Modernism rapidly transformed the art landscape of the early twentieth century through avant-garde movements such as Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Enthused by the rapid industrial and technological advances experienced all over Europe at the time, artists developed innovative conceptual ideologies in their quest to address questions about the nature of art and the human experience. Paramount to every one of these pioneer artists, was the existentialist exploration of his or her individual vision.
Looking back over more than a century of rejected realism, one is struck by the intricate abstract styles which evolved to celebrate the beauty, and comment on the complexity, of our world. The search for perfection through abstraction has inspired artists to dissect the relationship between the real and the imagined. This philosophy is something ethereal, intangible and labyrinthine; the artist’s search for the Ideal – a concept which will communicate the essence of its subject; the truth.
Transforming, and not imitating, reality is what great artists strive to achieve. Picasso and Braque, inspired by Cezanne’s use of multiple viewpoints in his last works, developed this concept into Cubism – the twentieth century’s most famous example of abstraction. While Cubism still referred to outside subject matter, Kandinsky produced work which had no reference to any physical reality – generally referred to today as “non-figurative abstract” art, which is actually a misnomer as there is no physical reference which can be “abstracted”. Bridget Riley’s silkscreens of linear bands of colour are a prime example of “pure” or “non-figurative” abstraction, as they rely entirely on the relationships between colours, and the fact that the same colours related in different ways can have a different range of effects.
The influence of Abstraction on South African art originated primarily in Paris. Through the teachings of André Lhote and Fernand Legér, many young South African artists who studied in Paris after WWII were introduced to abstraction in terms of the broader conceptual principles regarding composition, line, form and colour. These influences were adopted, and often Africanised, by artists such as Maud Sumner, Erik Laubscher, Eugene Labuschagne, Anna Vorster, Paul du Toit and Christo Coetzee.
The unique aspect of the development of South African abstract art was the influence of our indigenous rock art, as well as the motifs and decorative patterns used by the Nguni people. These influences resulted in the authentic and unique characteristics of works produced by artists such as Walter Battiss, Alexis Preller, Edoardo Villa, Cecil Skotnes and Lucky Sibiya; thus adding another brilliant facet to our local art history. Unlike their European counterparts who appropriated the sculptural qualities of masks and totems of Central and West Africa in their works, the influence of indigenous imagery and design posed no ethical dilemma for African artists, as these references formed part of their heritage.
Abstract Expressionism initially emerged in New York just after WWII. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were among its pioneers, and Willem de Kooning was one of the prominent European artists to contribute to its development. The general objective in most of these artists’ work was to restore art and society after WWII. Artists such as Pollock used Action Painting, an intuitive and expressive technique whereby paint is thrown and dripped onto canvas to capture ‘symbols of universal meaning’, a philosophy promoted by Jung. Rothko invented Colour Field Painting, filling his canvases with ‘fields’ of luminous and broody colours to evoke the psychic energy of contemplation. Elements of abstract expressionism are evident in the works of South African artists such as Douglas Portway, Louis Maqubela, Ephraim Ngatane and Frans Claerhout.
One of the ironies of the art world is that any artist’s success, generally measured in financial terms and therefore determined by sales, is more or less determined by buyers who are often the least qualified to judge the work. In the South African scenario, this was one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the avant-garde artists of the post-war era when they tried to introduce abstracted imagery to a conservative and largely uninformed public. The local resistance to abstract art, and the cultural isolation brought about by the political situation, meant that very few of the artists from this era were able to make a living from their sales. This makes their achievements in terms of producing unique and innovative works all the greater.
The group of works assembled for this exhibition covers many different facets of abstraction from as early as 1941. The criteria applied for the selection of works have been based on abstraction in the broader sense, focusing more on the conceptual than the technical aspects of the work. This being a commercial show where all the works are for sale, it has been limited by what the gallery was able to acquire over the preceding two years, and is therefore not an attempt to offer a balanced and carefully curated collection that covers the subject comprehensively. Our objective is to contribute to the ongoing exploration and re-discovery of artistic endeavors by brave artists, which will help inform our understanding and appreciation of these developments that shaped art history internationally as well as locally.