Donation and Trust:
The Bloemfontein Group and the Free State Art Scene, 1950-1989
by Yolanda de Kock
This article is based on the dissertation I completed Donation and Trust: The Bloemfontein Group and the Free State Art Scene, 1950-1989, in August 2017. The dissertation is a critical analysis of the Free State art scene from 1950-1989, conducted primarily through an account of the Bloemfontein Group. It argues that this period is a significant indicator of a shift in the city’s art scene, from an earlier, formalist focus to a more conceptual orientation in the art scene in Bloemfontein. An important aspect of this research is the significance of the formation of the Bloemfontein Group, and the extent of their role and influence during this period, which together can be seen as a key catalyst in the shift to conceptual art.
Through extensive archival research, I have constructed a visual timeline of the art scene in Bloemfontein, including significant events in the wider Free State region. The construction of the timeline is a crucial part of the unravelling and interrogation of undiscovered conceptual developments relating to museum practices in the Free State. This is in turn informed by conversations and debates, about how an art phenomenon such as the Bloemfontein Group not only contributed to a contemporary artistic identity in the Free State, but was also the driver behind the establishment of the Oliewenhuis Art Museum in Bloemfontein.
Understanding the Bloemfontein Group:
In 1958 the Bloemfontein Group was formally established under the leadership of Professor Frik Scott, with the support of his wife, Dora. The founding members of the group were Frans Claerhout (1919–2006), Reneé le Roux (b 1927), Alexander Podlashuc (1930–2009), Eben van der Merwe (1932) and Marianne Podlashuc (1932–2004). Within this ten-year period, the Group also expanded to include Mike Edwards, Fayetta and Neville Varney, Authur Cantrell, and Walter Westbrook (all joining in 1961), and Iris and Stephan Ampenberger, who joined in 1963. These artists created the group with the intention of sharing ideas, producing art together, and expressing their frustrations with what they understood as the narrow-minded and conservative Free State art world.
The geographical position of Bloemfontein as the central city of South Africa would suggest it as an obvious focal point for national cultural activity. However, art life in the Free State has seldom evinced much dynamism. The art societies operating in the province had tended to be extremely conservative and unadventurous, and the advantages of the situation of the main city were never exploited. The Bloemfontein Group desired to hold exhibitions that challenged the limitations of Bloemfontein’s embryonic art scene. While their individual artworks differed in visual appearance, they shared a modernist sense of painting practice. The Bloemfontein Group worked together for approximately ten years.
Although artists’ groups in their own capacity are often not considered as important artistic ‘movements’ in the charting of an art history, I believe that the Bloemfontein Group played a vital role in establishing an artistic environment in the Free State. I also propose that the formation of the Bloemfontein Group shifted the conservative mindset of the Bloemfontein art scene by presenting artworks with conceptual emphasis, as well as revealing European influences in the form of abstract and expressionistic techniques to local viewers. This can be seen in the work of Reneé le Roux (1927), Eben van der Merwe (1932), and Iris Ampenberger (1916–1981) below. These techniques were not often practised in the Free State and were quite unfamiliar to Bloemfontein art enthusiasts and artists.
Following the death of Prof Scott in 1976, his wife and children established the F.P. Scott Trust. On the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Bloemfontein Group, the Trust donated 24 artworks to the National Museum. It was the first collection of Free State artists exclusively and became the first collection of artworks in the Oliewenhuis Art Museum when it was opened in 1989. This research, therefore, focuses on the impact of the Bloemfontein Group on the Free State art scene, and more specifically, on the role played by the donation of the Group’s artworks in the establishment and development of the Oliewenhuis Art Museum.
The Free State art Scene 1950-1989:
While conducting this research I was constantly confronted by the ‘narrow-minded art scene’ described in the available documents and Stylistic Link catalogue written by Fred Scott of Bloemfontein during the 1950-1989 period. As a result of the limitations of the archive I found it challenging to either support or discard this theory, as some of it is based on the subjective opinions of different groups and individuals.
However, after close examination, I can conclude that the Bloemfontein art community was undeniably narrow-minded. I propose that the lack of an official art museum contributed to this conservatism and the fact that the two different art societies within this small artist community guided by the ‘elitists’ did not add value to this conservatism.
The formation of the Bloemfontein Group and the nature of their artworks clearly did not qualify for the local art societies as they believed that the Group’s work was not sellable. The latter became visible when I compiled the illustrated timeline of exhibitions and happenings in Bloemfontein. It is a fact that only during the late 1970s some of the Bloemfontein Group members’ work was included in the annual exhibitions of the societies. This group of artists rebelled against the elitist individuals in their environment and fearlessly mocked influential individuals of the local art societies and the National Museum who kept them from expanding their careers. Locally, the Group’s work was not seen as noteworthy enough to form part of local exhibitions, but on a national level their work was received with high praise. This in itself is an indication of the influences and inconsistencies of local art societies.
The mockery and satirical images of Marianne Podlashuc provided an understanding of the Group’s frustrations, but also expressed the determination of like-minded kindred spirits to change their environment regardless of being further excluded from the art scene.
I propose that this characteristic defined the Bloemfontein Group as the avant-garde leaders in the Bloemfontein art community. Ars Brevis, vita longa becomes an iconic image, as it provides insight into the Orange Free State art society, clearly dominated by pretentious, conservative and snooty individuals. The title of this drawing, “Art is brief, life is long” is more like a symbolic stance expressing what the society stood for.
I want to conclude with the following: as indicated earlier, the Bloemfontein Group donation belongs to Oliewenhuis Art Museum’s permanent collection and with this research I was able to examine the impact of this donation on the inception of an art museum in Bloemfontein. Also its impact on subsequent additions to the collection. I came to the conclusion that the Bloemfontein Group’s donation is an indicator of a regional art identity. This research also contributes to the fact that it is not only the Bloemfontein Group’s collection that could be seen as the foundation collection of Oliewenhuis Art Museum but also the A.C White donation. With this research, I understand Oliewenhuis Art Museum’s establishment and its founding collection more comprehensively. I have also realised that as its permanent collection has never been researched before, this dissertation could be seen as a stepping stone to a broader, historically informed understanding of the collection as a whole.
E. Van der Merwe, Autumn landscape, Oil on board, 78 x 61.5 cm