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Powerful works by South Africa's art giants lead Bonhams spring sale on March 18
Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, The bush camp of Anton van Wouw, Rooiplaat. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- The Bonhams spring sale of South African Art on March 18 in New Bond Street features key career landmark works by the country’s three top artistic names – Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, Irma Stern and Gerard Sekoto.

These three artists stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of their work and the value it commands. Stern, a great portraitist, holds the world record for South African art (R34M / £3M), closely followed by Pierneef, a landscape specialist, and Sekoto, the country’s leading black artist, whose work is rapidly closing in on his two white colleagues as his reputation soars.

Each of the three works by these artists in the Bonhams sale is significant, because they were significant to the artists themselves.

The work by Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957), for example, is a painterly praise-poem to his great artistic benefactor Anton van Wouw. Titled ‘The bush camp of Anton van Wouw, Rooiplaat’, this oil painting on canvas is signed and dated 'Pierneef 18' and is estimated to sell for £120,000-180,000.

Godfather, tutor, mentor and friend: the sculptor van Wouw was many things to the painter Pierneef, who had spent his formative years in van Wouw's studio in Pretoria, emulating the older artist's techniques of drawing and close observation.

Pierneef often remarked on the debt he owed to Van Wouw. They shared a deep love of nature, and spent time sketching and painting in the veld. A.P. Cartwright published an article in The Star on 'The life and work of Pierneef', May 30, 1960 and a specific reference to the bushcamp outings is made:

"Pierneef acquired a motor-bicycle and a side-car and in this he and his godfather, Anton van Wouw, used to go on sketching and camping expeditions to Pienaar's River. On these outings young Hendrik did all the work while the sculptor expounded the principles of art. I wish I could have been present at one of these camps where Van Wouw and Pierneef talked, sketched, fished for kurper and drank a great deal of coffee."

'Fisherman, Madeira' by Irma Stern (1894-1966) was executed during a particularly difficult period in the artist’s life in 1931. Referred to by the erstwhile director of Pretoria Art Museum, A.J. Werth as one of Stern's "finest oils", the painting is estimated at £300,000-500,000.

Stern’s visit to Madeira coincided with the collapse of her marriage to Johannes Prinz. Shortly after arriving on the island, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Many of Stern's Madeiran paintings reflect her anguished mental state. When exhibited in Cape Town in 1935, a critic commented on the work’s "sinister" colours and "hectic, feverish atmosphere". .

Finally, the work by Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993), the leading black South African artist, is fascinating as one of the earliest works by a man who stands alone in terms of critical acclaim. It is generally accepted that ‘Horse and Cart, Sophiatown’ is the earliest known oil painting in Sekoto's oeuvre. It is estimated to sell for £120,000-180,000.

The work was exhibited by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, in Gerard Sekoto: Unsevered Ties, 1 November 1989 - 10 February 1990, and at Johannesburg’s Wits Art Museum, in Song for Sekoto: 1913- 2013, 25 April - 2 June 2013.

Sekoto had moved to Johannesburg from Limpopo province in 1939. He found accommodation in Gerty Street, Sophiatown, where he lived with his cousins. ‘Horse and Cart, Sophiatown’ shows a vista that is punctuated with vibrant brushstrokes of red, culminating in the triumphant church spire of the Church of Christ the King in the far-left background. The road, cutting through the middle of the picture plane, is crammed with fascinating observation and detail, accentuating the hive of activity of the pedestrians scurrying in various directions, and of the cyclists, whose bicycle wheels replicate those of the cart, focusing attention on the foreground. This physical energy, enforced by the long afternoon shadows, which create a pattern of light and shade, animates the solid mass of the muted grey and brown concrete buildings.

Sekoto wrote of his memories of living in Sophiatown as follows: "The question of being in Sophiatown, an area reserved for blacks, had not troubled me in the least: on the contrary, the vitality of the area was a great stimulus. It was a theatrical scene seeing all these various types of people: women with baskets of shopping, some carrying baggage either on their heads or shoulders. Men of various styles of walking and clothing, some bicycle riding or driving cars, although in those days, car owners were rare in Sophiatown. There were also many children of varied appearance in attire and expression."

The attention to detail and recorded minutiae in ‘Horse and Cart, Sophiatown’ attest to Sekoto's heightened powers of awareness and observation at this early stage in his career. Also evident in the painting is the sense of musicality that was inherent to Sekoto's personality and youthful experience. He incorporated these thought processes into his compositions, both in his design and colour usage.

What was effectively a shantytown, with its accompanying poverty, overcrowding and dilapidation, is depicted here as a peaceful, sun-filled, vibrant community. Hardship and dereliction are expunged in colour, movement and pictorial device.

‘Horse and Cart, Sophiatown’ recalls a happier moment in South Africa's history, where ordinary people are depicted living their unpretentious, everyday lives. It is for this reason that this painting holds extraordinary historical importance for South Africa. One might suggest that its rightful place is in the historical Church of Christ the King, which remains a landmark to the struggle for human rights and freedom in the country.

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