Figure and Ground



Cecil Skotnes, Walter Battiss, Peter Clarke, Dumile Feni, Gerard Sekoto, Kenneth Baker, Christo Coetzee, Carl Büchner, Norman Catherine, Piet van Heerden, Kenneth Baker, Robert Hodgins

STEFAN HUNDT [ Curator: Sanlam Art Collection ]

The terms ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ are ubiquitous in the sphere of the visual arts. Together they describe fundamental relationships between elements in the construction / composition of any artwork in two dimensions. Stretching and manipulating the relationship between these two elements has been the raison d’être or ideology of modernist art practice.

Beginning in the late 19th century, when the focal point of a painting no longer determined the nature of perspective to be applied, to the mid-20th century, when the denial of perspective was pushed to its most extreme form, the “flatness” of the canvas became the dominant operator in the construction of a painting. This historical development in artists’ relationship to, and understanding of, perspective begins with the paintings of the celebrated Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and is later exemplified by the scatter and drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, the amorphous colour compositions of Rothko, and the long “slabs” of Ed Reinhardt.

Few South African artists seriously pursued the extreme end of this aesthetic ideology. However, the liberation of the picture plane as a surrogate for a glass pane or window on the world enabled a veritable aesthetic revolution in the two dimensional visual arts, albeit only some fifty year later in South Africa.

Naturalism was the primary educational foundation for most South African artists in the early 20th century. This changed significantly in the 1950s, with university art schools reconnecting with their European and American peers. Earlier there had been some significant precedent innovators, such as Maggie Laubser and Irma Stern, whose painterly distorted forms and highly stylized constructions shocked and dismayed parts of the art establishment and prepared the way for a departure from the naturalist canon. By the 1960s a select number of South African artists had significant exposure to developing trends in international art world through study overseas, and on return to their home, actively developed abstract and semi-abstract stylistic approaches to painting and sculpture.

In this exhibition there is a significant selection of artists whose engagement with the modernist aesthetic placed them at the forefront of the contemporary Avant-garde of their time. Cecil Skotnes, Walter Battiss, and Chisto Coetzee reached the peak of their careers in the early and mid-1970s, only to be somewhat relegated to the background in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, the South African art world focussed on internal political dilemmas. Parallel to these developments, international art historians, critics and curators came to grips with a rejection of modernist ideals in favour of a postmodernist perspective that embraced simultaneously a demand for “politically” engaged or activist art practices as well as a plurality of aesthetic practices that had previous been neglected or ignored by the fine arts establishment. The key words of art discourse at the time were “relevance”, “indigineity”, local and “afrocentric” as opposed to “euro-centric”, “transitional art” and many more. Norman Catherine’s painting, titled A’ la Carte, is exemplary of that period. His use of a cartoonlike style combined with “in your face” imagery reflected the aggressive schizoid society of apartheid South Africa. Similarly Robert Hodgins’ two paintings on this exhibition revel in a peculiar theatricality that echoes the tense atmosphere that engulf the country at time.

By the turn of the century the South African art world had begun to reassess its modernist past and paintings. Skotnes, Battiss and Coetzee stood out as superb examples of an “indigenous” tradition of modernism that compared favourably with European and American equivalents of the same period.

In contrast the works of Piet van Heerden, Kenneth Baker, Gerard Sekoto, Carl Büchner, and Peter Clarke exemplify the persistence of an established tradition of “lyrical expressionism”. The subject matter is familiar and the style imbues with a vital energy.

Piet van Heerden and Kenneth Baker’s renditions of District Six were produced at a time when this suburb still existed in full swing. Van Heerden’s view shows a street leading to the sea, across a checkerboard of multi-coloured rooftops, framed by the two buildings. For van Heerden, composition is vital and his painterly marks convey a signature salute to his peers, particularly Hugo Naudé and

Pieter Wenning. Kenneth Baker, painting 17 years after van Heerden, turns the spectator around. For Baker this is an image of belonging and longing where the emotive sense of the place is crucial. District Six, already designated a slum in the 1960s, is depicted as a place with a elegant and convivial high street. The buildings are exaggeratedly tall, a backdrop for a diminutive figure. The scene presents a theatrical fantasy of a real place that would later be raised to the ground, its inhabitants dispersed across the Cape Flats, in the following twenty years.

The portraits by Sekoto, Baker, Clarke, and Büchner present generic characters. Their significance lies in the artists’ ability to convey character through the eloquent application of paint and use of colour. Sekoto’s Young Man and Baker’s Portrait of a Man could perhaps be self-portraits. Sekoto presents a simplified head with broadly inscribed features that echo traditional African sculpture. It’s meditative countenance introduced by the closed eyes is further emphasised by a halo of orange colour that surrounds the head. In contrast, Baker’s portrait presents a straightforward confrontation between spectator and image. The figure’s eyes are at once focused on the viewer and the possible subject; the artist. Clarke’s Blues Singer exploits the stark black and white contrast of harsh and irregular lines to convey a sad expressiveness to the slightly familiar yet anonymous head. Büchner’s approach is quite different. This painting offers the viewer an alternative beauty. The exaggerated long neck and simplification of the facial features combine to form an enigmatic “Madonna”, or a sophisticated modern courtesan.

This eclectic selection of works covers a half-century of South African art when antagonistic aesthetic ideals competed for prominence in the art market. The relationship between the figure and ground became contested terrain ideologically and formally. Neither aesthetic ideal seemed to have been able to trump the other at the time, and both ideals have now become iconic examplars of their time.