Writing Art History Since 2002

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Warren Siebrits Johannesburg

Curated by Warren Siebrits, Paintings – Methven to Mashile demonstrates the richness of artistic production in South Africa over a sustained period of time – approximately 100 years. The artists exhibited are linked to the history of painting in this country, either through birth or the social and political events of the twentieth century. Together with artists who have received critical acclaim – Robert Hodgins and Sam Nhlengethwa – Siebrits also selected artists who, while of some historical and aesthetic importance, are little known.In part, Siebrits’ selection process, and the exhibition’s accompanying text, draws attention to the contingent historical, social, political and economic processes whereby artists either become invisible or are privileged by art history and criticism, galleries, museums, collectors and auction houses. The show begins with landscapes by colonial artists James Smith Morland and Cathcart William Methven, both of whom settled in here in the late nineteenth century. Siebrits argues that the contribution to South African art of Victorian figures such as Morland and Methven are too easily dismissed by contemporary academia eager to situate itself in post-apartheid South Africa. A double-sided work by the German-Jewish modernist Hanns Ludwig Katz is one of the many paintings on display that speak of art’s relation to politics. Katz immigrated to South Africa in 1936 to escape Nazi persecution and censorship. His contribution consists of a landscape and portrait executed in the moody, introspective style of expressionism. Katz continued to paint after his arrival in South Africa but, sadly, died of cancer four years later. Referred to by Marilyn Martin as “one of the missing persons of twentieth century art”, his association with South Africa and his significance to German art of the 1920s and 1930s have only been recognised in recent years. A series of six very beautiful, jewel-like portraits by Andrew Motjuoadi are considered by Siebrits to be of the most important pieces on show. Commissioned by Dr Fabian Ribeiro, Motjuoadi painted Ribeiro, his wife Florence and their four children in 1965. Tragically, an apartheid death squad murdered Ribeiro and his wife in 1986. Although Motjuoadi died a few years after the Ribeiro commission, aged only 33, he has received some recognition as an artist. His Head of a Child appeared on the poster of the exhibition The Neglected Tradition, which opened at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1988. The work of Cape Town-born artists Valerie Desmore and Albert Adams is compelling. Desmore’s The Family suggests, in composition, the formal, linear organization of the conventional Victorian family photograph, but the considered rawness of her highly textured, expressionist surfaces and dark, suffocating palette draw the viewer into a complex psychological drama. In Adams’ Resurrection, a naked, human figure struggles against an overwhelming darkness. As a result of South Africa’s race based politics, Desmore and Adams (both were classified as “coloured”) moved to Europe in the 1940s and 1950s respectively, and now live in London. Siebrits’ careful selection and organization of works within the exhibition space together with the text accompanying the show added an important intellectual dimension to the works exhibited. It also offered the public an opportunity to engage in a far more meaningful way with the work than is usual.

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