2018, Arthur-Kate-Genna and Felix, oil on canvas-800x1200mm

By Stefan Hundt, Curator: Sanlam Art Collection

This September in Cape Town can most readily be titled “Portrait Month”. One of the highlights being the award of the biannual Portrait Award at the Rust en Vrede gallery where forty superb portraits can be viewed.  A further 60 portraits, making up the top 100 entries into the competition can be viewed at Union House in the city. Add to this Zeitz MOCCA’s show When we see Us, the Maggie Laubser Portraits and the Landscape exhibition at the Norval Foundation, Sanlam Art Gallery’s A Particular Presence and the Iziko South African National Gallery’s “Breaking down the Walls” which has many portraits on show, one has a veritable feast of portraiture to consume. Perhaps more gourmand than gourmet such a plethora of images focused on the human face to be seen in one city is rather unique and deserves acknowledgement and perhaps also a closer look at what portraiture is and can be.

Portraiture makes up a significant part of art history in the Western World – from the commemorative funerary art in Egypt, the inscribing of presence in Medieval altarpiece, the celebratory bombast of Napoleonic France, the baroque sombre self-reflection of Rembrandt to the globulus abstractions of Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon, it remains one of those genres that has retained a position of prominence in contemporary practice. Constantly evolving from memorialisation and iconisation in its broadest sense to psychic introspection the painted portrait has become one of the touchstones of the western painting traditions.

Other art making traditions in Asia, Africa and South America also contain “portraits”, but not with the same obsessive focus on likeness and personality as in the West. The necessity of visual likeness remains a core desirable within Western European reception of portraiture as an art. The various portrait painting competitions held worldwide invariably present very similar results. The head and shoulder straight on view of the sitter. Often with the aid of the photograph and a skilful combination of brushwork and composition these portraits are admired but rarely loved or survive the era they are made in. Besides the portraits of the celebrated individuals, there are few artists whose skill at portraiture have far outlived their lifetime and that of their peers. Too many to mention here. Yet what seems to be common to almost all of them is the artist’s non-conformity to the acceptable practice of their time. Rembrandt and Van Gogh being two notable artists. Likeness is not thrown out of the window it remains a core “competency” in both artists’ works – the medium is worked obsessively and repeatedly. The aim not to reproduce the smoothness of skin or fineness of hair in paint, but to make the medium a metaphor for meaning beyond the surface. Similarly, the heavily worked paintings of Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon on close inspection reveal the sitter’s features. In some way or other the painterly mark begins to evolve into a “language” and grammar of its own unique to the image yet as viewers, when we apply our mind, eye and experience to the image, we begin to understand and appreciate what before was on initial observation looked like just a blob of paint, a flurry of gestural marks or haze of colours.

The veristic portrait holds sway in much of the art world today and retains its place of honour and it fulfils an important role in our understanding of art, image and celebrity. Our appreciation of such paintings is derived from a combination of skill and the recognition of the sitter permanently transfixed. Inevitably it is as transient as the maker and the subject. Against the background of the dominance of installation and performance practices in the contemporary artworld, the current exhibitions on show – portraiture is still “contemporary”.

A Particular Presence: Portraits from the Sanlam Art Collection is on view at the Sanlam Art Gallery until 03 November 2023.

Johann-Louw, Self Portrait, oil on canvas, 2008


2005, Asha-Zero, Semi-Rambo, oil on board, 2005


2015, Pace John, After the Match, Winner, 2015 Sanlam Portrait Award


Heather Gourlay-Conyngham, 1956 -. Portrait of a Young Man. First prize Sanlam Portrait Award 2013. oil on canvas


1989- Trevor-Harry-Selfportrait-1940-oil on canvas


2000- Morkel-Coenrad Johannes(CJ)-Hotnotsgot and I -1992-airbrushed duco on board-1000x1200mm


1968- Stern-Irma-Portrait of a Young Malay Girl-oil on canvas-1939


Maria Magdalena, Maggie Laubser, 1886 – 1973. Coloured Woman with a Pink Blouse 1926. oil on cardboard




Head of Julia, 1985

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