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Vermaak | Entertainment > Visueel | Visual > Artikels | Articles > Introduction to the SMAC exhibition: Abstract Art in South Africa during the Isolation Years

Introduction to the SMAC exhibition: Abstract Art in South Africa during the Isolation Years


Muller Ballot - 2007-06-25
Muller Ballot introduces the exhibition, Abstract Art in South Africa during the Isolation Years, which opened at the Stellenbosch Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery:

Abstraction – in the figurative as well as the non-figurative sense, has been with us for a hundred years already and shows no signs of disappearing. The new forms and modes of expression that appeared from the 1890s in cities such as Paris, Brussels and London had already heralded most of the features of the visual arts of twentieth-century modernism. After pioneering paintings such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1906-07) and Matisse’s The Dance (1909) were created and became familiar, abstraction became a part of the changing perception of our external and internal environment. There is undoubtedly a link between the modern world and abstract representations of it in art – a link that is no longer strange to our eyes and our emotions. It also seems that even in this postmodernist era, those of us who create and those of us who appreciate the visual arts simply cannot escape from this natural relationship. Seen in this light, we can expect abstraction as an art form to be with us for a very long time still. In fact, it was Picasso who once said that abstraction is simply another form of realism.

In South Africa abstraction arose and developed later, more slowly and more sporadically than it did in Europe. There are particular reasons for this. Quite apart from the physical distances, the most important cause was the country’s international isolation and the concomitant cultural boycotts from the 1950s for about 40-50 years as a consequence of the socio-political conditions prevailing here. Artists as well as art lovers were prevented during this period from learning in the normal ways about new things happening internationally. This increasing marginalisation, both at home and abroad, led - particularly in the 1960s and 1970s - to minimal exposure for, and recognition of, our most prominent talents. This happened precisely to those painters, sculptors and fine art printmakers who incorporated abstraction into their works. A number of them had already left the country from the late 1940s to go and live and work abroad either permanently or for longer or shorter periods of time. We could then expect that some of the most significant works from this period – one of the most wide-ranging and important in South African art history – would initially be created abroad, especially in Paris. It is therefore not a coincidence that most of the works of those artists in local collections and even in the art market do not enjoy the recognition they deserve – even to this day. In this sense these artists have been referred to in the literature as the “lost generation” of South African visual artists.

The first exhibitions of abstract art in this country were held in the late 1950s in Pretoria and Johannesburg. With very few exceptions, they consisted largely of figurative statements. Eventually non-figurative abstraction also steadily emerged in South Africa during the 1960s and 1970s, which implies that the general public, the media, official institutions and the art market were slow to accept it.


Although progress was slow and uncertain, key turning points in these fields became ever more evident from the late 1970s onwards. The decisive factor was the unique contribution from a small number of post-war artists who came from abroad to settle in this country (for example, Edoardo Villa and Fred Schimmel) as well as from those South Africans who had already returned from their wanderings overseas (for example, Christo Coetzee, Paul du Toit, Bettie Cilliers-Barnard, Erik Laubscher and Anna Vorster). Another important contribution was made by the local exponents of this approach among the younger generations (for example, Judith Mason, Andrew Verster and Karel Nel). A significant consequence of this was that in the course of time a number of black painters and sculptors emerged who could work in abstract forms with great conviction (for example David Koloane, Pat Mautloa, Sydney Kumalo and Louis Maqhubela). But this latter phenomenon was also the result of the mediation and inspiration of teachers such as, for example, Cecil Skotnes, Larry Scully, Fred Schimmel, Edoardo Villa and Bill Ainslie.

Over the past 15 years or so, important exhibitions presented by South African galleries, arts festivals and corporate bodies have shown clearly that a carefully considered interest is developing in the oeuvres of abstract art of the so-called years of isolation. The number and quality of abstract works offered for sale at art dealers and auctions during this period can certainly confirm this growing sense of affinity. Fortunately the last few years have also seen an increasing number of publications on this period and the relevant oeuvres. Although certain connoisseurs are starting to become excited about this, the scope of the revival remains fairly limited.

Keeping these points in mind, it is particularly remarkable that SMAC Art Gallery has had the insight to present an exhibition of such variety and quality this winter to illustrate the unique nature of abstraction in South Africa during those difficult years of isolation. And even more so, because this is the first of a number of follow-up exhibitions on the same topic planned for the next few years. One can look forward to these occasions, which should demonstrate that the art market and the promotion of art appreciation should develop alongside one another.

- June 2007