TRANSIT 15 DEC 2014 – 1 MARCH 2015

Sydney Kumalo, Cecil Skotnes, Ezrom Legae,
Robert Hodgins, Cecily Sash, Anna Vorster

STEFAN HUNDT [ Curator: Sanlam Art Collection ]

There are few artists in the western world who develop a significant visual language which imaginatively expresses the emotional engagement between the artist and their world and also captures in form, texture colour and construction the peculiarities of a time and place. Such artists stand out above their erstwhile peers and colleagues whose skillful practices often remain fixed in a traditional orthodoxy perpetuated by the market and art world establishment.

The much celebrated “avant-garde” movements in Europe that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century produced a considerable number of talented practitioners, many of whom found little acceptance by the art institutions of the time. However perseverance and the expansion of an enlightened bourgeoisie pre-and post-World War II provided a fertile space for the cultivation of the imagination and new ideas about art and the forms to be adopted for the art to remain relevant and significant for its time. Such enlightenment was the foundation for the success of European Modernism and its heroes such as Van Gogh, Rodin, Brancusi, Picasso, Braque, Kirchner, Beckman etc.

This explosion of the imagination of the early twentieth century aptly captured by Robert Hughes in his survey title “Shock of the New” only touched South Africa peripherally before World War II. Artists such as Irma Stern and Maggie Laubser who had experienced the aftermath of historically celebrated movements such as Post-Impressionism, German Expressionism and Fauvism amongst a number synchronic eruptions of Aesthetic rebellion that flooded through Europe, adopted and applied a selection of the stylistic characteristics to subjects in their own milieu.

Their exhibitions elicited only disenchantment amongst the general population and a selection of narrow-minded critics in South Africa, who being confronted with such a radically different aesthetic, could only offer severe opprobrium and rejection.

Although ‘radical’ in appearance, the expressiveness of Stern and Laubser’s painting lacked the modernist utopianist / anarchist ideology that infused the European movements with a socio political efficacy. However in the context of the emerging South African art world, their vision, alongside of other progressively minded artists of the time, such as Harry Trevor, Lippy Lipschitz, Wolf Kibel, Stratford Caldecott and Gerard Sekoto exemplified a radical intervention in the thought and language that characterized the art establishment and its institutions. This radicalization of form in time became celebrated as the art intelligentsia had begun to comprehend and champion formal innovation.

This exhibition of a selection of key works reflects what could be considered a new shock of the new for South Africa audiences. There had been smaller shocks before, but the developments forged by innovative artists such as Cecil Skotnes, Sydney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae and Cecily Sash amongst others in the 1950s and 1960s would transit South Africa into the international art-world on an equal footing to its European and American peers with unique perspectives integrating both Western European and African influences in a innovative pictorial language that would continue to influence the South African art world well into the next millennium.

Much of South African art from end of World War II until the early sixties remained within an existential limbo of British school style naturalism alongside which formalistic experiments in abstraction began to emerge, informed by developments from the European continent and the United States, as a younger generation of artists who had qualified in South Africa travelled overseas for further education or came into contact with such developments through post war immigrants to South Africa. Such was the milieu that Cecil Skotnes, Ezrom Legae, Sydney Kumalo, Robert Hodgins, Anna Vorster and Cecily Sash participated in. It was a period of significant transition politically and socially for South Africa. The segregationist policies already implemented under British rule were further ensconced with the implementation of the policy of Apartheid emphasizing the distinction between so-called “African” and “European” thought and culture and effectively essentialising these to the extent that neither could be reconciled with the other. For an emerging generation of artists at the time, the reconciliation of this false dichotomy underpinned their endeavours to forge a new visual language that could communicate the peculiarities of the human condition in South Africa. In comparison to their erstwhile peers, the art produced by these artists was a radical departure from the accepted and celebrated norm, yet unlike the experience of the previous generation of aesthetic “eccentrics”. There was a significant contingent of collectors and critics that were able to appreciate this innovative approach to art making.

Such is the instance of Cecil Skotnes whose experience in Europe as a soldier and as a student at the University of Witwatersrand was significantly influenced by Egon Guenther. Goldsmith and gallerist, Guenther introduced Skotnes to the art of the woodcut as practiced by German artists Rudolph Scharpf and Willie Baumeister as well as to his growing collection of traditional African sculpture. These strong formal influences combined with a willingness to experiment led Skotnes to develop a visual vocabulary of form, shape, texture and colour that could carry the emotional weight of the subject matter he chose. The wood engraving echoed the expressiveness associated with the German tradition, combined with the texturizing of the surface and the application of confined colour added elements that echoed the arcane archaic imagery associated with San Rock art and some of the cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque, which at the time in South Africa were still seen as radical aesthetic interventions. Skotnes was able to successfully integrate his choice preferences into a visual language that made many of his works unique for the time and place of their creation. The selection of wood panels on this exhibition represents an abiding theme in Skotnes’ oeuvre.

Skotnes’ life and work are well documented, much of it celebrating his commitment to his work as an artist, teacher and his role as mentor to many underprivileged black artists who were excluded from main stream art education under the Apartheid government. Skotnes’ development and management of the Polly Street Art Centre is a nodal point for the evolution of South African art history. His legacy is carried by many artists that attended the centre. However only a handful of these artists achieved an equivalent recognition in the artworld

Sydney Kumalo was one such artist whose sculpture and drawings attracted significant attention in the South African art world and throughout his career in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Although initially tutored by Skotnes and mentored by Egon Guenther and Edoardo Villa, Kumalo developed his own vision and vocabulary of form that remains distinctively recognizable. Kumalo opposed an evolving trend amongst many artists black and white, at the time, who endeavoured to emulate the picturesque qualities of successful precursors such as Gerard Sekoto and Tinus De Jongh, into what became ubiquitous products of sentimental imaginary ideal landscape and urban poverty popularly referred to as “Township Art”. Kumalo’s subject matter derived from an engagement with expressive human body as carrier of meaning and history.

Kumalo’s bronzes on this exhibition are exemplary of the expressive qualities of posture and gesture. He achieves a subtle balance between naturalist form and the abstraction of limbs and features. The body posture in the dancing figure conveys an eloquent sense of slow ritualistic movement which is further enhanced by the textured surface which allows the play of light and shadow to animate the figure further. In contrast the larger figure, Love and Peace is declarative in posture. Hand held high above the head is both a gesture of supplication and blessing. This strangely ecstatic figure filled with pent up energy, which can be interpreted variously in the context of Kumalo’s oeuvre as an ecclesiastical or protesting figure.

Ezrom Legae’s early figurative sculptures exhibit some similar features to those of Kumalo’s. Having enjoyed the tutelage and encouragement of both Skotnes and Kumalo this is not surprising. However, unlike Kumalo, whose figuration retains a formal bodily completeness, Legae proceeds in his later works to attenuate his bodily shape almost beyond recognition. The figures or perhaps more aptly forms remain only nominally human in terms of a recognizable head and body with at times appendages and protrusions indicating other parts of the anatomy. These figures show little of the so-called “African” influence so often referred to by reviewers from the 1960s to the present. Placed in a different geographical locale these sculptures would have been easily accommodated in broader paradigms of modern European bronze sculpture. Like Kumalo, Legae’s images remains principally humanistic in content even when at times the figure begins to metamorphasise.

Critical to the success of both Legae and Kumalo’s art is the use of bronze. This accommodated both artists predilection for texturing of the surface and the application of select patinas which endow the works with a distinct presence, as light dances and reflects across the surface.

Skotnes, Kumalo and Legae’s reworking of the human form using the formal devices associated with German Expressionism and Cubism has led contemporary revisionist critics to situate these in the context of a broader colonial history of South Africa and similar experiences in other parts of Africa. The evolution of a modernistic aesthetic in Africa, from this perspective is ultimately linked to a patronizing effort rising out of European liberalism, which on the one hand wishes to promote the independent development of an indigenous aesthetic based on a notion of ethnic uniqueness whilst on the other hand wishes to reap from this perceived unique local temperament a revitalizing “primitivism”. In this respect Skotnes’ imagery which is often described in terms of the typical rhetoric of embodying the “spirit” of Africa is categorized as “settler primitivism” and Kumalo’s and Legae’s images as a shallow adoption of cubist devices and hence severely derivative of European modernist sculptural practices. This criticism denies the particularity of these artist’s works in the context of South Africa and unfairly diminishes their remarkable imaginative way in which they developed a new visual language appropriate to the time and place of their existence.

The global turn towards abstraction in painting in the 1950’s and 1960’s led by the Abstract Expressionists in the United States was characterized by the almost complete banishment of human figure. South Africa was not immune to these developments and a number of now celebrated artists embraced and adopted this turn with enthusiasm. Cecily Sash, after having visited the United States in the mid-1960s, became a leading and perhaps single exponent of flat, hard-edged painting in South Africa at the time. Her paintings from this period stand out as cerebral exercises of delicately poised compositions and colour, devoid of any emotion, making these works strangely intriguing and enigmatic emblems of a significant shift in aesthetic thinking that would come to significantly influence South African artists of the following decade.

Anna Vorster, a contemporary of Cecily Sash and also a graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand in the same decade, embarked on a different form of abstraction. Where Sash’s work is drained of any emotional bond or grand narrative, Vorster forges through abstraction, a pictorial language that is both contemplative and charged with emotion and vitality. The landscape provides for Vorster the impetus for the development of an image that resonates between an abstract configuration of colours and the narrative of shape, texture and form which describe space and place.

The history of South African art in the 1960s and 1970s remains to be re-assessed. Although South African artists still looked upon Europe and the United States as providing some form of direction and leadership there was simultaneously the development of a diversity of pictorial languages by a select number of artists which deserve to be assessed on their own terms in the context of the specific time and place. Skotnes, Kumalo, Legae, Sash and Vorster were significant protagonists in the South African art world who were successful in doing so at the time.

By the mid-1980s South Africa had reached a political crisis point where the disintegration of the oppressive administration was everywhere evident. Growing political activism spilled into the art world which resulted in the rise of what has been coined Resistance Art which proposed to encapsulate a diversity of imagery and artistic practices that could be interpreted as politically oppositional to the current apartheid government. Figuration once again became a central focus. The tortured or disfigured human body symbolized the turmoil of society. Robert Hodgins’ works from the early 1980’s, with their dismembered compositions of vignettes of figure, head and limbs scattered across the canvas eloquently captures the spirit of the time. Taking his cue from painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit period of Weimar Germany represented by artists such as Otto Dix, Max Beckman and George Grosz to name a few, Hodgins develops a nomenclature of characters, gestures and composition devices that give visual expression to the social stresses and political intrigues which characterized the politico-social transition towards democracy in South Africa. The use of multiple conjoined canvases making up the image is a deliberate intervention to destablise the visual comfort provided by a single “static” shaped format of the traditional square canvas and emphasises the fragmentation that characterized the imagery across the surface. Hodgin’s painting is both a philosophical musing on the nature and character of painting as well as the history of art and a sophisticated development of a fluid personal iconography which is socially critical and done with a good dose of humour. In this sense Hodgins is one of South Africa’s most innovative post-postmodern painters, whose visual language will remain unique in South African art history.