In 1960s SA the remarkable poetry of “the skinny man with the green jersey”, as he introduced himself in Afrikaans on page four of his first book of poetry, set the world on fire.

Breyten Breytenbach’s images on the pages of the book also gave readers a visceral charge. Die Ysterkoei Moet Sweet, published in 1964 (the translation can’t relate the unsettling surreal drama conjured up by the image of an “iron cow sweating”) had a quaint, eye-catching picture on its cover.

The cow/human with a third eye — an enduring Breytenbach image — illustration had a whiff of Picasso’s absurdity, a dash of unsettling surrealism, while a bogeyman lurked in the small corner of the back cover. The art was also the work of the then 25-year-old Paris-based poet.

Paysage Interieur (1993) Picture: SUPPLIED
Paysage Interieur (1993) Picture: SUPPLIED

In 1967 Die Huis van die Dowe (House of the Deaf) confirmed the sestiger poet’s remarkable and dynamic word skill in a volume declared to be the finest poetry in Afrikaans in the decade. It remains one of the great books of Afrikaans poetry.

The inside covers featured ink drawings of wayward inhabitants of the house of the title, while the cover had a postcard-size painted image that seemed to satirise the poet.  Words and visual imagery worked hand in hand for this inventive artist.

With Breytenbach now making his debut in a top-notch contemporary SA commercial gallery at the age of 79, there is an opportunity to re-evaluate the duality of his creative career, and to reflect on his uniquely personal iconography and its visual expression over the years in paintings and pictures alongside his literary oeuvre. In the background, his political misadventures during those heady days shade his colourful career.

Cape Town’s Stevenson gallery has pulled out all the stops to showcase The 81 Ways of Letting Go a Late Self. The gallery, no doubt tuned into the market, offers a mini-overview ranging from some early squiggly drawings to large in-your-face mixed-media pictures mostly executed in paint.

Light Dream (2018) Picture: SUPPLIED
Light Dream (2018) Picture: SUPPLIED

The presentation is polished. Finely framed works are spread around in smaller and larger white spaces with enough breathing room to force viewers to focus on the often uncanny, sometimes odd, imagery that is Breytenbach’s trademark.

A recent large work, titled Light Dream, is nearly 3m tall and takes centre stage in the bigger space. Surrounded by a variation of self-portraits, including known ones such as the darkly funny Memory Out of Hand (1983/2004), the Dada-inspired, cheerful Autoportrait Masqué (1990) and elegant Paysage Intérieur (1993), it is a well-stage-managed, vibrant and quaint one-man show.

Literary minds of the 1960s were tripped by unusual and highly charged sentences Breytenbach created with vividly alternative metaphor and simile in the Éluardian fashion. The parallel in his visual artworks, as in those early book illustrations, and in a few drawings on show here, are obvious. Yet, to this day, some of it comes across as effected superficial waywardness, remaining impenetrable.

The clever choices for this show play up the “conceptual” aspects: the textured, patched, surface-on-surfaces, media awareness, collages that drift in and out of painted planes that sometimes seem to indulge in limitation of technical application, and, of course, the weird and wonderful counter punctuation of imagery.

An abundance of self-portraiture offers themes of self-reflection, underpinned by the Zen-infused exhibition title.

A series called Gongshi, referring to the Chinese “scholar’s rocks”, traditionally natural objects embodying the aesthetic-classic Buddhist body stances, have a bold introspective charge. In Boetatjie van die Kaap (2009) a similar pose gets a delightful humorous context. The painter/artist as clown or prophet could be a subtext in numerous works.

Recurring symbols such as birds (feathery-winged human masks or claw-like feet) and eyes (the mysterious third or missing ones) can be traced over the years.

Memory Out Of Hand (1983/2004) Picture: SUPPLIED
Memory Out Of Hand (1983/2004) Picture: SUPPLIED

Notwithstanding his high profile, few major local collections have Breytenbach artworks. None of SA’s public museums, including the Iziko SA National Gallery, own his art. Among his local collectors are some wealthy Afrikaans business people.

It would be fair to say that Breytenbach’s visual art slots into a peculiar cultural position in his homeland — probably the place, ironically, that made him famous.

Briefly a student of Lippy Lipshitz at the Michaelis School of Art in the late 1950s, with sojourns in Europe and, especially, Paris, which was home for a long time, Breytenbach has exhibited in Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Edinburgh, Minneapolis, Rome and Rotterdam.

But local art critics have not always responded with enthusiasm. As one said to me anonymously (because criticism is a sensitive matter), it is often difficult to find a connection with his imagery, which frequently remains locked and lacking in immediate dynamic visual presence.

The lack of presence is not entirely true in all cases — the choices for this exhibition and its presentation are carefully pitched — but solipsistic surrealism creates barriers to viewer interaction. And enigmatic visual puzzles, despite boldness and drama, are tempting only up to a point.

Breytenbach maintains a kind of outsider-ship. Yet after a career of more than 50 years, his visual language has defined itself. It is pretty much his own alphabet and grammar. Either you find a challenge and pleasure in its complexity and disquieting obscurity, or it passes you by.

To what degree this rather important exhibition, framed in contemporary art market terms, reconfigures Breytenbach’s significance as a visual artist, remains to be seen. Stevenson’s curators have placed their bets with professional precision.

Those of us still under the spell of those early adventures in dynamic, new, off-the-wall poetry may view these artworks as a glorious add-on to a most notable career.

The 81 Ways of Letting Go a Late Self is at the Stevenson gallery until November 24.