photograph by George Mahashe

OUMA LUNCH NUMBER FOUR:

August 26th 2011, Studio, Old Medical Building

Yellow rice with dates (Mrs. Beyers, M.J. Davidtsz)

Bobotie – vegetarian version (Mrs. R.C. Harris) toppings, coconut, raisins and Mrs. Balls' peach chutney

Dessert: Bakewell Tart (From Lincoln)

Beverages:
Spier Shiraz
Coffee
Black Russian Tea


Guests*

Professor Michael Godby, Anthea Buys, Natasha Norman, Jon Whidden, George Mahashe, Athi-Patra Ruga, and a visiting curator from the Palazzo Bembo, Venice.

Introduction

Professor Michael Godby, currently the head of Art Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town, also curated two comprehensive exhibitions mapping the trajectories of still life and landscape traditions in South Africa (Is There Still Life?, 2007; and The Lie of the Land, 2010). These research projects as well as his extensive knowledge of South African photographic history (and of course many other facets of his knowledge as an active member of the South African arts community) made for incredibly nuanced insights into the history of the Exhibitions of Contemporary British and South African (1947-48). Prior to the session I had sent Michael scans of the exhibition catalogues as well as a number of the memos and more "archival material" I had come across in my research at the Tate Archive, the British Council and in the South African National Gallery’s press files.

We began the conversation around the general observations of landscape and still life painting in South Africa today.

"Exhibitions are always contentious" – Michael Godby

Art has often been used as a kind of binding agent. Even from the time of Lady Phillips and the development of the Johannesburg Art Gallery in the 1910s, art performed a diplomatic function.[1] Art collections functioned, in one sense, geographically to cement the relationship between the 'metropole' and South Africa (Union Government), and in terms of power relationships within South Africa between Afrikaans and Anglophone society.

To a large extent, said Michael, the exhibition by the British Council in '47-48 can be seen as a reaching out to South Africa by Britain – a "thank you" for its help in the War. In 1947 there had been a royal visit to South Africa and this, thinks Michael, is actually a more important factor in the event of this exhibition than to read it according to the moment which proceeded it: the fall of the Union government and the start of apartheid. The latter was a dire moment for the country but not necessarily for art (that was only visible later).

Amateurism and the modern artist as professional

As far as the chronology of South African Art is concerned, said Michael, the years 1947-9 were important because they mark a shift in the cultural authority of a number of artistic groups. In 1902 the South African Society of Artists had been formed and when the New Group emerged in 1938, followed by the South African Association of Art (1945), a definite generational and conceptual friction resulted. The internationalist nature of the later groups is evidenced by the fact that the SAAA were the ones to manage these exhibitions of contemporary art with Britain, and the presence of New Group artists on the South African show is significant.

"The Society of Artists was still alive and well," said Michael, "so what happened?" The distinct difference between the groups was their quality control. The Society had up to that point, welcomed "everyone" to their exhibitions and maintained this practice against the banner of professionalism being toted by the SAAA and New Group. "How do you define a professional artist?" asked Jon Whidden. "Quality," Michael responded.

To elaborate, Michael quoted a text by Bertram Dumbleton in response to a criticism of the Society's placing “vapid” or “immature” works on the walls of public galleries – this, the critic thought, had therefore become representative of contemporary art in South Africa. Dumbleton describes the Society's intention as “trying to extend a hand to a number of interesting amateurs who would otherwise be isolated from artistic intercourse, which is why many bad pictures are hung in exhibitions." When he visited in April 1948 in preparation for the South African show at the Tate Gallery, John Rothenstein's call for "quality" in contemporary art from the nation fell on "furtile ground" according to Michael – at least in one camp.

In the memorandum from a meeting of the selection committee for the South African Exhibition (which coincided with Rothenstein’s visit),[2] we discover that, having begun as an invitation-only process of selection, where artists were asked to submit work for discussion, the policy had then modulated to an "open call" strategy, open to submissions from artists across the country.[3] This meant that the number and varied quality of works proposed for the South African Exhibition took on monstrous proportions.[4] Enter Rothenstein (Tate director = taste-maker + “art expert”) called in by the South African selection committee as a guide in the selection process.

Shuffling through his various papers and notes, Michael referred to a particular point in the memorandum where Rothenstein stated his interest in a smaller scale show of the 'best works by the best South African artists.'[5] The "best" is of course often defined by exclusion – and in this case it was students and amateurs were out. This was not only the result of spatial limitations (the Tate Gallery would see to it that 'the size of the exhibition was commensurate with the amount of talent available').[6] As Michael commented, this move and subsequent guidance provided by Rothenstein, mark the Tate director’s distinct ambition to exhibit a "modern" South African aesthetic – non-derivative and non-amateurish.

'When Attitudes Become Form' curated by Harald Szeemann (1969) - though an unlikely juxtaposition, the title of Szeemann's very experimental contemporary exhibition in Bern in 1969, speaks to the material manifestations of periods of cultural reformation.

School of "Contemporary" Art – from National to International

The national, representational nature of the exhibition was unavoidable,[7] but perhaps it was the nationalistic or nostalgic tendancies which Rothenstein sought to address. In the same meeting memo from April, 1948, Rothenstein expressed his alarm at the use of the term "national" in regard to the South Africa exhibition. In a sense, the exhibition could have functioned in establishing a South African “school” of contemporary art. In Sir Jasper Ridley’s (Chairman of the Tate Gallery Board of Trustees)introduction to the catalogue for the Exhibition of Contemporary South African Painting, Drawing and Sculpture, essentialises the country’s art to ‘landscape art’, elevating its status by comparison to a British landscape tradition. Ridley’s statement that:

'In subject, style and vision these paintings have already a national character of their own.'[8]

…is countered by Geoffrey Long’s introduction text in the same catalogue. Here, Long outlined the various 'isms' which South African artistic practice had derived from Europe over the last 30 years (thus the "contemporary" moment), saying that, most of the country's artists had been working in comparative isolation and far from the rumpus of cafés and coteries. Now the country is more aware of its cultural possibilities and ponders the future. There are national movements – some good, some bad. But for those visitors who expect to see new directions of a national flavour this exhibition may be a disappointment.[9]

The more "nostalgic tendancies" of the landscape art so representative of South Africa, could perhaps, Michael said, be perceived in the work of an older generation of artists – forming the basis for the South African Society of Artists, such as Roworth.[10] "Why was there no Roworth in the final selection?" Michael asked.
The associations between professionalism, quality and modern internationalism; and amateurism, parochiality and derivation; is also brought to bear, said Michael, in the exclusion of "native artists" from the South African Exhibition, save Gerard Sekoto.[11] Even relatively established artists such as Bengu would have been considered amateur, said Michael.

Referring to an article written by Roworth in 1926, "Towards a National Art," Michael cited the artist as saying – 'Great art is the expression of the soul of the people.'

Because of its beginnings, scale and eventual translation into various contexts abroad, the South African Exhibition of Contemporary Painting, Drawing and Sculpture, marks a move from provincialism to a new internationalism. Just 5 years before the official beginning of Abstract Expressionism in the United States, the South African works which expressed a kind of universal set of politics were promoted. Abstraction's subsequent development in South African painting however, Michael suggested, hardly contained the politicality of its American counterpart – becoming bland, and not allowing itself to say anything at all under increasing political censure. (more on this lunch to come…)

Photos (of lunch) by George Mahashe


[1]
Ref. Jilian Carmen, Uplifting the Colonial Philistine: Florence Philips and the Making of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

[2]Meeting held at the National Gallery on 26 April, 1948. Tate Library Archive, file: “South African Art Exhibition," TG 92/70/ Parts 1-3.

[3]Cape Times, "Plans for Collection of SA Art Approved – Works to be Exhibited in Tate Gallery," 2/3/48, the Association details their invitations received from various governments.

[4]Meeting memorandum, 26 April, 1948. In the same meeting the Committee Chairman, PJ Theron, describes how the policy of selection had changed from

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7]See Jasper Ridley’s Foreword, in catalogue, Contemporary South African Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, (South African Association of Arts, Cape Town, 1948).

[8]Ibid.

[9]Geoffrey Long, Introduction, in catalogue, Contemporary South African Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, (South African Association of Arts, Cape Town, 1948) 7.

[10]Edward Roworth was an Englishman who, having fought in the Anglo-Boer War, settled in Cape Town and began his own teaching studio in the early 1910s. He was elected president of the South African Society of Artists twice and was appointed director of the National Gallery in Cape Town in 1941. He was apparently the subject of constant controversy because of his so-called "dictatorial artistic attitudes".

[11]See more on the subject of "Native Artist" exhibitions in the South African art scene in the next conversation with Sandra Boerngen (19.9.11).

photograph by Clare Butcher
Lunch 1, May 6th 2011
Lunch 2, August 12th 2011
Lunch 3, August 23rd 2011
Lunch 5 [tea], September 19th 2011
Lunch 6 [supper], September 20th 2011