South African Art

Part 2

South African Art: The impact of African forms

While artists such as Welz and Van Essche brought European techniques to African subject matter, African forms themselves began to have an impact on the work of white artists in South Africa. An awareness of art forms ranging from those of the ancient Egyptians to Bushman (or San) rock art increasingly influenced these artists from the 1950s onwards.

Walter Battiss
Walter Battiss, for one, was an amateur enthusiast of Bushman rock art, an interest he had developed long before he took up the profession of artist in the 1930s. From the 1940s until his death in 1982, Battiss returned repeatedly to the motifs and styles of San rock art. In Symbols of Life (1967), for instance, San-type figures and patterns become stylised into a kind of symbolic alphabet, and are scattered over the surface of a quasi-abstract painting.

Such elegant stylisations arguably had an impact on Battiss's other work (in a wide range of media and styles), which also drew on strains like pop art emerging from Europe and the United States from the late 1950s onward. Yet the jaunty playfulness which runs through all of his oeuvre is entirely his own.

Alexis Preller, Cecil Skotnes
Other South African artists found different ways of interacting with the visual stimuli of Africa, whether by adapting its outward forms or finding ways to incorporate its textures into the art work.

Alexis Preller, for instance, created fantastically detailed canvases influenced by the European surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s. Beginning in the late 1940s, Preller painted African scenes and themes such as The Kraal and Hieratic Women, but these were not realistic portraits of African life: instead, they were reimagined and reinvented by Preller's startling visual imagination. Tropes such as sea shells and the lineaments of Ndebele dolls are reworked to create a highly personal symbolic and mythological realm, one that later grew to incorporate images from European culture and myth into Preller's own idiosyncratic style.

Cecil Skotnes, by contrast, took a leaf from Picasso's book. The revolution in European art instigated by the great Spaniard had, in part, been generated by his appreciation of African masks and the fractured simplicity with which they depicted human forms.

Skotnes (who worked closely with both black urban artists and had contacts with dealers in African art) became South Africa's master of the woodcut, bringing European modernism into fruitful collision with African styles, though in the end his visual style is instantly recognisable as utterly his own. He moved into other forms (such as concrete intaglio, for instance), always finding new ways to reanimate the human figure with a simultaneously primaeval and sophisticated power.

Landscape, abstraction and texture
Meanwhile, a host of white South African artists were engaging with the South African landscape in interesting ways - though such formalism was increasingly criticised during the "struggle" years for its detachment from the political situation.

Anna Vorster and Erik Laubscher moved into increasing stylisation and toward abstraction. Others, such as Gunther van der Reis and Gordon Vorster, used an acute textural sense to evoke the close-up feel of the South African wilds.

Still others pushed further and further toward abstraction, while retaining in their forms and textures a reminiscence of the African landscape. Such works range from the increasingly interior geometric symbolism of Bettie Cilliers Barnard to the interaction of natural and urban forms in the work of Larry Scully or the freely gestural sweep of George Boys.
The all-in-one official guide and web portal to South Africa. 
The history of South African art is detailed here by Shaun de Waal.

A Brief History of Art in South Africa: