From Sash To Siopis: Strauss Sale Celebrates South African Art History

A historically important painting by Penny Siopis forms part of a remarkable consignment of work by former staff and students of the University of the Witwatersrand on offer at Strauss & Co’s upcoming live sale, due to take place on Monday 11 November at 7pm in Johannesburg. 

Established in 1947, the fine arts department at Wits University is central to the story of South African art. Strauss & Co’s 213-lot sale features a number of staff and student alumni. They include past teachers like Siopis, Robert Hodgins, Karel Nel, Cecily Sash and Clive van den Berg, as well as former students, notably Christo Coetzee, Nel Erasmus, William Kentridge, Cecil Skotnes and Anna Vorster. 

Siopis joined the staff at Wits University in 1984 and started work on Act 1 Scene II (estimate R2.8 – 3.5 million) two years later. The work is part of a suite of allegorical paintings depicting grand dining halls with tables overloaded with fruit, confections, flowers, statuettes and other studio bric-a-brac. It shares many affinities with Siopis’s landmark painting from this period, Melancholia (1986), which is in the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Aspects of Act 1 Scene II were staged in the painter’s studio at Wits University. Work on the painting was interrupted by Siopis’s lengthy sojourn in Paris. She completed the painting in 1987, subsequent to her return to Johannesburg, and integrated pictorial details drawn from her stay in Paris. 

“We are delighted to be handling this extraordinary picture by one of South Africa’s most important painters,” says Susie Goodman, executive director at Strauss & Co. “Painted at a time of confident emergence for the artist, this painting contains many extraordinary details and references, not only to other painters like Velázquez, but also Siopis’s own vibrant practice. It is a tour de force of quotation and invention.”

Strauss & Co is also delighted to be offering another work by Siopis, the pastel on paper titled Bonne Esperance (R1 – 1.5 million). The work depicts a prone and tattooed female figure in a landscape based on a colonial map, framed within an ornate frontispiece. The lot forms part of a loose constellation of analytical self-portraits featuring likenesses of Siopis made during private performances between 1987 and 1994. 

Siopis’s tenure at Wits University overlapped with those of artists Karel Nel, Clive van den Berg, Walter Oltmann and Peter Schütz, who also taught in the fine art department. Oltmann’s Posy (estimate R80 000 – 120 000) offers a floral abundance in his revered aluminium wire sculptural style, while Schütz, an accomplished wood carver, is represented by two lots, including Dumb Waiter (estimate R80 000 – 120 000), a fine elaboration of his interest in devotional and debased figural traditions.

Started in the late 1980s, Van den Berg’s large pastel drawing Bluff, Again (estimate R175 000 – 225 000) is an enigmatic landscape comprising organic and man-made elements. Nel’s two works, Voids and Vanishing Points: Cosmos, Kyoto, Tokyo and Point to Line to Plane: Astronomical Treatise, Kyoto (estimate R200 000 – 300 000 each), shift the focus from the terrestrial to the celestial. The works are informed by Nel’s privileged insights as an artist in residence working with a team of astronomers on COSMOS, an ambitious project to map a two-degree field of the universe.

Cecily Sash and Robert Hodgins also taught at Wits University. The standout Sash lot is Orange Minoan (estimate R80 000 – 120 000), a vibrant abstract composition from 1966. An enthusiastic proponent of Op Art, Sash, who passed away earlier this year, once wrote: “Op painting makes a direct assault upon the spectator’s eye and he must respond to it whether he wishes or not; at least he has no choice in responding physically to the lines, shapes and shapes that pulsate and wave before his eyes” (Lantern, September 1966).

The upcoming sale includes four lots by Hodgins. Street Scene (estimate R800 000 – R1.2 million) is a cartoonish study in tones of blue of an urban shooting, and Nude Watching TV (estimate R600 000 – 800 000) explores notions of spectatorship in a split pictorial format. Much loved by collectors, his works have generated R55 million in sales at Strauss & Co since 2009. 

The sale also includes works by a full complement of ‘The Wits Group’: Christo Coetzee, Nel Erasmus, Larry Scully, Cecil Skotnes and Gordon Vorster. All fellow students at the university during the art school’s early years (1946-50), when the student body was small, they developed “a sense of fellowship” (Esmé Berman) that straddled their stylistic differences.

Notable lots include Skotnes’s Abstract Figures (estimate R1 – 1.2 million), a large carved, incised and painted wood panel containing three primordial forms, flanked by two slender side panels, as well as Christo Coetzee’s Blue Lantern (estimate R80 000 – 100 000), an abstract composition with pointillist elements from the artist’s Paris period.

William Kentridge, whose large print Bird Catcher (estimate R200 000 – 300 000) will open the single-session sale, was only briefly enrolled in the fine arts department at Wits. He graduated from the university in 1976 with a degree in Politics and African Studies. The sale includes Kentridge’s large-scale collage, Iris (estimate R3 – 5 million), a commanding work that charts the subterranean influence of French modernism on an artist best known for his love of German and Russian avant-gardism.

Strauss & Co will be offering Penny Siopis’s important work, Act 1 Scene II, on Monday, 11 November at 89 Central Street, Houghton, in Johannesburg. The sale will also include two important works by sculptors Lucas Sithole (Wounded Buffalo, estimate R1.5 – 2 million), and Ezrom Legae (African Goat, estimate R1 – 1.5 million).

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