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By: Strauss  11-11-2011
Keywords: painting, Artists

Gerard Sekoto at the Pinnacle of his Career

October 15, 2011

Three major works by Gerard Sekoto feature on Strauss & Co’s upcoming auction on 7 November 2011 at the Country Club Johannesburg in Woodmead. Sekoto’s international status as a major African artist is affirmed by Dr Christine Mullen Kreamer, Deputy Director & Chief Curator, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution:
Gerard Sekoto is a very important figure in the art history of African modernism. He sensitively portrays the dignity of daily life in black communities in paintings rich with color and infused with a light that seems to glow from within. His works suggest a sense of calm, despite the challenges that this artist must have endured under apartheid. His international reputation was hard-fought and justly earned.

Sekoto was born in 1913 at the Lutheran Mission Station at Botshabelo, near Middelburg in what is now Mpumalanga and died in Paris in 1993. Though less than a quarter of his artistic life was spent in South Africa, it was undoubtedly “the richest creative period of his career, during which he sensitively captured the soul of such areas as Sophiatown, District Six and Eastwood” according to Lesley Spiro, one of the most authoritative writers on Sekoto to date.

After first arriving in Johannesburg in 1939, Sekoto was befriended by artists and enjoyed the support of several key people in the art world. Alexis Preller gave him his first tubes of oil paint. Judith Gluckman, recently returned from Paris, is likely to have had considerable influence on the way Sekoto painted as she initiated him into Western painting techniques, teaching him about the materials of oil painting and the use of brushes and palette knife.

In Cape Town, where he lived from 1942, he associated with members of the artistic community such as Gregoire Boonzaier and sculptors Lippy Lipschitz, Solly Disner and Emile Maurice. Through the influence of Walter Battiss, Sekoto’s work was included in several exhibitions in the mid-40s organised by the Gainsborough Galleries that included New Group members and Maud Sumner, amongst others. Reviewing a New Group exhibition at the Argus Gallery in 1944, the critic for the Rand Daily Mail noted that Sekoto’s “canvases are good enough to attract favourable attention in their own right next to a hundred others by 20 of the Union’s best painters”.

The three remarkable paintings by Sekoto on the November auction were produced in Eastwood, near Pretoria, where he lived with his family from 1945 until his departure for Paris in 1947. According to Lesley Spiro, former Paintings Curator at Johannesburg Art Gallery and curator of Sekoto’s first major retrospective exhibition, it is here that he produced some of his most masterful works:
"The Eastwood period may represent the pinnacle of Sekoto’s achievement. It was a time when he pushed his understanding of colour and form to new heights, when he seemed to sharpen even further his already remarkable sense of mood and movement."
She describes how his already adventurous palette expanded enormously and pinks, purples and greens became familiar colours in his paintings.

With his lively curiosity, his interest in people and his keen observation, Sekoto was the ideal storyteller. In Outside the Shop (R3 000 000-R4 000 000) the stage is set for a narrative to unfold. A statuesque woman sashays down the street perfectly balancing a bundle on her head and her baby on her back, the old man snoozes on the stoep, a dapper gentleman in a hat approaches at left and two women gossip at right, while a youth loiters by the shop window.

Spiro has remarked that, while Sekoto evoked more and more powerfully the soul of Africa, his work increasingly echoed the artistic sensibilities of Europe. The dramatic composition is bisected by a diagonal line that draws one’s eye to centre-stage. Bright sunlight casts the scene in blocks of light and shade that emphasise the picture plane and figures are simplified and tonally modelled for sculptural effect – formal devices characteristic of a Modernist vision.

Clearly, naturalistic detail was of less interest to the artist than evoking an atmosphere and communicating psychological content. The foreground figure of the dozing man suggests an atmosphere of afternoon languor permeating this place in which the artist clearly felt at home and at ease.

While Sekoto was part of an educated elite, he never forgot his rural childhood in Botshabelo nor the memories of Ndebele herdboys in Wonderhoek in the 1920s. Indeed, Yellow Rooms (R3 000 000-R4 000 000) evokes the bucolic charm of village life with its quiet, pastoral rhythms echoed in the repetition of trees and windows. The wide open spaces and the melange of soft colours create an arena in which the players act out their daily tasks.

After his arrival in Eastwood in 1945, Sekoto participated in several exhibitions including a group show entitled Contemporary Art at the Gainsborough Galleries in 1946. The Star critic noted:
The African painter, Sekoto, seems to be seeking his own path and finding it. There is a new feeling for form in his work (notably in the painting of the Washergirl and the huddled woman’s figure in Squatters) that shows a development beyond the riotous and often beautiful colour for which his earlier work received lavish praise. This growing mastery of drawing suggests that his work may yet hold surprises.

The Washerwoman (R2 000 000 – 3 000 000) confirms that Sekoto was a sympathetic observer of everyday life, ever vigilant and always ready to capture details with his pencil and paper. His skilled draughtsmanship, his bolder colours and his sense of strong composition focus all energy and intent on the task at hand – getting the washing done. Form and colour are simplified into large, almost abstract planes that emphasise the flatness of the canvas. By contrast, the exquisite painterliness of the hedge creates a foil for the woman at work and effectively screens out all background detail.

His mature mastery of colour as both a compositional device and an emotional register are evident here: the woman’s red shirt, at the very heart of the painting, suggests warmth and ensures that her form advances against the receding cool tones of the background. The simplified elements of the painting lend the woman an iconic dignity, making her formally and metaphorically the steadfast, dependable woman at the centre of the image.

The response to his first solo exhibition in 1947 was rapturous. The Star reporter enthused:
The painting community has for some years been interested in the work of Gerard Sekoto and they flocked to the opening yesterday afternoon at the Gainsborough Gallery of his first one-man show in Johannesburg. By the end of the afternoon Mr Sekoto had sold nine pictures, which by any standard means the beginning of a successful exhibition.

Emma Bedford, Senior Paintings Specialist

Lot 259
Gerard Sekoto
Outside the Shop
oil on canvas-board
34,5 by 44,5cm
R3 000 000 – 4 000 000

Lot 275
Gerard Sekoto
Yellow Rooms
oil on canvas-board
44 by 54,5cm
R3 000 000 – 4 000 000

Lot 285
Gerard Sekoto
The Washerwoman
oil on canvas-board
39 by 29cm
R2 000 000 – 3 000 000

Monday 7 November 2011
Day Sale at 3 pm, Evening Sale at 8 pm
Country Club Johannesburg, Woodmead

From Friday 4 to Sunday 6 November from 10am to 5pm
Stephan Welz and Emma Bedford
Saturday 5 and Sunday 6 September at 11am
011 728 8246 / mobile 079 407 5140
Catalogues are available and can be purchased online or from our offices.

Media Liaison:
Bina Genovese, Executive Director
021 683 6560

[I] Email to Emma Bedford, 13 September 2011.

[II] Lesley Spiro, Gerard Sekoto: Unsevered Ties, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, 1989, page 9.

[III] Quoted in N Chabani Manganyi, Gerard Sekoto: I am an African, Wits University Press, 2004, page 40.

[IV Spiro, op cit, page 42.

[V] Spiro, op cit, page 39.

[VI] ‘Imagination on Canvas. Work of 18 artists on exhibition’, The Star, 7.3.1946. 

[VII] Star, 23 July 1947, quoted in N Chabani Manganyi, op cit, page 45.

Keywords: Artists, painting