Arts and culture
South African artSouth Africa is home to some of the most ancient and beautiful art in the world - the rock art of the ancestors of today's Bushman or San. It is also the scene of a host of diverse and challenging contemporary artists producing important new work.
A locally rooted artDuring the colonial era, what artists there were in South Africa tended to concentrate on depicting this "new world" in detail as accurate as they could make it - though sometimes this led to selective emphasis. Artists such as Thomas Baines travelled the country recording its flora, fauna, people and landscapes - a form of reporting for people back in the metropolis. Towards the end of the 19th century, painters Jan Volschenk and Hugo Naudé and the sculptor Anton van Wouw began, through their work, to establish a locally rooted art. Their work is the first glimpse of an artistic vision engaging with life as lived in South Africa, for its own sake, rather than as a "report" to the colonial master. It is the art of the moment in which South Africa, with Union in 1910 and thus the formal end of the colonial era, was beginning to acquire its own national identity. In the first decades of the 20th century, the Dutch-born painter JH Pierneef brought a coolly geometric sensibility to the South African landscape, finding in it a strict but beautiful order; he also, in a way that fed into Afrikaner nationalist ideology, found it bereft of human inhabitants. By the 1930s, two women artists, Maggie Laubscher and Irma Stern, brought a different kind of subjective gaze to South African art by using the techniques and sensibilities of post-impressionism and expressionism. Their bold way with colour and composition, and the assumption of a highly personal point of view, rather scandalised those with old-fashioned concepts of acceptable art. Yet already younger artists such as Gregoire Boonzaier, Maud Sumner and Moses Kottler were rejoicing in the new spirit of cosmopolitanism they were able to bring to South African art.
Art and apartheidThe apartheid years of South African history (1948-1994) saw a great diversity in South African art, ranging from landscape painting to abstract art, engagements with currents burgeoning in Europe and the United States, to a fiercely local sense of what it meant to be an artist in this country during troubled times. Sometimes South African art seemed to float above the political issues of the day; at other times it tackled them with vigour and insight.
Dealing with a South African realityInevitably, in the early years of apartheid, as in the colonial era, black artists were largely neglected. It was left to white artists (who had the training and the resources, as well as a supportive gallery system) to build a corpus of South African art. After World War II, returning soldiers and some immigrants brought European ideas to the South African art world. In the 1940s, Jean Welz, for instance, born in Austria in 1900, brought a detailed, nuanced and sophisticated style to still lifes, portraits, nudes and landscape paintings. Maurice van Essche, born in Belgium in 1906, brought the modernist techniques of his teacher Matisse to specifically African subject matter, with powerfully stylised forms and often bright ("fauve" or wild) colourings.
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