Passionate collectors: Frank Kilbourn, left, and fellow abstract art collector Pieter Colyn with a work by Walter Battiss. Picture: SUPPLIED
Passionate collectors: Frank Kilbourn, left, and fellow abstract art collector Pieter Colyn with a work by Walter Battiss. Picture: SUPPLIED

Frank Kilbourn can’t pinpoint why he is drawn to abstract art, but he can remember the day it began to intrigue him and the artwork that converted him: an Eduardo Villa sculpture that he encountered as a student at the then Rand Afrikaans University.

While he was blown away by Villa’s architectonic forms, his father remarked that the artist was "a great welder".

Kilbourn, the founder of the Bright group and chairman of Strauss & Co, skipped a lecture to listen to a talk by Villa and Walter Battiss, which he claims "carried me over the threshold, so to speak, into abstract art".

A visit to the restored manor at Welgemeend in Cape Town, where Kilbourn’s collection of art from the 1950s to the 1970s is on display in a month-long exhibition sponsored by Strauss & Co, shows that he immersed himself in abstract art.

Each room presents a discrete sub-movement from this era. In one are works by Walter Battiss, Alexis Preller, Cecil Skotnes and Cecily Sash that stand at the fringe between figuration and abstraction, parading an African idiom.

In another room, works by Georgina Ormiston, Paul du Toit and Nils Burwitz take a heady journey into pure abstraction that is loosely tethered to nature and the landscape. An adjoining room is populated salon style with large canvases defined by vertical lines characterising hard-edged abstraction by the likes of Hannatjie van der Wat.

Abstraction: South African art from the 1950s-1970s is the focus of the Welgemeend Art Month programme, intended to be educational and to raise funds to maintain the historic property dating back to 1693.

Also on view is the Boerneef collection of valuable 20th century artworks collected by Afrikaans poet and scholar Izak "Boerneef" van der Merwe (1897–1967), which are housed at the venue permanently.

The works on the main abstract exhibit are part of Frank and Lizelle Kilbourn and Pieter Colyn’s private collections. This makes for a convivial conversation between the works and two art collectors who often engage in a bidding war at auctions.

"Pieter’s work is like a key that unlocks works from my collection. When I see his works next to mine, they all make sense," Kilbourn says.

He hadn’t been interested in collecting "30 works from one artist. I would rather collect three good works from 10 artists. I get bored very easily and I’m very curious".

That a lot of people are working with colour, form and structure again causes us to look at who has done it in the past,
Frank Kilbourn

As a sign of a maturing art scene, many collectors are coming out of the woodwork and showing their collections to the public (think Linda Givon and Jack Ginsburg exhibiting their collections at the Wits Art Museum). Kilbourn says this can be a daunting prospect.

"It is a self-portrait of yourself in a way and so you are a bit nervous about being judged," he says. "But it is a small component relative to the joy that you get out of sharing."

Kilbourn says Zander Blom and Moshekwa Langa are driving and riding the new wave of abstract art in SA and he noticed how they increased interest in their forerunners.

"That a lot of people are working with colour, form and structure again causes us to look at who has done it in the past," he says.

The abstract mode first took hold in SA in the early 1950s. It largely manifested due to a self-consciousness that developed in relation to international art movements. Art historian Esme Berman believed this was because SA participated in the Venice Biennale for the first time in that decade.

"A lot of the artists here [on this exhibition], if you think about it, were coming back from having spent time in Europe," says Kilbourn.

Some had studied and remained abroad – Ormiston studied art in Glasgow and London, Christo Coetzee settled in Paris after completing his studies in London. Du Toit’s Abstract Composition (1958) is inspired by Parisian rooftops.

"I love the composition and colour and I got very involved in his work," says Kilbourn.

"I have about four works from this period, when he was in Paris. I’ve got the painting where he painted them in the blocks before he started abstracting it. And the one after that, he abstracted it even more.

"For me, if you can see the journey and still recognise the artist in the end, that is incredibly rewarding."

Some of the works allude to traditional genres or present a bridge between abstraction and figuration such as the still life works by Erik Laubscher or Gregoire Boonzaier and the landscapes by Nils Burwitz.

However, largely the land is evoked through earthy palettes or textured surfaces evoking organic substances.

Kilbourn believes these features all speak of a "concept of an African DNA" that is automatically present in art, not only of this period, but in contemporary works too, like that of El Anatsui, the Ghanaian artist known for abstract works fashioned from bottle tops.

Kilbourn talks with passion and knowledge as he darts from work to work, expanding on the features that captured his attention or that he learnt to appreciate over time.

"Every artwork is, to some extent, a self-portrait at that point in time. That’s where you are in your life cycle, how you are relative to your immediate environment and, how you make sense of the world."

• Welgemeend Art Month runs at the Welgemeend manor in Gardens, Cape Town until the end of August.

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