A sale with a combined estimate of R80 million and which is a celebration of Johannesburg and its many talented artists, curators and collectors will be held on November 12 by Strauss & Co.
The sale commemorates the city’s important role in shaping South African art history.
Highlights include a dedicated session inspired by curator Steven Sack’s landmark 1988 exhibition held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, “The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of South African Art”, a single-owner collection of five remarkable paintings by Maggie Laubser, and a magnificent portrait of one of Johannesburg’s most faithful chroniclers, photographer David Goldblatt.
Goldblatt, who died in June, is a striking presence in KwaZulu-Natal painter Heather Gourlay-Conyngham’s portrait David, which depicts the award-winning photographer pausing from evaluating a photographic print.
A photograph from Goldblatt’s highly regarded essay on Boksburg, first published in 1982, precedes the sale of Gourlay-Conyngham’s portrait.
Taken on a Saturday morning in April 1979 at the corner of Commissioner and Trichardts streets in Boksburg, this well-known photograph miniaturises Goldblatt’s affection for the ordinary people and places of Johannesburg.
“Johannesburg is seldom a beautiful city; it has its rare moments,” said Goldblatt in 2002. “I can’t honestly say that I love it. However, I miss it when I am away, and when I am in it I rejoice.”
Laubser’s biography is strongly tied to the Cape, but Johannesburg collectors have long esteemed her paintings of Swartland farm labourers.
The sale includes five Laubser paintings assembled by a Johannesburg collector. They include Leentjie, an exquisite portrait of a young domestic worker from Laubser’s family farm and Harvesters in Wheatfield, a vivid description of two farm hands, one cutting ripe yellow ears of wheat with a sickle.
“Harvesting was one of Laubser’s favourite subjects,” notes art historian Elza Miles. “Laubser places emphasis on the worth of the sweat of the farm worker’s brow. These harvest scenes belong to the ‘sickle and scythe’ period in the history of South African agriculture.”
Initially mistreated by the press following her return from Berlin in 1924, Laubser’s participation in a 1936 exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery – alongside Irma Stern and Wolf Kibel, among others – marked the “first significant demonstration of critical recognition” for her work, according to art historian Esmé Berman.
Johannesburg, and in particular its century-old municipal gallery, has been the site of many important exhibitions. They include Sack’s seminal exhibition, “The Neglected Tradition” (1930-1988), which highlighted a largely neglected canon of black artists.
A dedicated session inspired by this watershed exhibition will be included. Titled “An Unsung History”, the session draws together a selection of work by earlier pioneers working through the country’s most tumultuous period.
Some are now well known domestically, but most remain unheralded in global histories.
“An Unsung History” includes works by early masters like Ernest Mancoba, John Koenakeefe Mohl and Moses Tladi, as well as important later 20th century artists Jackson Hlungwani, Noria Mabasa, Cyprian Shilakoe, Winston Saoli and Lucas Sithole.
Standout offerings from the “An Unsung History” session:
- Ephraim Ngatane’s entrancing 1971 oil on board, Abstract
- Lucas Sithole’s tall Swazi teak sculpture Mother Buffalo
- Cecil Skotnes’s idiosyncratic portrait of one of South African pre-eminent historical figures, Shaka
- Peter Clarke’s 1962 mixed-media painting describing a woman’s burden, The Watercarrier, Windermere
- Gerard Sekoto’s Women and Baby in the Street, painted shortly after his return to Pretoria in 1947 at the start of his peak period.
Sekoto, who is also represented by two cobalt-blue portraits of a man and woman, lived in Johannesburg from 1939 to 1942. Despite enduring constant racial prejudice, his sojourn in Sophiatown represented one his most prolific periods.
He later told his biographer Chabani Manganyi that his time in Johannesburg was liberating: “… for the first time in my life I enjoyed the freedom to see the works of other white artists and to observe their technique.”
Consignments will be on view at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg from Friday, November 9 until the start of the sale on Monday, November 12.
Strauss & Co is a global leader for South African art and has sold nine of the 10 most expensive paintings auctioned in SA.