Maker of Arresting, Emblematic and Iconic Images
Reclusive, modest and largely underrated by the world of contemporary art, Helmut Starcke, who has died at the age of 82, was a maker of arresting, emblematic and iconic images. Starcke’s repeated demonstrations of visual ingenuity and dynamic pictorial resolution were combined with an unsurpassed virtuosity in the handling of paint. In this there were few artists in South Africa over the past 50 years who were his equal. One of the first to adopt the new water-based acrylic paints when they first appeared on the market in the early 1960s, he was to make this medium very much his own, producing many canvases of distinctive intensity and resolution.
Born in Germany and initially apprenticed at the Werbekunst Publicity Studio in Frankfurt, Starcke settled in Cape Town in 1958 at the age of 23 and worked for several local ad agencies. Advertising remained his mainstay until he began teaching graphic design at UCT on a part-time basis. His appointment as a full-time lecturer there from 1973 thereafter allowed him more time and space to further his ambitions and explorations as a practicing artist. Prior to this, as early as 1961, he had already garnered favourable critical attention with his first solo exhibition at Fabian Fine Art. His acerbic caricatures of white South Africans in the era of grand apartheid were inspired by the work of the American social realist Ben Shahn (1898-1969). His painting Government Avenue (1961) from that period now seems, in retrospect, very much ahead of the activist and socially-critical South African art that emerged after 1976. In the 1960s, Starcke even ventured into installation art and sculpture, collaborating with like-minded experimentalists such as Kevin Atkinson and Richard Wake in the creation of works such as The Box (1967), which was an environment consisting of mirrors, light and sound shown at a local design expo.
Artwork Top: Dreams and Nightmares of M. de la
Artwork Above: The Box (1967) Atkinson, Starcke and Wake
Working on the cusp between advertising and fine art, Starcke, like others of his generation such as the American James Rosenquist (1933-2017), engaged with the emergence of Pop Art and Photo-Realism over the years that followed. His painting The Hitch-Hiker (1967) was perfectly attuned to the media-derived imagery, flattened forms and electric palette of Pop art, and in other works he experimented with fields of dots and ellipses, akin in some respects to the print-based Ben-Day dots deployed by Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) in his comic-based works. In these endeavours, the flat opacity of the new acrylic paint was to prove the perfect medium.
Artwork: 75-69 Government ave CT
Starcke’s mastery of acrylic, however, was to eventually lead him in new directions; towards a more intense fusion and translation into paint of photo-based images, sometimes with an almost hallucinatory effect. His Caprivi of My Mind series of the 1970s engaged more intensively with African subject-matter, highlighting the political unease and social contrasts of our subcontinent at the time. If his work of the 1970s revealed something of a re-engagement with the human and the political, the work of the 1980s revealed a new stance in favour of a return to nature. “The more I learn about man’s tireless abuse of nature, Starcke stated at the time, “the less interested I am in the human condition”. The works of this period, typified by works such as The Burning Bush (Strelitzias)(1983) and For Cherylle (no. 3) (1983) evoke the spiritual sublime in nature simply by according the image an iconic centrality in his composition. In The Burning Bush, as Starcke put it, “the combination of flames and flowers evoke a superior order of nature; of supernature triumphant”. In subsequent paintings made over the following years, such as Ritual (2011), Starcke continued, often on canvases of some considerable scale, to ponder the symbolic and ecological implications of the juxtaposition of fire and flower. In many paintings, the magnified Cape fynbos came to signify not only the spiritual, but also the mortal struggle between nature and “progress” in the new era of “climate change”. Fire, the most animate, luminous, alluring, and spiritual of the four elements, begins to assume a more sinister aspect.
Starcke’s draftsmanship had flair underpinned by firm discipline, and his brush was wielded with a surety of touch and sensitivity. In the early 2000s, he created a compelling series of paintings that reconsidered the legacy of the Dutch Old Masters in relation to the history of colonialism at the Cape. “Somewhere between the glory of the art and the shame of the reality lies my justification for what I have been doing”, he said. Working as he did with the interactions and reactions that took place at the cultural interface between Africa and Europe, Helmut Starcke has bequeathed a rich visual legacy that is unique in South African art, and which is especially particular to the Cape. After all, who, apart from him, has ever proved capable of transforming that most clichéd of flowers “the protea” into high art?