action or non-action.

What is a Belief System?

A belief system is the actual set of precepts or principles, upon which a person base and live their daily life, and governs an individual’s thoughts, words, and actions. Without these precepts you could not function.


Allegory is a device in which characters or events represent or symbolize ideas and concepts. Allegory has been used widely through out the history of art, and in all forms of artwork. A reason for this is that allegory has an immense power of illustrating complex ideas and concepts in a digestable, concrete way. For example, this function of the device is possibly most evident in Christian doctrine, where Satan symbolizes evil and God symbolizes good. The concept of goodness is portrayed as a character, and his behaviour and intentions follow suit with this goodness. Therefore, in allegory a message is communicated by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation. Allegory is generally treated as a figure of rhetoric; a rhetorical allegory is a demonstrative form of representation conveying meaning other than the words that are spoken.(Ref)

Useful Questions to ask when analyzing Spiritual Art

What does the artist/culture believe?

In order to find out what belief system an artist operates from, or have adopted, certain questions must be asked. The core of what they believe starts with whether they Truly believe in one of the following.

  • A supreme being,

  • Just an existence beyond the physical of some kind

  • Nothing at all.

For those who believe in a Supreme Being, or God, how is the being depicted? How does the being communicate to people things they need to know, do, and be.
Is it that God only talks to a few people, or to everyone ?
Do you think cultural differences and personalities would affect the message?

Credo Mutwa, The Judgement of the Kings (1983)

Spiritual and religious works of art convey a non-verbal message, whichever form it takes, regardless of culture, religion, date or location. In the past, only the highly educated and members of the clergy were able to read. Visual imagery was thus used to convey spiritual ideas to the illiterate masses.

Spiritual Art

Spiritual Art visually depicts and communicates the artist’s spiritual beliefs, or reflects, or oppose, the spiritual doctrines of the ruling ideologies. It often reflects the desire to push “behind the veil of appearance” to the “other side” to seek “the hidden things in nature and life . . . the inner spiritual side of nature and life.” Mystical Art is created through the guidance of a spiritual being, or through visions received by the artist.


One can very well say that most of the art from art history can be classified as spiritual art. It was only with Modernism and the Avant Garde art movements that spiritual art started to reflect the individual’s spiritual views. The first artists that produced cave paintings were likely to have been shamans or priests. Later religious art reflected the doctrine and symbolism of each particular belief system. Yet, just as each of the major religions will have regional interpretations, just so the religious art reflected the particular historical environment, culture and spiritual interpretations of their beliefs.

Christ Pantocrator, early 17’th century. Portable Icon. Work of Jeremiah Palladas Collection of the 4th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities of the Dodecanese.

Early cultures used artwork to worship divine beings, and in the Middle Ages, artwork was used to canonize religious themes and spiritual leaders. During the Renaissance period, painted images began to gradually move away from society’s spiritual ideologies and become more and more individual. In modern times, artists have become completely independent from societal ideologies, and instead of communicating the realities of life, artwork has become a means for the artist to communicate personal ideologies and spiritual themes through visual and other elements. (Ref)

African Art

Lydenberg head, ca. A.D. 500-700

As Spirituality is always culturally formed and informed and the formation of spirituality is always cultural-contextual, Africa’s beliefs and religions reflects its multi-cultural context. Africa is a vast continent, incorporating a wide variety of cultures and ethnic groups. Northern Africa differs totally from Southern Africa.

Traditional African Beliefs

In traditional Africa life is not divided into compartments, with separate “spiritual” and “secular” components. Life as such is spiritual.

In (traditional) Africa, there is no division and/or differentiation between the animate and inanimate, between the spirit and matter, between living and non-living, dead and living, physical and metaphysical, secular and sacred, the body and the spirit, etc. Most Africans generally believe that everything (human beings included) is in constant relationship with one another and with the invisible world, and that people are in a state of complete dependence upon those invisible powers and beings. Hence, Africans are convinced that in the activities of life, harmony, balance or tranquillity must constantly be sought and maintained. AA Berinyuu

It has been suggested that African spiritual beliefs can be depicted as a triangle. At the top, head of all powers, is the Supreme Being. On the sides are the two greatest powers, gods and ancestors. Man is in the middle , and must live in harmony with all powers that affect his life, family and work. At the base are lower forces, with which magic and medicine are concerned. Ubunye (the unity of all reality) is kept intact through Amandla (power), which in turn operates within Ubuntu (community). In African spirituality it is all about the maintenance of equilibrium and therefore guarding against the loss of power.

Sibusiso Duma, Inkanyamba

Sibusiso Duma, Inkanyamba (According to traditional Xhosa beliefs, a strong winds takes the form of a giant winged snake, known as inkanyamba. This being lives in deep water and flies through the air, looking for its mate.)

Traditional African religion is based on oral traditions, which means that the basic values and way of life are passed from elders to younger generation. The elders are the final authority and are trusted completely. These traditions are not religious principles, but a cultural identity that is passed on through stories, myths and tales. (Ref)

Myth and symbol, ritual and rhythm determine everyday life in the African context.  The way people relate to the environment and the nature of inter-personal relationships are all part of the spiritual make-up of Africans. There exists a very thin line between the religious and the cultural phenomena in African cosmology. Religion and culture are inextricably intertwined. Most of the religious rituals are appropriated into the cultural scheme of things and the cultural domain shapes and influences the religious philosophy and practices.

Trevor Makhoba, “Circumcision”

Trevor Makhoba, “Circumcision”

Issues of moral behavioural patterns; natural plagues and disasters; familial inter-connectedness; domestic animals; fields (the land ethic) and several rites are directly linked to particular events in the life of the individual and the community together.

Lonyana Rock, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.

In traditional African religion the community is the most important part of someone’s life. This community is made up of people who remember and share the same traditions. This sense of unity with(in) the universe has been embedded in African spirituality since the dawn of time. It is depicted on many of the rock paintings that can be found throughout Southern Africa. In the example found at Lonyana Rock in KwaZulu-Natal the community is dancing around a sick person lying under a karos (animal skin). But the living animals are also there – the food stock. They seem to be moving in and out of the circle. Here, in one artwork, we find community, child care (women accompanying children), religion (expressed in the dance), medicine, work (hunting), etc. in an intertwined spirit of holism. This is indeed African spirituality. (Ref)

Sangoma throwing bones

There are spiritual leaders,who are the equivalent of shamans and priests  in most traditional African religions. These traditional healers have to be called by ancestors. They undergo strict training and learn many skills, including how to use herbs for healing and other, more mystical skills, like the finding of a hidden object without knowing where it is. (Ref)

Although traditional African religion recognises a Supreme God, followers do not worship him or her directly. They therefore ask the ancestors to communicate on their behalf. The Supreme Being is called upon in times of great hardship and need, like drought or epidemic that may threaten the entire community. The Supreme Being is the connection between people and their environment.

Ancestor worship

Ancestor worship and belief is an extension of a belief in and respect for elders. Followers of traditional African religion believe that ancestors maintain a spiritual connection with their living relatives.

Most ancestral spirits are generally good and kind. The only negative actions taken by ancestral spirits is to cause minor illnesses to warn people that they have gotten onto the wrong path. To please these unhappy ancestors, usually offerings of beer and meat are made. (Ref)

Adolphus Opara’s large-format, painterly images of diviners from regions of South-western Nigeria

African ritual art and artefacts

African art is a term typically used for the art of Sub-Saharan Africa, as the art of the North African areas along the Mediterranean coast has long been part of different traditions and for more than a millennium has mostly formed part of Islamic art, although with many particular characteristics. The Art of Ethiopia, with a long Christian tradition, is also different from that of most of Africa, where Traditional African religion(with Islam in the north) was dominant until relatively recently. (Ref)

As opposed to most Western art, African art serves a particular function rather than Art for Arts sake. The object may confer status, or serve a function that may be ceremonial, sacred, or practical. In the cycles of life, the rites of passage between them, are important as events for which objects are made.

Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi). Democratic Republic of the Congo. KaKongo Kongo artist, 19th century. Wood, iron, glass mirror, resin, pigment

For example, African spirituality is about power and empowerment, and often also the disempowerment of your enemies. This can also clearly be seen in African art. In the Congo, for instance, there are sculptures called nkisi nkondi (power figures). An nkisi nkondi serves as a container for potent ingredients used in magic and medicine in judicial and healing contexts. To make an nkisi nkondi, a carver begins by sculpting a male human or animal figure with a cavity in the abdomen. Then a ritual expert completes the work by placing ingredients with supernatural powers on the object and in the cavity provided. He activates the figure by breathing into the cavity and immediately seals it off with a mirror. Nails and blades are driven into the figure, either to affirm an oath or to destroy an evil force responsible for an affliction or disruption of the community. The pose, with hands on hips, symbolizes the nkondi’s readiness to defend a righteous person and to destroy an enemy. (Ref)



Most masks are made not to look like real human faces. They are usually designed and created to provide somewhat of a shock value. They tend to convey various emotions such as sadness, anger or suspicion.

They play very different roles to the various tribes across the continent. They are normally kept in a safe- or sacred place, only to be brought out for important occasions and ceremonies.

Masks were and still are usually worn during various celebrations such as weddings, funerals, initiation ceremonies, and to entertain important visitors.

African masks are normally worn by men, however in some cultures women also own and perform in masks. One example will be during a ritual that initiates them into female society.

Masks can be worn on the head as helmets covering the entire head or as acrest, resting on top of the head, or simply a mask.

Niagara African Dancing Mask

The most common use of the African mask involves ritual dancing. This involves the dancer wearing a mask and full costume. Often there is singing and music in these rituals and the mask becomes a strong spiritual force. During some of these ritual dances, because of the power certain masks possess, some people are not allowed to look at them. (Ref)

Female Face Mask. Chokwe peoples, DR Congo or Angola. ca. 1930s. | Wood,pigment, reeds and fiber.

Main Visual Characteristics

Ife head, Ife, 12th-14th century.

There should be a balance between resemblance and likeness; a figure, for example, should be identifiable as a man, but not identifiable as a specific man. An object that bears a resemblance to the original model draws power from the original, which is desired, but not to be overdone. Individual portraiture is considered presumptuous and dangerous, because of the power that the object may contain.

Pendant Mask, Lyoba, Nigeria

Clarity of line and form. This gives the powerful graphic quality that is so characteristic of African art, and so attracted early European modernists. Strong angular edges to forms, smoothly polished planes and curves, and the angular protrusion of such features as lips, eyes, and nose accentuate these features.

Igbo Mask, Nigeria

Igbo Mask, Nigeria

Proportion; In much of African Art, proportions are scaled according to conceptual significance rather than the physical size. Thus the meaning and function of the object requires that emotional proportion supersede natural proportions. The head, for example in figure carvings, is often one-fourth the size of the body because in many African societies it is considered to be the seat of one’s destiny. It also provides a larger surface for culturally significant details that are conveyed through facial expressions, hairstyles, jewelry or scarification. In figural groups, the larger figures are clearly the most important.

Nok terracotta, 6th century BC–6th century CE

Gesture and Expressions; The stance or facial expression of a sculpted figure often conveys clues into its meaning and significance. Hands resting on the abdomen may suggest the capacity to bear children. Downcast eyes may express dignity and poise, introspection and attention to a world beyond our own, while glaring eyes and a gaping mouth can signify power, trance (especially with bulging eyes), aggression or a call to action. (Ref)

Texture; Artwork’s surface can be smooth from frequent handling or textured from tool marks, paint or added materials. A sticky-looking object may have  received offerings at a shrine, its surface suggesting ritual use. objects that are densely covered with horns or porcupine quills, mud and other materials may represent powers from nature. By contrast a serene figure with polished surface may portray  someone who is stylish, civilized and cultured.

Colour and Pattern; Colours are frequently symbolic of important messages, though the meanings will vary from culture to culture. The most common colours used in African art are red, white and black.  Patterns which may also vary in meaning from culture to culture, provide insights into personal style and culturally specific aesthetics.

Spatial Relationships; How does the artwork relate to the space around it? Was it intended to stand on its own or was it once part of something else – like a place on a shrine? (Ref)

It is considered proper that persons be only depicted in the prime of life. For example, a memorial figure of an ancestor who died in old age must be shown as a young and vigorous person; to do otherwise would be insulting and also possibly dangerous.

The idea of the interrelatedness of forms is expressed through images that carry double, or even triple meanings. This idea reflect the religious idea that spiritual forces inhabit all of nature, all of which is interconnected. For example, a carved headdress from the Ibo people of Nigeria can be seen as a human torso, a bird, or a ram. These visual “puns” carry spiritual as well as humorous meanings.

Some African people do not designate aesthetic qualities at all. Since sculptures are consecrated and holy, all are considered equally beautiful, and it is therefore sacrilegious to pass judgement on the relative merits of particular items. (Ref)

Australian Aboriginal art

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Australian Indigenous art is the oldest ongoing tradition of art in the world. Initial forms of artistic Aboriginal expression were rock carvings, body painting and ground designs, which date back more than 30,000 years. Present day Aboriginals are descended from several groups that came to Australia via Asia when the land bridge still existed.

Art has always been an important part of Aboriginal life, connecting past and present, the people and the land, and the supernatural and reality. It includes works in a wide range of media including painting on leaves, wood carving, rock carving, sculpture, ceremonial clothing and sandpainting.

 Aborigines of all tribes painted and engraved on caves, rock, bark, sand, didgeridoos,  boomerangs and their huts, opossum fur coats & their bodies. Most art was meaningful.   Art was used in place of a written language to instruct in tribal law, religion and history. Each area of Australia has its traditional style of Art and Painting. Dot art is the traditional form of painting around a relatively small area of the Northern Territory and the eastern part of Western Australia. X-ray Art mainly comes from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. (Ref)

Aboriginal Rock Art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park, Australia


Often, aboriginal designs illustrate the “Dreamings” that underpin Aboriginal spiritual and cultural life. The human and other natural and animal images of Aboriginal art are representative of stories and/or dreams handed down from generation to generation. In Aboriginal art animal images, earth colours, and  drawing in patterns of dots, lines, and shapes are characteristic.(Ref)


Aboriginal symbols are an essential part of a long artistic tradition in Australian Aboriginal Art and remain the visual form to retain and record significant information. Aboriginal people used symbols to indicate a sacred site, the location of a waterhole and the means to get there, a place where animals inhabit and as a way to illustrate Dreamtime stories. Since Aboriginal people traveled vast distances across their country, significant information was recorded using symbols in regular ceremony. Sand painting and awelye (body painting) ceremonies kept the symbols alive and remembered. Later, these symbols were transformed into a more permanent form using acrylic on canvas but the meanings behind the symbols remains the same. Generally the symbols used by Aboriginal Artists are a variation of lines, circles or dots. Similar symbols can have multiple meanings and the elaborate combination of these can tell complex Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories. (Ref)

Aboriginal symbols

Denis Nelson Jupurrula, Kangaroo, Rain, Flying Ant, Possum Dreaming

This painting by Denis Nelson Jupurrula is a good example of an Aboriginal painting rich in Aboriginal symbols. This painting is titled Kangaroo, Rain, Flying Ant, Possum Dreaming. The bottom left of the painting shows the kangaroo tracks around a campfire (white circle). The smoke (white line) rises from the fire into the sky creating rain clouds (purple sky with symbols for rain). In the centre of the painting is the flying ant which migrates to form a new colony when the rains come. The possum tracks are shown on the left side of the painting in the yellow section. The U shape reflects the mark left behind by a person. Groups of U shapes would indicate a meeting place for aboriginal people sitting around a campsite.

Patterns of dots are used to represent many Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories – including stars or native berries. Aboriginal artists often use the technique of over-dotting to obscure meaning and to mask certain symbolism. (Ref)

Buddhist Art and Artifacts

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara.

Buddhist art originated on the Indian subcontinent following the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama, 6th to 5th century BC, and thereafter evolved by contact with other cultures as it spread throughout Asia and the world. (Ref)

Aims of Buddhist Arts

Traditional Buddhist arts are intended to be reminders and inspiration pointing the individual towards the Buddhist principles, with no interest in personal fame or originality for its own sake, as this would be counter to Buddhist practice. Traditional Buddhist art forms were made to complement and enhance traditional practices found in temples, monasteries, centres, hermitages, the home and places of retreat.

These art forms can include wall and scroll paintings, sculpture, carvings, textiles, hand crafted ritual implements, illustrated sacred texts and poetry.


Early Buddhism did not portray the Buddha himself and may have been aniconic. The Buddha was only represented through symbols such as an empty throne, Bodhi tree, a riderless horse, Buddha’s footprints, and the dharma wheel. This reluctance towards anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the sophisticated development of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scenes where other human figures would appear), seem to be connected to one of the Buddha’s sayings, that discouraged representations of himself after the extinction of his body (Ref)

An aniconic representation of Mara’s assault on the Buddha, with an empty throne, 2nd century, Amaravati, India

Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist art frequently makes use of a particular set of eight auspicious symbols, in household and public art. These symbols have spread with Buddhism to many cultures’ arts, including Indian, Tibetan, Nepalese, and Chinese art. (Ref)

These symbols are:

The boy Buddha rising up from lotus. Crimson and gilded wood, Trần-Hồ dynasty, Vietnam, 14th-15th century

1.Lotus flower. Representing purity and enlightenment.

2. Endless knot, or, the Mandala. Representing eternal harmony.

3.The golden fishes symbolises the auspiciousness of all living beings in a state of fearlessness, without danger of drowning in the ocean of sufferings, and migrating from place to place freely and spontaneously, just as fish swim freely without fear through water.

4. The golden wheel symbolises the auspiciousness of the turning of the wheel of Buddha’s doctrine, both in its teachings and realizations, in all realms and at all times, enabling beings to experience the joy of wholesome deeds and liberation.

5. The treasure vase symbolises an endless rain of long life, wealth and prosperity and all the benefits of this world and liberation.

6. The umbrella or parasol representing detachment from illusion, representing the crown, and protection from the elements.

7. The conch as a symbol which fearlessly proclaimed the truth of the dharma. It stands for the fame of the Buddha’s teaching, which spreads in all directions like the sound of the conch trumpet.

8. Victory Banner. Representing a victorious battle.

In later periods both the major schools of Buddhism have made great use of representational art, though Theravada temples and other sites typically concentrate on a single large sculpture of the Buddha, whereas Mahayana temples have larger numbers of images of a greater variety of figures with varying degrees of spiritual significance. However some schools, such as Zen Buddhism in Japan, have also shown a general tendency towards aniconism, though without specific prohibition of figurative images.

A statue of the Buddha from Sarnath, 4th century CE

Mexican religious art

Mexican Ex-Votos

Small tin paintings known as retablos (literally, “behind the altar”) were often displayed in the homes of devout Catholics in Mexico to honor patron saints. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the increased availability of colour lithographs and other inexpensive reproductions contributed to the decline of this tradition, but one form of retablo, the ex-voto, continues to be produced today by artists in a variety of media.

Ex-votos (from the Latin, meaning “according to a vow”) are offered to give thanks for an answered prayer. This testimonial, while a personal expression of gratitude, contributes to a public affirmation of belief since votive paintings are displayed in churches. There they testify to the efficacy of ritual as well as to the power of faith and the particular church or shrine. A dedication or description of the pictured event is typically written below the painting. (Ref)

From Chucuito, Puno, Peru, Triptych with Virgin of Purification and various Saints. Early XIX century

This art form is found throughout Latin America, though Mexico particularly is known for its use of tin as the painting surface. The Peruvian retablos is normally in the form of three-dimensional wooden boxes, populated by a variegated world of gypsum figures. typically with peaked roofs.

Peruvian Retablo

Origins of the traditions

The tradition of offering a votive object to a god or a holy personage in thanks or petition dates back, in Europe, at least to the ancient Greeks. The Spanish brought the tradition to the Americas. Similar practices have been common in other parts of the world as well.

Retablos with their images of saints served the church’s desire to spread Christianity. Ex-voto paintings are said to have developed out of the need to express problems and concerns of the villagers or townspeople.

Ex-voto, 1894, oil on tin, Inscription; Luz Orosco became gravely ill with typhoid. She invoked the Most Holy Mother of Light and and became healthy, and in proof of gratitude offers this (ex-voto).


Retablos emphasized certain attributes of the saints and were typically copies of other saint images. The imagery of ex-votos, however, was created in response to the expressed desires of the person ordering the painting; style and subject varied greatly.

Ex-voto, 1890, oil on tin, Inscription; On the 31st day of March,1890, finding herself at the doors of the grave, Doña Jesus Coronel for reason of giving birth to a child and not finding any remedy, her husband Juan Pineda, with a true heart, prayed to the Most Holy Virgen Virgin of Sorrows that is venerated in the Santuario de Paila, and (thus) healed and in an act of thanks dedicates this retablo.

The bold use of colours in crafts and other constructions extends back to pre-Hispanic times. These were joined by other colours introduced by European and Asian contact, always in bold tones. Design motifs vary from purely indigenous to mostly European with other elements thrown in. Geometric designs connected to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past are prevalent, and items made by the country’s remaining purely indigenous communities. Motifs from nature are popular, possibly more so than geometric patterns in both pre-Hispanic and European designs.(Ref)

Doña Josefa Peres Maldonado offers this monument of her gratitude to the Most Holy Christ of Encino, venerated in the Church of Triana, and to the Most Holy Virgin Mary of El Pueblo, in perpetual memory of the benefit, due to her piety, that resulted from an operation that took place on 25th of April 1777, when the surgeon Don Pedro Maillé removed six cancerous tumors from her breast, in the presence of the gentlemen and ladies depicted on this canvas. Although the wound closed perfectly on the 25th of July 1777, other accidents befell her from which she died on Friday, the 5th of September, at 3 p.m., with clear signs of the patronage of the Holy Image and of her salvation.

Virgin of Guagalupe

Symbolism and mysticism may seem part of an earlier time, but in Mexico City, notions of magic and spirituality are very prominent pieces of a contemporary lifestyle.  Since 1531 the Virgin of Guagalupe has become the most powerful symbol for Mexicans, and her image is seen throughout the Americas as a figure of hope, peace, and salvation.

Lady of Guadalupe

The Virgin of Guadalupe was absolutely fundamental in the creation of modern Mexico – a uniting force in a tumultuous time of European conquest.  The European Catholic image of the Virgin Mary assumes characteristics of the indigenous religion to create a unique mix of two traditions, like the culture of modern Mexico. La Virgen appeared to a young indigenous man on Tepeyac Hill in 1531 and now, each year, thousands of pilgrims embark on a pilgrimage to honour the woman referred to as the Queen of Mexico.  Pilgrims come from all walks of life and each has their own interpretation on the meaning of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Some pilgrims ascend the hill on their knees to show extreme devotion and penitence, others travel as families. (Ref)

Mexican Ex-votive


Aboriginal Art Treasures

Aboriginal Art Online

Aboriginal Art Store


African Spirituality

D. Alexander, Buddhism and the Arts

David E. Anderson, Anecdotes of the Spirit

All About African Art

Brooklyn Museum of Art

Johan Cilliers, Formations and Movements of Christial Spirituality in Urban African Contexts

Fowler Museum at UCLA

Hebrew Streams, Ruach Studies

How to Look at African Art

Charlotte Jirousek, African Art

Mariolina Salvatori, University of Pittsburgh

South African History – Traditional Beliefs


‘It is as though our rulers stalk every page and haunt every picture: everything is obsessed by the oppressors and the trauma they have imposed.’ – Albie Sachs

Manfred Zylla

South African Historical Background

South African Resistance or Protest Art spans the period  from the 1976 Soweto uprising to the first democratic election in 1994.

Sharpeville massacre March 21 1960 – 60 killed, 180 wounded

The Sharpeville Massacre (March 21, 1960), signaled the start of armed resistance in South Africa, and prompted worldwide condemnation of South Africa’s Apartheid policies. It triggered a chain of events, from the banning of liberation organisations, the launch of the armed struggle, the internationalization of the South Africa’s Apartheid policies and the growing division between black and white South African’s.


Read More about the Sharpeville Massacre

The period between the The Sharpeville Massacre  and The Soweto Uprising (16 June 1976)  was a period of relative calm in the resistance movement in the wake of massive government repression in the 1960s under H. F. Verwoerd.

Interview with Steve Biko

Yet during this “silent decade,’ a new sense of resistance had been brewing. In 1969, black students, led by Steve Biko (among others), formed the South African Student’s Organization (SASO). Stressing black pride, self-reliance, and psychological liberation, the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s became an influential force in the townships, including Soweto. The workers’ strikes in Durban in 1973; the liberation of neighboring Angola and Mozambique in 1975; and increases in student enrollment in black schools, also led to the emergence of a new collective youth identity forged by common experiences and grievances

The State initially saw the Black Consciousness movement as a triumph of ethnicity which they thought would illustrate the success of separate development. However as the movement grew in threatening momentum and influence, they reacted violently, clamping down and enforcing censorship, stopping the flow of discourse that existed. Cultural venues were controlled and investigated. The Polly Steet Art Center was closed in 1960.

Sam Nhlengethwa, It left him cold, the death of Biko, 1990

The Soweto Uprising, followed by the death of Steve Biko in detention, 1977, was a huge turning point in South African history.  In spite of all the warning signs, the tensions and the obvious unrest preceding that climatic moment, few were prepared for the unleashing of the struggle that could no longer be contained. In lesser and greater ways, South African life was permanently transformed from that day forward.

There was Internationally, growing opposition against Apartheid, and Anti-Apartheid Movements began to campaign for boycotts and sanctions against South Africa. Cultural, and Sports Boycotts and Economic Sanctions were implemented against South Africa, and brought a growing awareness among normal South Africans of the global condemnation of apartheid.


Antoinette Sithole and Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying and 12-year-old Hector Pieterson moments after he was shot by South African police during the Soweto Uprisings. It became a symbol of resistance to the brutality of the apartheid government.

State of Emergency: The Apartheid government used Declarations of Emergency to crack down against opponents at times of heightened resistance. Police could detain anyone for reasons of public safety, without any appeal to the courts. Also, meetings and gatherings could be banned. The first State of Emergency was declared in 1960 right after the Sharpeville Massacre, when the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress also were declared illegal. In the wake of the 1976 student uprising, the government widened police powers of detention even without a State of Emergency.


Soweto Classroom, 16 Junie 1976 *Jeremy Nell

By the mid-1980s, a popular uprising was underway, with militants calling for making black communities “ungovernable.” A State of Emergency was declared in July 1985 in 36 magisterial districts. Organizations as well as meetings could be banned, and thousands of people were detained. The Commissioner of Police could impose a blanket prohibition on media coverage of the Emergency, and names of people who had been detained could not be revealed.


On June 12, 1986, just before the 10th anniversary of the student uprising that started in Soweto, a State of Emergency was declared throughout the country. The provisions of this State of Emergency were broader than any previous ones, but anti-apartheid mobilization continued. The government restricted political funerals, imposed curfews, and banned certain indoor gatherings. Television cameras were banned from “unrest areas,” preventing international as well as national coverage of the growing organizing and police repression. (Ref)

Border Wars: The South African Border War, commonly referred to as the Angolan Bush War in South Africa, was a conflict that took place from 1966 to 1989 in South-West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola between South Africa and its allied forces (mainly UNITA) on the one side and the Angolan government, South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), and their allies (mainly Cuba) on the other. It was closely linked with the Angolan Civil War and the Namibian War of Independence, as well as the Cold War. All White males was conscripted to fight in the wars or face imprisonment.

For White South Africans males of a certain generation, the Border conflicts of the 60s, 70s and 80s have left an indelible stain on their conscience; a brutal war, South Africa’s Vietnam.

“The hardest thing for me to come to terms with is that I fought on the wrong side. As a teenager I didn’t really see the choices but now on an emotional level, I feel deeply saddened. It was traumatic for everybody, regardless of which side they were on.” Paul Morris (Ref)

The conflict was characterised by a low-intensity terrorist style war escalating in intensity and spread over time. By the end of the conflict in 1987-88, large conventional pitched battles were fought between the SADF and UNITA on one side, and the FAPLA and CUBAN forces on the other; while the SADF – SWAPO skirmishes raged concurrently throughout the Operational Area. (Ref)

 The Growth of Resistance and Protest Art in South Africa

The Soweto Uprisings seemed to have touched the nerve of the nation and fear disappeared. Almost every artist produced overtly political work, taking up brush and paint as weapons against the oppressed. Many black and white artists fled the country. Among the artists that stayed, there were two groups; the involved and the detached.

The difference during the period lay in the heightened social consciousness and compassionate awareness of the human situation. The happening all around them reinforced the motivation of the committed artists and galvanized many of the formerly detached into overt expression of engagement.

The new direction in art was a development of the old principle governing African Art, which is that art must have a function in the community; a song is composed to be sung especially while walking; a scuplture serves as a chair, a house is decorated to enhance the village. The new twist was this; that the function could be one of bringing about change. – Sue Williamson (Ref)

Internationally during the 1970s and 1980s, there was a dawning anxiety about the fragility of planetary environment, an awareness about persisting injustices in the conduct of human affairs, and a growing disillusionment with the intense materialism of the prevailing system of market-orientated art which gave rise to protest art.

The variants of Protest Art are manifold. It ranges from blatantly confrontational pictorial imagery and subversive symbols scrawled on public surfaces, through allegorical depictions of distant but associated incidents and situations, to ambiguous figurations and personal mystical metaphors that camouflage their inner meanings in deceptive outer shells.

The use of public surfaces for the expression of popular opinion predates even the written language. But particular in a society in which mass gatherings are banned, the graffito slogan can be coupled with the painted image to communicate, publicly the otherwise muffled messages of solidarity and resistance. The modern urban landscape, already a collage of commercial signage, advertising and political publicity, presents many inviting surfaces for informal verbal or pictorial assault.

Often the product of so-called ‘guerrilla’ artists, working under cover of the night, graffiti, posters and defiant mural images have appeared in cities all around the world. During the 1970s  the practice was accorded a new kind of status, particularly in the USA.

Although a number of guerrilla artists attained a measure of fame – or notoriety, South African guerrilla artists had to remain anonymous under the strict Apartheid laws. But many of  the symbols and several of the methods of South African street art were reflected in works that made their way into exhibition galleries.

Resistance Art

Manfred Zylla – The Military Generals: Before and After

After the State of Emergency imposed in 1985, there was an explosion of graffiti in the form of scrawled political messages or much more graphic and designed stencils started covering the walls of the country. When most forms of public protest were banned, graffiti became a way for social movements to communicate to each other, the larger population, and the apartheid government.

Censorship The portrayal of contentious subject matter was a courageous venture in a society in which both official and informal censorship held sway. The official Publications Control Board exercised its most draconian power over theater  films and literature; but it could and did, impose itself on visual arts, whenever the specific exhibits were perceived as too discomforting or threatening to the existing order – sexual or political. Even without its active intervention, the mere existence of the PCB had an insidious effect on artists by creating a climate conducive to self-censorship.

The caution that had prevailed among  South African artists during  the sixties and early seventies was not totally discarded in the years of protest art, but the fear of censorship no longer regulated their responses; perceived now almost  as a badge of honour

Witch Hunt, by Norman Catherine, 1988.

Activist art seve to focus attention on society’s festering sores and to demonstrate solidarity with or among the dissidents. Visual Arts have traditionally adopted recognisable motif, as metaphors for the cause their focus. South African Art in the 1980s were no different. Exhibitions in the 1980s were loaded with ambiguos images of serpents, crocodiles, hyenas, truncheons, motor car tyres, armour plated objects and cannabalistic plants. These were fairly easy to read and recognised as icons of resistance.

By Jerm

By the late 1980s, South Africa was engulfed in a culture of violence, and the local art mirrored this. Yet, not all the art was inflammatory or apocalyptic in its themes; many artists recognised that satire can often be a more effective form of  protest than undiguised frontal attack.

In 1990 President Frederik Willem de Klerk began negotiations to end apartheid, culminating in multi-racial democratic elections in 1994, which were won by the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela.

Examples of Artists and Art in This Theme

Willie Bester
Norman Catherine
William Kentridge
Helen Sebidi
Paul Stopforth
Sue Williamson
Gavin Younge
Manfred Zylla
Political murals, posters and T Shirts


About.Com African History

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

Clarity Films presents “Have You Heard From Johannesburg,”

Contemporary African Art – Resistance Art

Overcoming Apartheid

Leslie B. Shocknesse, The Art Scene in South Africa Since 1948

Louise Redvers, Breaking the silence on the Border War

SA Bush War Site

Sharpeville Massacre

South African History

Think Quest

Willie Bester Trojan Horse – Robert Bowman


Sue Williamson, Resistance Art in South Africa, 2004

“Throughout history, culture and art have always been the celebration of freedom under oppression.” – Author unknown

Resistance art describe those that use art as a way of showing their opposition to powerholders, which can be against an oppressive government, legislation or political power . The term has been used to define art that opposed such powers as the German Nazi party, and the Bolshevik Revolution. The term has also been applied to artists opposed to apartheid in South Africa. (Ref)

Protest art is a broad term that refers to creative works that are produced by activists and social movements. There are also contemporary and historical works and currents of thought that can be characterized in this way.

Russian Revolution – 1922 – Ian Simakov

Social movements produce such works as the signs, banners, posters, and other printed materials used to convey a particular cause or message. Often, such art is used as part of demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience. Protest art also includes performance, site-specific installations, graffiti and street art, and crosses the boundaries of art genres, media, and disciplines. Protest artists frequently bypass the art-world institutions and commercial gallery system in an attempt to reach a wider audience. (Ref)

International Historical Background of Resistance Art

Throughout history, Art has played an important role in documenting war, violence and social injustice. Creative freedom from government and church restraint, is a relatively new phenomenon. The 19th and 20th centuary were a time of revolutions and wars in many parts of the world, resulting in widespread images of resistance and reaction. Although human conflict is nothing new, it was during this time that art began to reflect the pain of the conflicts. Allegorical history paintings carried very explicit political messages, and a Romantic interest in madness shed new light on how war inflicted psychic as well as physical wounds. (Ref)

In France, a growing number of art dealers and middle class art consumers began to liberate artists from the restricted ideals and patronage of both church and state. The focus of artists shifted from heroic depictions of warriors and statesmen to images of the masses – ordinary people and the artists themselves.

Whereas some artists are interested in solving the problems of style and technique, others use style and techniques to express their social and political views. –  A. R. Nagori

Artists have used various techniques to express these views such as allegory, caricatures, satire, distortion and symbolism. In this way, they force the viewer to confront or experience an unpleasant socio-political reality which the viewer would prefer to avoid.

Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784

The Oath is not merely an expression of a new style – Neo Classism. The Oath of the Horatii represents Jacques-Louis David’s individuality, an individuality that would lead him to contradict the French Académie in order to pursue his own understanding of the art of painting, an understanding that was based on past and modern ideologies and which represented a synthesis that would be soon adopted by supporters of the French Revolution. Perhaps David’s greatest intent in The Oath of the Horatii was to make a statement about individuality and human strength. He expresses his understanding of his study of painting in a manner that flies in the face of convention, but that is true to the ideals which he feels driven to embody. As a result, his characters speak boldly about choice and perseverance.  (Ref)

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

In Liberty Leading the People, French painter Eugène Delacroix uses allegory commemorating July Revolution of 1830, which toppled Charles X of France and brought about Louis-Philippe’s ascension to the throne. The painting shows the attempt by Parisians to re-establish the Republic. The figure of the Republic, carrying the tricolor flag, urges people from different classes of society to follow her. Delacroix’s non-idealized depiction of the Republic as a dirty, half-naked woman created a scandal at the Salon of 1831. Louis-Philippe, recognizing the painting’s powerful message purchased it and hid it away from public view. The painting has been seen as a marker to the end of the Age of Enlightenment, as many scholars see the end of the French Revolution as the start of the romantic era. (Ref)

goya-executions-of-the-third-of-may-1808 2

Francisco de Goya’s The Third of May, 1808

In The Third of May, 1908, Francisco Goya, rather than depicting the glory of battles won as commemorative works had done for centuries, focused on the brutality of war. Goya has shifted our vantage so that we more directly face the victims while the faces of the Napoleonic guard are obscured. This successful strategy increases our sympathy on the one hand while reducing the soldiers individuality and perhaps even equating them with the guns that become their faces on the other. Goya multiplies the terror of the immediate ordeal by trailing the line of unfortunate captives into the distance, suggesting the that this action will by repeated throughout the night.

In Goya’s painting the figures are rendered in comparatively broad and rough strokes of the brush. Like the mature work of the Great Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velasquez whom Goya so much admired, there is in the Third of May… an effort to invigorate and humanize the frozen compositions of the previously dominant styles (the High Renaissance and Neo-Classicism respectively). This newly recovered aggressiveness is also expressed through light and color. Goya intensifies the painting’s emotional pitch by the interaction of sharp contrasts; light collides with expansive darks; white and yellow are sharp and vivid against the deep blacks, browns and reds.

Our eyes are drawn to the young man in white and yellow. In contrast to the pleading and terrified faces that surround him, he stands with arms up facing his enemy. While at first the figure’s raised arms might be read as a sort of active surrender, Goya is in fact mimicking Christ upon the cross. Note the stigmata that appears in the figure’s right hand. Goya has cast this massacre as a martyrdom. (Ref)

Edouard Manet – The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1867

The Execution of Emperor Maximilian is series of paintings by Édouard Manet from 1867 to 1869, depicting the execution by firing squad of Emperor Maximilian I of the short-lived Second Mexican Empire.

Goya’s Third of May inspired the basic compositional elements of Edourd Manet‘s Execution of Maximilian series. The horizontal placement of the figures, the direction of the firing squad, and the position of the victims on the left remain consistent throughout all five of Manet’s works. (Ref) However, unlike Goya’s paintings which clearly differentiates heroes and villains, the Manet paintings are more ambiguous. The officer on the far right, calmly inspecting his rifle and the apathetic spectators convey a detachment from the violence of the execution. It seems to be serving as a journalistic record, objectively recording the event. (Ref)

Max Beckmann, The Night, 1918-19

The Night was painted by Max Beckmann during 1918 and 1919. The painting was made during years of revolution and counter-revolution in the short-lived Weimar Republic.   It is an icon of the post-World War I movement, Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity.eckmann sees no purpose in the suffering he shows; there is no glory for anybody, no compensation, no gloating over justice accomplished-only enseless pain, and cruelty for its own sake. Beckmann blames human nature as such, and there seems to be no physical escape from this overwhelming self-accusation. Victims and aggressors alike are cornered. There is no exit. (Ref)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915)

This famous self-portrait shows Ernst Ludwig Kirchner after his nervous breakdown and subsequent dismissal from military service. Kirchner wears the uniform of the 75th artillery regiment. The fictive amputation stump on his right arm represents the trauma he experienced in the war. It also symbolizes the anxiety he felt about the possible negative effect of the war on his art: simply put, Kirchner feared that his failing mental health would prevent him from painting. Kirchner committed suicide in 1938, after the Nazis had branded his artwork “degenerate.” (Ref)

Käthe Kollwitz, The Volunteers, 1922

The feverish mass hysteria, which had gripped the nations at the outbreak of WWI, is portrayed through a group of young men following blindly the figure of Death. Kollwitz was internationally known for her etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs, but also her posters for leftist organizations and humanitarian leaflets contributed to her fame. (Ref)

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937

Pablo Picasso‘s antiwar point of view is very clear in Guernica 1937. Using both abstraction and symbolism, Picasso presents a powerful image of of chaos and violence. The chaos unfolding seems to happen in closed quarters provoking an intense feeling of oppression. There is no way out of the nightmarish cityscape. The palette of black, white and grey evokes the look of  a newspaper, and emphasizes the documentary nature of the work, and suggests the mourning that occurs after a tragedy. (Ref)

Diego Rivera – Indian Warrior

Mexican muralism was the promotion of mural painting starting in the 1920s, generally with social and political messages as part of efforts to reunify the country under the post Mexican Revolution government. It was headed by “the big three” painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. From the 1920s to about 1970s a large number of murals with nationalistic, social and political messages were created on public buildings. (Ref)

 Mexican muralism represents a significant challenge to the commonly accepted view of the role and position of the artist in Western society. Western artists seem to be separated, hermetic, isolated, self expression, while Mexican muralists are in touch with the Mexican society and its social problems. The muralist played a central role in the cultural and social life of the country following the 1910-1917 nationalist revolution. These artists grew up during the period of ‘porfiricto’ named for the pre-Revolutionary society under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. This society was marked by enormous divisions of wealth, property, and power. (Ref)

These three artists may not have been able to alter the history of events in the Mexican Revolution, but they were successful in creating thought provoking and emotion stirring artwork. They were revolutionaries when it comes to the media of their work. The idea to paint on huge, public surfaces with political content was new. The major difference between the three was how hopeful and optimistic the messages in the paintings were. Rivera was very optimistic. He used bright colors, soft lines, and often showed the peasants and workers in a utopian setting. This hopeful out look may be related to the fact that he was out of the country during most of the revolution.Orozco and Siqueiros however, were major participants in political events of the revolution and experienced its horror first hand. The work of these two is usually gruesome and done in dark colors, with harsh lines. Their work shows the stark reality of the Revolution. Orozco’s depiction of the ideal differs from Rivera because he separates it from a historical context. (Ref)

Diego Rivers depicting the history of Mexico, National Palace or Palacio Nacional, Mexico City

 In 1934 Diego resumed work in the National Palace on an impressive mural called The History of Mexico. It focused on the struggle of Mexicans throughout history. He was able to skillfully fuse together many historical subjects without the use of divisions into frames or panels.

Part Of Diego Rivera’s Mural Depicting Mexico’s History 1929 – 1945

Diego Rivera

To the right of the “Huelga” poster, meaning strike, two rebels are shown hanging: one and agrarian rebel and one and communist. Three other agaristas are shown moments before they are to be shot. Their fearless expressions illustrated the determination of the revolutionaries to continue the fight despite the horrific consequences. In this major mural, The History of Mexico, Rivera combines the historic struggles of the oppressed and his hopes for the future history of Mexico.

Jose Clemente Orozco, Prometheus, 1930

Jose Clemente Orozco could be considered the most complex of the Mexican muralists. He was dedicated to depicting the truth and had a greater sense of realism that Diego Rivera. This is illustrated by his violent displays of conflict and chaos and misery. He realized the enormous gap between social ideals and social realities. He focused on showing personal suffering in a pessimistic, skeptical, yet sympathetic way. Prometheus was painted at Pomona College in California. This was his first mural in the United States. It illustrates Orozco’s belief that all the events of history are in a never ending circular sequence.

orozco_catharsis 1

Jose Clemente Orozco, Catharis, 1934

Catharsis shows the never ending cycle of Humanity’s self destruction and moral decay in a frightening manner. It explores the theme of man being obsessed by modern advances in technology and machinery. In front of a fiery background, humans are being “sucked into mechanical quicksand”. Theft is symbolized by an open safe. Murder and prostitution are also shown. (Ref)

David Alfaro Siquerios, The Proletarian Victim, 1933

David Alfaro Siquerios was a sophisticated political ideologist who was involved in the political conflicts of the Mexican Revolution serving as a protestor, demonstrator, and soldier. His radical political beliefs eventually got him expelled from Mexico. He spent many years in jail for his actions and this influenced his art greatly. Siquerios often painted the sufferings of prison life. His travels to Europe brought him in contact with the artwork of Goya. The themes and images of war in their works are very similar. Classical art, Italian Renaissance art, and Italian Futurism also influenced him greatly. Siquerios believed that “art must no longer be the expression of individual satisfaction (which) it is today, but should aim to become a fighting educative art for all.” (Ref)

The Proletarian Victim expresses the personal impact that social oppression has on the human. The ropes binding the body symbolize the oppressive government and upper class over the peasants. The title also shows his class-consciousness. (Ref)

David Alfaro Siquerios, Echo of a Scream, 1937

His most famous painting was Echo of a Scream. This piece was inspired by his experiences during active combat and his observations of suffering. By illustrating a baby, this piece emphasizes the internal suffering of the innocent victims of the Revolution. (Ref)

David Alfaro Siqueiros. The New Democracy. 1944-45

New Democracy depicts a woman who is trying to shatter the bonds of oppression and exploitation. She is shown carrying a torch of freedom to symbolize the new order. He includes strong visions of the future, similar to Rivera. Classical influence is shown in his approach to idealize human body form. Sometimes he exaggerates with expressive emotion, similar to Diego Rivera. (Ref)


Anneberg Learning, Art through Time, Conflict and Resistance

Art under dictatorship by Prof. A. R. Nagori

Alejandro Escalona, 75 Years of Picasso’s Guernica: An Inconvenient Masterpiece

Becraft, Melvin E. Picasso’s Guernica – Images within Images 3rd Edition PDF download

David, The Oath of the Horatii: The French Revolution in Painting

Germany at War 1914 1918

Human in Progress

Khan’s Academy – Spanish Romanticism

Kate Mason – History and Art of the Mexican Revolution

Manet and the Execution of Emperor Maximilian

Diego Rivera

Weimer,Käthe Kollwitz


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


Esme Berman – Painting in South Africa

Archival Platform -Emile Maurice –  Gerald Seto

Marie-Lais Emond – Township art: South Africa’s political writing on the wall

Click to access Townshipart.pdf

Kayla Reid – Introduction to Township Art

Polly Street Era

South African art – emerging Black Artists


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)

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


German Expressionism


Pop Art

New Abstraction and OP Art


Contemporary African Art – The Modernists

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

Chess In London

Leslie Back, Memories of Irma Stern

BE Liebenberg – Mary Stainbank, Modernism and the ‘Spirit of Africa’

Rsaart’s Blog