An immersive encounter with South African surrealism art at Strauss &Co.

This body of work constitutes Strauss &Co.’s  first virtual live sale in Johannesburg this year, from May 15-17, 2022.

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

As you get to fine art auction company Strauss &Co.’s gallery entrance in Houghton, Johannesburg, the first thing that will catch your eye immediately without fail, is a bronze sculpture of two soldiers. The one man on the left is huge and looks stronger than the other man, but like the other figure, dejected. The one also armed soldier on the left appears like someone whose energy has been sapped away, leaving him not only dejected but almost like someone who has given up on any shred of hope about victory. They are seated next to each other as If to offer one another comfort in the face of adversity.

These two figures are Boere soldiers during the Anglo Boer War in late the 19th century. The emotion exuded by these two figures’ posture is so powerful that it is so immersive in a viewer’s sub-consciousness.  It takes you to the scene of that war that took place centuries ago and you will feel the discomfit. It is an infectious statement made by this sculptural work about the pain of war and its effect on those participating in it.

This sculpture is by Dutch immigrant to South Africa Anton Van Wouw, whose sculptural work in the past seven years have been performing well on the secondary market, in some cases breaking records for the artist.

However as you process the emotions triggered by this sculpture, right straight in front of you, your mood is bound to change for the better as if a monumental burden has been suddenly lifted off your shoulders. Your face and mood will inevitably light up as you come face to face with a jovial dance scene, a black and white drawing depicting two couples, two females and a male and a female in an intimate dance posture.

This scene looks like a high society decadent dinner party. The two women look like they are really having fun after a good meal and drinking with liberal abandon, while the man and the woman, the other dancing couple, are embraced in a deep kissing scene. The irony of this image is that such parties seemed to have been happening in the politically charged 1980s, and those participating seemed to be oblivious to the realities on the ground, and that is the political instability that was taking place.

“This is a William Kendridge drawing created in 1988 commissioned by a progressive Jewish Shul to raise money for charity. Here Kentridge was critical of white bourgeoisie lifestyles of the time. That was long before the artist became popular globally,” commented senior art specialist and curator Wilhelm Van Rensburg.

This Kentridge’s charcoal drawing The Highveld Style Masked Ball (estimate R2 800 000 – 3 400 000) is dated 1988 and depicts two figures with strange head adornments of cutlery and pylons dancing in a highveld landscape.

Van Rensburg and Dr Alastair Meredith, a specialist in early twentieth century art and head of Strauss & Co’s art department. on Wednesday, May 4 ,2022, took the media through Strauss &Co.’s  latest auction sale, focusing on South African Surrealist Art, comprising 62 stunning works attesting to South African artists’ surrealist art tradition dating back many years.

“Of course we cannot always control what comes to auction, but where we can see a pattern forming, we then try our best to present the works thematically to make it easy for buyers. This auction sale presenting surrealist art by South African artists is in line with recent global interest in surrealist art, inspired by a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York titled Surrealism Beyond Borders, which has since moved to Tate Modern in London,” explained Meredith.

This body of work is Strauss &Co.’s  first virtual live sale in Johannesburg this year, taking place  on 15–17 May 2022, which will include an evening session entirely devoted to Surrealism and its influence on South African art and artists. One of the most important art movements of the early twentieth century, Surrealism is increasingly understood as a global phenomenon – the impact of which has subtly fed into work produced by South African artists as disparate as Alexis Preller and William Kentridge, Judith Mason and Tracey Rose. 

Due to be held on Monday, 16 May, the evening session will include a diverse roster of South African artists grouped into themes related to Surrealism, which celebrated dreams, magic and the unconscious. The line up of multi-generational artists in this session will include, among others, Keith Alexander, Zander Blom, Breyten Breytenbach, Steven Cohen, Kevin Roberts, Peter Schütz and Helmut Starcke. The session includes high-value works by Alexis Preller and William Kentridge, which will be available to preview at Strauss & Co’s gallery in Houghton from the last week of April.  

Noted mid-century art critic F.L. Alexander in 1962 described Alexis Preller as “South Africa’s most important surrealist painter,” an appellation that Preller emphatically refuted. Preller’s work nonetheless shares striking affinities with Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, whose metaphysical paintings are currently part of Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity, a travelling group exhibition initiated by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Museum Barberini.

The Surrealism session will also include an edition of Tracey Rose’s 2002 photograph MAQEII (estimate R150 000 – 200 000), which shows Rose dressed up as Marie Antoinette. This important work is related to Rose’s fantastical and surreal video installation Ciao Bella (2001), a parody of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper that she created for the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001. Also featured will be works by Fred Page, whose “provocative images” prompted art historian Esmé Berman in 1993 to characterise him as one of the few South African artists to work in a high surrealist mode. 

While there was not any specific surrealist-driven movement in South Africa, notes Alastair Meredith, South African artists freely absorbed a surrealist aesthetic. The sources were literary as well as artistic, and included local exhibitions. The Johannesburg Art Gallery owns White Aphrodisiac Telephone (1936), a Surrealist object created by Salvador Dalí for the English poet Edward James, a leading collector of surrealist art.

In 2013, the pioneering American artist Lorraine O’Grady wrote of her love of European Surrealism, as well as her pleasure at the demands placed on its Eurocentric conception by Martinican poet Aimé Césaire and Cuban artist Wifredo Lam. “We haven’t seen a fully-blown, non-European Surrealism,” wrote O’Grady, who was born of Jamaican immigrants in Boston and whose radical feminist art is an important antecedent of Tracey Rose’s work. “Let’s hope we will.” Strauss & Co’s session devoted to Surrealism provides an important contribution towards the restatement of Surrealism as a global practice with a vibrant history in South Africa.

Strauss & Co’s focus on Surrealism forms part of a diverse presentation of lots assembled by its art and wine departments. The virtual live sale commences on Sunday, 15 May 2022 with a standalone wine session.  

For more info on the sale: www.straussart.co.za 

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