BOOK REVIEW: Past reflections and future visions for role of national gallery in SA
A History of The Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity
This first book-length history of the South African National Gallery provides an understanding and appreciation of the art collections for scholars, connoisseurs and the uninitiated.
As a cultural and art historian with a senior lecturer post at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, author Anna Tietze has had a long-standing interest in public art-collecting and has curated exhibitions at the national gallery since the 1990s.
"The gallery functions as a site of vital dialogue and does so with regard to both its historical and its contemporary collection. It is important that it continues to do so in a way that is historically aware," she writes.
The national gallery grew out of the initiative of the South African Fine Arts Association in 1870 and opened in 1930 in the building it occupies today on Government Avenue in Cape Town. It is a collection of much more than paintings, prompting Tietze to use the terms museum and gallery interchangeably.
The book’s chapters each detail the different directors who served as curators at the gallery. Each sought ways to present the collection to the public in a way that is engaging and educational in aesthetics and history.
The first directors, John Wheatley and Edward Roworth, were chairs of fine art at Michaelis and honorary directors of the gallery. In the early years, the gallery was an extension of the art school and dependent on generous gifts including the Lady Michaelis gifts, the Alfred de Pass collection and the Abe Bailey bequest.
After the Second World War, the gallery appointed its first professional director, John Paris. He was an art historian with experience in art museums and took an internationalist position, building bonds across national boundaries and positioning the institution as a scholarly centre of research within a largely European tradition.
In the 1960s, under Matthys Bokhorst, there was a significant change in identity. Despite SA’s international isolation, funding increased enormously from the government, the Rembrandt Van Rijn Art Foundation and the establishment of The Friends of the Gallery in 1968. This allowed more staff to be appointed, increased the work of the education department and pioneered the collecting of work by South African artists.
Despite the widening cultural gap between the apartheid government and museums, the late 1970s and 1980s, under the directorship of Raymund van Niekerk, was a vibrant period for education with a focus on pupils in impoverished areas.
Photography expanded the field of fine art and exhibitions and acquisitions tackled the realities of apartheid, poverty and protest. "Black art finally began to receive significantly more attention in public exhibitions," writes Tietze.
Within the detailed historical narrative, Tietze follows two motifs; the government’s lacklustre funding of the institution and the evolving classificatory boundaries of an art collection
The 1990s tasked the gallery with redress and transformation and acquisitions of South African artists increased.
Exhibitions such as Decade of Democracy (2004) showcased South African art produced in the decade after the fall of apartheid and Picasso in Africa (2006) juxtaposed 82 works by Picasso with 32 African works, illustrating the African inspiration behind Picasso’s style. Director Marilyn Martin was praised for transforming the institution. The last director of the national gallery was Riason Naidoo, who attempted "to explore a postcolonial vision", as he put it. His 2011 People’s Painter exhibition of 80 works by Vladimir Tretchikoff was the blockbuster exhibition of his five-year contract, which was not renewed.
Within the detailed historical narrative, Tietze follows two motifs; the government’s lacklustre funding of the institution and the evolving classificatory boundaries of an art collection.
In 1999, the gallery was amalgamated under the structure of Iziko Museums, leading to further reductions in funding, while the institution was expected to satisfy the government policy of social cohesion and nation building.
Iziko Museums is restructuring, reducing the number of director positions from eight to seven. The three directorships of natural history, social history and art collections started in 1999 are being brought together under two new directorships — research and exhibitions, and collections and digitisation.
A growing number of commercial exhibition venues in Cape Town and the imminent opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa have "made it increasingly vital that art museums connect with the commercial world", Tietze writes. "It might be sensible for the gallery to beef up another aspect to its identity."
She recommends the amalgamation of the social history and art collections and that the gallery "position itself as the repository of a specifically historical archive".
There is a strong desire to re-imagine the gallery in post-apartheid and postcolonial terms, which suggests it show less European and American work and more African work.
Tietze suggests it shouldn’t be one or the other option. "I feel uncomfortable about attention being paid to African artefacts at the expense of its European and American collections. They represent the tastes and interests and collecting practices of that time," she writes.
"I think that the institution should be something like a living record of how people thought and felt and what they were interested in.
"One of the common misconceptions about the National Gallery specifically is that the national in that term means you must reflect the nation’s art. What is needed is a restored recognition of humanness and the sense in which there are broad similarities between people. I am calling that an internationalist position."
She wants a return to the function of big national galleries or museums such as the Louvre in Paris or the national galleries in London and Washington that largely show art of an international tradition and cosmopolitan culture.
The limited space in the gallery, a handicap for most of its existence, is now critical, with one exhibition room permanently dedicated to storage.
Tietze draws attention to the Lady Michaelis collection of paintings, prints and drawings.
"Not since the ’60s has the gallery had room to show the works on paper. It would be wonderful if the gallery could digitise its collection so one could see many more of these things," she says.
Tietze has suggested virtual displays as a solution to accessing works in the permanent collection that are rarely seen, with additional interactive and educative benefits that can "demystify and reveal a world behind the scenes … offer an anthropological view of creative traditions".
She is working on an account of the evolution of art education in SA from the first school in 1860 in Cape Town to the story of Michaelis.
"Education policies are interesting in how global they are. To understand the art teaching going on in SA, it is best to understand what is going on in Europe and America. It is ano-ther case of internationalism."