CHRIS THURMAN: Local isn’t just lekker, it’s global
SA artists feature at Strauss & Co’s upcoming November auctions
The SA art auction scene was abuzz this week, with many collectors’ eyes focused on a previously unseen, recently authenticated painting by French impressionist Pierre-August Renoir. The 1912 still life, Fruits (Oranges et Citrons), was the multimillion-rand headline lot at Strauss & Co’s Transcending Boundaries auction — which also featured minor works by some other famous artists at surprisingly affordable estimates: Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró and even an Andy Warhol thrown in for good measure.
The Renoir is certainly significant from an art-historical perspective. The colouration is bright and bold. One can appreciate how it fits into the final period of the master’s life, a late style at least partly affected by his physical limitations and ill health. But (dare I say it?) this small-scale piece would probably leave many viewers wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s no Le Déjeuner des Canotiers or Bal du Moulin de la Galette.
The difficulty here is the impact of impressionism (whether acknowledged or not) on every amateur still life, landscape or portrait painter in the hundred years since Renoir’s death. As a result, similar depictions of fruit are a dime a dozen. Does the knowledge that this is a “Renoir” change the way we see it? Undoubtedly. Do we look for touches of the sublime, the iconic, the immortal, that may not actually be there? Probably.
Of course, there is something in sensing what Stephen Greenblatt called “the touch of the real” — the materiality and uniqueness of this particular art object, the bald facts of its provenance merging with the romance of its passage from one hand to another: from Renoir’s farm near the Mediterranean coast to a Paris gallery and eventually to an SA collector.
Still, I must admit to being far less interested in Renoir’s fruits than I am in Strauss’s upcoming November auctions, in which the big names are those of SA artists whose distinctive methods, styles and contexts are handsomely represented by the broad scope of the items being sold.
Perhaps this betrays a certain parochialism on my part — a clumsy arts version of SA’s currently hyperbolic sporting patriotism. I like to think of it as a kind of mental decolonisation, resisting our collective learned deferral to the Global North; not so much an insistence that “local is lekker” as a recognition that “local is global”.
The first auction, Defining Impressions: A Selection of Prints from SA Studios”, is a celebration not only of artists working in print but also of the printmakers and studios on whom they depend: Mark Attwood of The Artists’ Press, The David Krut Workshop, Leshoka Joe Legate’s LL Editions, Kim Berman and Nhlanhla Xaba’s Artist Proof Studios, Malcolm Christian’s Caversham Press and Jillian Ross Print.
The dominant figure is, however, the inimitable William Kentridge, whose etchings, screen prints, lithographs and linocuts are splashed lovingly across the pages of the auction catalogue. A still life with fruit (if one were to push my iconoclastic argument) could be a Renoir as easily as it could be the work of a gifted hobbyist. By contrast, there is no mistaking a Kentridge. The same might be said of other SA artists whose prints are included in Defining Impressions: Sam Nhlengethwa, Penny Siopis, Deborah Bell, Norman Catherine and Robert Hodgins among others.
The second auction, Modern and Contemporary Art, also incorporates an SA art pantheon of sorts. Sydney Kumalo, Edoardo Villa, Gerard Sekoto, Anton van Wouw, Alexis Preller, Maggie Laubser, George Pemba and Cecil Skotnes are all there, along with the compulsory set of JH Pierneefs and, happily, a number of artists who are still alive and practising.
Among the rarer lots are three paintings by Moses Tladi (1903-59), described in the catalogue as “one of the earliest black landscape painters working in a Western tradition”. Tladi’s paintings are expected to sell for around R100,000 per piece — a relatively modest sum. Or will the market rally around this “enigmatic, talented, gentle, and for too long overlooked” artist?
• Defining Impressions (November 6 at 7pm) and Modern and Contemporary Art (November 7 at 7pm) will take place at Strauss & Co Johannesburg and as live virtual auctions: http://www.straussart.co.za
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.