Motion: Abstract painter Nel Erasmus’s Sally at the Bar. In her paintings, she says, the background washes in and fills the space, enabling it to move through the object. Supplied
Motion: Abstract painter Nel Erasmus’s Sally at the Bar. In her paintings, she says, the background washes in and fills the space, enabling it to move through the object. Supplied

In a climate of the highly prescriptive and the volatile, an occasional emergence of abstract art comes as a relief. It can be an antidote to, and refuge from, the minefield of what can be said by whom, when and how.

Although difficult conversations should not be suppressed, some balance should be found between extreme polarities.

Discoveries made in the Blombos Cave near Mossel Bay by archaeologist Dr Christopher Henshilwood show that abstract art was being made in SA 73,000 years ago. An ochre fragment engraved with cross-hatched patterns made by Homo sapiens was found in the cave.

Reinvention: Above: Hands Off. Below: Human Flower. Erasmus paints flowers as symbols of roundness and as receptacles. Picture: SUPPLIED
Reinvention: Above: Hands Off. Below: Human Flower. Erasmus paints flowers as symbols of roundness and as receptacles. Picture: SUPPLIED

Although Nel Erasmus has been an abstract painter for almost 70 years, she didn’t start out as one. She left SA as a 26-year-old postgraduate student from Wits University and went to Paris and the Académie Ranson in the early 1950s. Later she entered the Sorbonne’s Ecole des Beaux Arts.

She returned to SA and was the director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery from 1964 until her retirement in 1977.

In Paris two liberations awaited Nel: the city was still celebrating its liberation after World War 2 and abstraction had been freed from the grip of representation through the impact of Cubism. The presence and influence of the Post-Impressionist group The Nabis, was still being felt.

Erasmus’s lecturer Paul Ranson, founder of the academy, was a primary member of the group. Students were not told how to create but were rather exposed to various art movements and encouraged to find their own voice, Erasmus says.

The Nabis may have helped Erasmus find her way but it was abstraction that gave her wings.

She is "both attracted to and disturbed by the appearance of objects and things".

She moved into Cubism after spending three days in 1955 at the seaside in Torre del Mar looking at fishermen’s boats. The shapes of the boats were to remain with her. "Motion was present in their masts. The need and the challenge to portray motion has remained with me ever since," she says.

But for Erasmus flow was impeded by the circle and the square in Cubism.

"I had to reinvent Cubism for myself, if I wanted to portray motion" she explains.

"This meant altering the previously passive background, changing it into a participating space. The Cubists stopped — never went through, never made space step out of its background completely."

Once this started happening in her work "the background washed in and filled the space enabling the background to move through the object".

One of the lecturers at the academy, Gustave Singier, reminded his students that "we are all coming from Cezanne". During Erasmus’s struggle, Cezanne helped by guiding her to "burst open the outline".

It was "abstract art, the offspring of Cubism, that eventually opened the way to movement and motion for me.

"Flow is very important, even in the still lifes. There are a few paintings where the corners of things break off and they flow more," she adds.

Erasmus uses a koan-like phrase that describes her approach in a nutshell. "The horse must be there, but he must also disappear," suggesting that it’s the essence of movement in objects and not the narrative that powers her work.

Now in her 90th year, she is one of the earliest SA abstract artists and has held more than 30 solo exhibitions.

Erasmus, who is a venerated national treasure, is small, lean, intense, engaging and wonderfully vital.

Her latest exhibition came about because she asked why all her contemporaries are exhibiting at Welgemeend, Cape Town, and she isn’t.

She has 85 paintings on display, representing 70 years’ work. Her subjects are varied but don’t change. "I revisit them all the time and they keep giving," Erasmus says.

They include nudes, flowers and horses.

Much of her subject matter is symbolic. She gives an example of flowers, saying she could "never just sit down and paint flowers". Rather Erasmus paints flowers as symbols of roundness and as receptacles, as well as from an awareness of the bud that "contains the secret of the universe, the spiral protected by the bending leaves". Painting is based on "the need to do", without which artists cannot work, she says.

The exhibition spanning seven decades is at Welgemeend, in Gardens, Cape Town, until October 5.