As Global museums reappraise legacy of Surrealism Strauss &Co.’s sale expands the debate

By CityLife Arts Writer

Strauss & Co is pleased to announce advance details of its virtual live sale in Johannesburg 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. 

“Surrealism has its creative origins in inter-war Europe, in particular Paris, but recent scholarship has shown that Surrealism flourished globally,” says Dr Alastair Meredith, a specialist in early twentieth century art and head of Strauss & Co’s art department. “The travelling exhibition Surrealism Beyond Borders, which was originated by The Met in New York in 2021 and is now on view at the Tate Modern in London, shows that cities like Buenos Aires, Cairo, Lisbon, Mexico City, Prague, Seoul, and Tokyo were all hotbeds of surrealist creativity.

However, the only artist from Southern Africa in Surrealism Beyond Borders is Mozambican artist Malangatana Ngwenya. Our curated sale will show that South African artists have similarly been moved, influenced and connected by the larger Surrealist conversation.”

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.

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. Kentridge has frequently emphasised the role of the unconscious in his drawing process. 

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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