Strauss & Co is pleased to announce details of Figuration: Past and Present, a specialist session exploring the importance of the figure in modern, post-war and contemporary art. This 79-lot session will take place on Tuesday, 5 April 2022, at 6pm, and introduces the vibrant art catalogue for this important live sale at Brickfield Canvas, a creative and tech campus in Woodstock, Cape Town. Irma Stern’s Dakar Woman (estimate R7-9 million), a masterful portrait study of a Senegalese woman made in 1938, is the major highlight of this session.
The figuration session is bookended by Maggie Laubser’s Portrait of a Woman (estimate R500 000 – 700 000) and Dylan Lewis’s Trans-Figure XVII Maquette (estimate R280 000 – 340 000). It includes an artist focus on George Pemba and highly collectable works by, among others, Norman Catherine, Robert Hodgins, Dorothy Kay, William Kentridge, Nelson Makamo, Thania Petersen, Johannes Phokela, Penny Siopis and Irma Stern.
The session is a nod to the theme of the non-selling exhibition Giving Direction: Figuration, past and present, held at Welgemeend during the vibrant art week that coincided with the 2022 Investec Cape Town Art Fair in February. Curated by Strauss & Co staff members Mia Borman, Leigh Leyde and Wilhelm van Rensburg, the exhibition featured nine works in the catalogue for the April live auction, including Stern’s portrait.
When it was first exhibited in 1938, the Cape Argus described Stern’s Dakar Woman as “magnificent”. A later commentator celebrated it as a work of poise, further noting that in “its descriptive attention to personality and decoration” we see “the bridge to the works linked to Stern’s travels to Zanzibar and the Belgian Congo” established.
A contemporary of Stern, Maggie Laubser’s undated Portrait of a Woman in a Sari with a Floral Background (estimate R800 000 – 1,2 million) bears the stylistic hallmarks of the artist’s style from the 1920s and 30s, with its keen observation, lively palette with faceted brushwork that skilfully maps the facial contours of the sitter. Laubser has six lots in this session.
Also previously exhibited included on Giving Direction was Esther Mahlangu’s 2005 composition Herdsmen (estimate R50 000 – 70 000), an Ndebele village scene framed by the artist’s stylised geometric patterns. George Pemba’s in the Bus (estimate R300 000 – 500 000), a 1988 group scene of commuters, shows the artist’s absorption with the social themes and subjects of early French modernism. Pemba was friendly with fellow Port Elizabeth artist Dorothy Kay, whose striking composition The Boxer (estimate R400 000 – 600 000) was painted at the behest of the artist’s husband, Hobart, an avid sportsman with a particular interest in boxing.
William Kentridge, whose forthcoming September 2022 exhibition at London’s Royal Academy will be the biggest Kentridge exhibition in the UK to date, is represented in the figuration session by two works. Printed in 1994, Felix in Exile (estimate R400 000 – 600 000) has been extensively exhibited, most recently in Giving Direction, with Lucas Sithole’s ironwood sculpture The Guitarist (estimate R150 000 – 200 000) and Sydney Kumalo’s bronze Mother and Child (estimate R90 000 – 120 000).
Other noteworthy individual works in this session include Robert Hodgins’s A Voice from the Thirties (estimate R400 000 – 600 000), which is also inscribed with a line from a sonnet by the poet WH Auden: “They are, and suffer; that is all they do”. Hodgins was an admirer of Alexis Preller, whose early nude composition Maya (estimate R220 000 – 250 000) was shown in the first New Group exhibition, held in Pretoria in 1938. Preller’s nude forms part of a concise grouping of nude studies by artists as diverse as Mia Chaplin, Hylton Nel and Jean Welz.
Vladimir Tretchikoff’s Portrait of an African Man (estimate R250 000 – 350 000) is a tightly framed facial portrait. It appears in the catalogue alongside lots by contemporary painters Richard Mudariki and Nelson Makamo, whose Head of a Child from 2013 (estimate R350 000 – 450 000) showcases his predisposition to colour. The sculpture selection comprises works by David Brown, Moses Kottler, Speelman Mahlangu, Lucas Sithole, Cecil Skotnes, Lionel Smit and Florian Wozniak. Enigmatic photographs of Pieter Hugo, Cyrus Kabiru, Thania Petersen and Ralph Ziman track the durability of the figure as a subject, whatever the medium.
All the lots in the session titled Figuration: Past and Present will be on view at Brickfield Canvas during Strauss & Co’s preview week, which runs from Monday, 28 March to Sunday, 3 April 2022. On Thursday, 31 March, at 11 am, Mia Borman and Leigh Leyde, co-curators of this session, will present an in-person walkabout. Leyde will also host a webinar, at 6 pm, exploring the figure in works by Laubser, Pemba, Sekoto and Stern. On Friday, 1 April, at 11 am, senior art specialist Matthew Partridge will conduct an in-person lecture titled “Portraiture: Pictures that Breathe”.