AHEAD OF Strauss & Co.’s 11 November sale at its Houghton, Johannesburg offices, the fine art auctioneers invited members of the Fourth Estate for a preview of items which would be going under the hammer – and which would be focussing collectors’ attention on the strong influence Paris exerted on South African art throughout the twentieth century.
After a welcome breakfast of croissants, coffee and champagne, the entity’s Head of Department Johannesburg for Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Sculpture, Dr Alastair Meredith commenced with an insightful tour of the medium mix of eye-lolly furnishing two sections of the ground floor at the Central Street address.
Putting the linkage of the French capital with the country’s past and present artists into perspective, a press release quoted the auctioneers’ executive director, Susie Goodman thus: “Paris was a beacon for countless South African artists.”
Expounding further, he pointed out, “The first South African artist to study in Paris was Robert Gwelo Goodman, in 1895. The list of local artists who followed in his footsteps is as remarkable as it is long. The top three lots in our upcoming sale are by Alexis Preller, William Kentridge and Penny Siopis – highly acclaimed artists who each spent time in Paris early in their careers.”
For the upcoming sale, the top lot is Preller’s Icon Barbare (Adam), an oil painting quoting his powerful 1969 intaglio Adam (sold by Strauss & Co in 2016 for R6.8 million).
Shown on the artist’s 1972 Pretoria Art Museum retrospective, Icon Barbare (estimate R8.5 – 10 million) depicts the biblical first man with Prelleresque flourishes. “The Christ-like beard and hair are ambiguously transformed with green and leaf-like tendrils thus assuming a pagan quality,” noted artist and Preller expert Karel Nel. “The transmuted presence feels more like an icon of Pan, the Greek god of nature, of fertility, the mountains and wilds.”
The November sale includes a 1954 sketch for the upper part of the central panel of the large three-panel All Africa mural, installed at the former Receiver of Revenue (now SARS) offices, Johannesburg (estimate R400 000 – 600 000). Assuredly loose in style, this oil on canvas reveals Preller’s admiration for French Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy, a lifelong friend of painter Othon Friesz.
Preller met Friesz, a teacher at Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, in 1937 during his first trip to Paris. Lacking funds to study at his art school, Preller invested his energies in the “tireless examination of the works of modern artists on view in galleries,” according to his biographer, Esme Berman.
During these expeditions Preller recognised in Gaugin “a guide to the direction he himself might follow”. This influence is evident in Mapogga Wedding (R2 – 3 million), a 1952 oil depicting a bride and groom set slightly askew with Gauguinesque figures in the background.
The influence of Paris is also evident in the work of contemporary masters such as William Kentridge and Penny Siopis. In 1981 Kentridge studied mime and theatre at a Paris acting school founded by Jacques Lecoq.
A decade later, having decisively returned to making art, he produced the collage Iris, a highly unusual colour work portraying a single flower in Van Gogh’s Provencal tones of blue and purple (estimate R3 – 5 million).
Five years later, Siopis undertook a seven-month residency at the Cite Internationale des Arts after winning the Volkskas Atelier Award with her well-known painting, Melancholia.
The forthcoming sale includes a companion work, Act I Scene II (estimate R2.8 – 3.5 million), which was interrupted by Siopis’ stay in Paris and completed upon her return to Johannesburg a la Melancholia. This lot includes various pictorial elements (tortoise shell, porcupine quills, classical statuettes, red arum lilies) appearing in Melancholia.
The upcoming sale is an opportunity for collectors and art lovers to explore South African art’s indebtedness to Paris. Artists from various periods are represented in the catalogue, including Ruth Everard Haden, Clement Seneque and Maud Sumner, who all studied in Paris during the interwar years. Sumner’s Woman Seated at a Mirror (estimate R350 000 – 500 000) is an intimate domestic scene in the style of Bonnard and Vuillard.
Postwar painters also feature prominently. They include Erik Laubscher, who studied at the Academie Montmartre under Fernand Leger, Bertie Cilliers-Barnard, Sydney Goldblatt and Anna Vorster, who all studied at the Paris art school founded by cubist painter Andre Lhote.
Standout lots include Laubscher’s School of Paris work from 1956, Abstract Landscape (R250 000 – 300 000) and Cilliers-Barnard’s international style Abstract Composition (estimate R80 000 – 120 000) painted a year later.
Paris was more than simply a workshop for painterly innovation; it provided shelter for dissidents and exiles. Following in the footsteps of pioneering abstract painter Ernest Mancoba, who settled in Paris in 1938, Gerard Sekoto chose to leave apartheid South Africa for the City of Lights a decade later. A highly collectible artist, Sekoto is represented in a wine-coloured composition from 1968, Three Figures (estimate R350 000 – 500 000).
Highlights from the contemporary selection include another important work by Penny Siopis, Bonne Esperance (estimate R1 – 1.5 million), from 1988. This multi-faceted pastel work reflects the artist’s interest in colonial maps and historical depictions of the Cape, specifically history as written on the female body and what this says about the colonial conquest and the Enlightenment.
Diane Victor’s There’s Fire in the Thatch (estimate R300 000 – 500 000), a large charcoal and chalk pastel drawing portraying six figures locked in an embrace hovering over a burning landscape is another exceptional work in the sale. Victor won the 1988 Absa L’Atelier Art Competition and – like Siopis – stayed at the Cite Internationale des Arts. During her ten-month residency she produced drawings combining classical references with contemporary social comment and autobiographical detail.
All these works will go under the hammer at Strauss & Co’s new sales and exhibition space at 89 Central Street in Houghton, Johannesburg.
The Paris-themed sale will also include a collection of Eduardo Villa bronze sculptures from the estate of Aldo Carrara, a life-long friend of the artist, as well as number of noteworthy landscape scenes by JH Pierneef.
Strauss & Co will be hosting an extensive programme of public talks and social events in the lead-up to the sale.
Image Jacob MAWELA (Strauss & Co’s Dr Alastair Meredith briefs a media tour next to a sculpture of Lucas Sithole’s Wounded Buffalo, ahead of the auctioneer’s 11 November sale at their new sales and exhibition space, Houghton- JHB).