“Why am I an artist?” Braam Kruger once asked himself. “For the lifestyle.” By all accounts Kruger was an old school artist who felt compelled to live up to the myth that artists ought to be eccentric bohemians living on the fringes of conventional society. Based on the evidence of this retrospective exhibition, his persona overshadowed his practice; one gets the impression that Kruger passed it off as an offshoot of his lifestyle, which included much witty repartee. Undoubtedly Kruger’s wry sense of humour, irreverence and recalcitrance can be traced in his art.
Kruger dug deep into the art canon, appropriating and/or co-opting, among others, David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801), Ruben’s The Rape of Europe (1630) and Delacroix’s Liberty on the Barricades (1830) to create a cheeky brand of postmodern art that, at times, used the past as a prism to reflect on the present. The impulse brings to mind Johannes Phokela. Curator Fred Scott’s exhibition includes series of nudes, which see a cornucopia of visual iconography drawn from popular culture all set into compositions featuring traditional female nudes a la Manet’s Olympia (1863). In Parfait Island (2000) a nude reclines on a piece of leopard skin; at her feet are two illustrations of rabbits, one executed cartoon style, the other given a cubist rendering. A velvet curtain sits to the side of a vast window offering a dreamlike vista of a sunset. A giant ice-cream dessert and martini glass are lodged into a contained cityscape in the distance. Unlike Phokela, Kruger’s brand of pastiche reaches towards creating images drawn from the realm of fantasy. One would expect to find Parfait Island inside a casino.In some instances, such as The General (1989) and Equestrian Portrait, Pieter Cillier (1991), reality intrudes: Joburg’s skyline hovers bleakly on the horizon serving as a reminder of Kruger’s context and the socio-political complexities it entailed. His art nevertheless evinces a desire to revel in an excess of diverse and incongruent visual sources and the artificiality that defines the painted surface. There is substance to be drawn from his amusing and entertaining compositions. In portraying affluent whites as noble, brave conquerors and his domestic worker as Lady Justice, he mocks South African society. His nude portraits don’t appear to articulate any gendered message; rather, the women’s nakedness is simply another manifestation of his compulsive and gluttonous gaze that consumes iconography and rearranges it indiscriminately. These images exude a level of vulgarity that Kruger no doubt intended. It is not simply that he wished to undercut the old masters and exercise their authority: Kruger wanted to engage with the function of the painted image in the postmodern era, where old hierarchies had collapsed and notions of temporality had shifted. This exhibition, sponsored by Standard Bank Limpopo, makes clear that Kruger’s aesthetic hardly changed in the period from the late 1980s until his death in 2008. One is left with the sense that while mocking of the old masters, Kruger, ironically, was bound to their legacy.