CHRIS THURMAN: From an alienating float at the Rijksmuseum to the protofeminist origins of Joburg’s art scene
If you approach Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum from the city centre in the north-east – crossing evocatively named canals such as Spiegelgracht and Prinsengracht, which tease the ear of anyone with a smattering of Afrikaans – the building that looms ahead of you is somehow simultaneously austere and baroque.
Walk through the tunnel that takes you to the southwestern façade, however, and the architectural mood changes. As it opens onto the expanse of Museumplein, the red brick of the Rijksmuseum is softened by jocular tourists clambering over one of the city’s ubiquitous "I amsterdam" signs. A rectangular pond serves as an ice-skating rink in winter and a place to cool off in summer.
In recent years, this has become the temporary home of large sculptures seeking to offset the museum’s belle époque seriousness. This year, with the Dutch anticipating a sustained July-August heatwave, a new piece was installed: a 12m high version of Joseph Klibansky’s Self-Portrait of a Dreamer, which features an astronaut balancing on top of a chair.
Klibansky was born in Cape Town, and although it is a stretch to connect his work to the southern African arts scene, as I looked up at the statue I couldn’t help thinking about Afrofuturistic depictions of the spaceman-figure. Gerald Machona, for example, invokes space travel to express earthly alienation; his spacemen are disoriented outsiders, lost and confused in foreign realms.
Klibansky, by contrast, is more optimistic in his frequent use of the astronaut as symbol of both social and technological progress. Here, the spaceman stands for the artist himself: dreaming, imagining, achieving the impossible – or the surreal.
The postmodern astronaut-artist nonetheless depends on those who have come before him. With the Vincent van Gogh Museum at their back, visitors gazing at the statue can hardly fail to see that the giant chair over which the spaceman hovers, and the vase of sunflowers perched on his foot are modelled on Van Gogh’s iconic paintings (produced, as it happens, soon after the Rijksmuseum opened in 1885).
By alluding to his brilliant precursor, Klibansky nods to the radical challenge to the status quo by Van Gogh and to the ways in which he became part of a new "tradition" after his death – no less canonical than Rembrandt or Vermeer.
On the day that I returned to SA from the Netherlands I went to the Market Theatre for the opening of Florence, a new one-woman play starring Leila Henriques that explores the life and times of Lady Florence Phillips, the founder of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Playwright Myer Taub has penned a teasing, fragmented, poetic script, one that is by turns lyrical and playful, poignant and witty. Henriques, under the direction of Greg Homann, delivers a bravura performance as she tests her character’s contradictions: the arts patron and public benefactor who was also a narcissist exercising the petty tyranny of the rich; the protofeminist who was also racist; the society lady who was unhappy in private.
Insofar as this is a portrait of a dreamer – even a visionary – it is also a portrayal of a dream gone wrong. The Johannesburg Art Gallery, planned as a modest local equivalent to institutions such as the Rijksmuseum, was (in a city that established segregation as its chief urban planning principle) conceived as a slice of Europe in Africa. Some would say it has never quite escaped the consequences, hence its current state as a "public" space that is closed off from its immediate surroundings in Joubert Park.
But Florence includes a set of self-portraits. As the ghost of Lady Phillips – haunting the perimeter of the fence that excludes her from "her own" gallery – merges with the playwright and the performer who have conjured this spectre, Henriques and Taub mock the somewhat absurd position of the insecure white actress and artist-provocateur.
Florence is, finally, also a love-hate letter to Joburg. If Amsterdam is Janus-headed, Joburg is acutely binary: a potent mix of opportunity and oppression, beauty and cruelty.