Breakthrough moments: Strauss & Co sale includes formative works by key artists

Important works representative of South Africa’s diverse and evolving artistic practices from the twentieth and twenty-first century will go under the hammer at Strauss & Co’s much-anticipated Cape Town sale in March.

Strauss & Co
The Donkey Water Carrier, Gerard Sekoto R1 000 000 – R1 500 000

     Among the standout lots being offered on Strauss & Co’s Cape Town sale is an Egyptian-themed architectural drawing by William Kentridge from his 2005 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and a vivid still life with coffee utensils and ripening fruit by Erik Laubscher.
     South African painters active during the pre- and post-war years have enjoyed considerable favour with South African collectors. There is particular excitement at Strauss & Co around four paintings made between 1939 and 1959, each from a formative moment in the early careers of Peter Clarke, Erik Laubscher, Alexis Preller and Gerard Sekoto.
     Painted in 1939, Sekoto’s The Donkey Water Carrier (estimate R1 – R1.5 million) dates from the artist’s foundational Sophiatown period (1939-42). His oil depicting a cart-drawn water tank offers a fine elaboration of Sekoto’s emergent realist style and unobtrusive manner as an observer of everyday life. The painting was included on an important survey exhibition of Sekoto’s work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1989.
     An acquaintance of Sekoto when he lived in Johannesburg, Preller has been a name to conjure with at auction. Strauss & Co’s March sale includes Preller’s 1940 oil, A Still Life of Lilies (estimate R500 000 – R700 000). Wilhelm van Rensburg, an art specialist with Strauss & Co, notes: ‘Preller’s use of colour was exceptional, and his intricate and intriguing compositions showcase his distinctive iconography and personal symbolism, which included his so-called “household gods”.’

Strauss & Co
Still Life with Coffee Pot and Fruit, Erik Laubscher R1 500 000 – R2 000 000

     A 1952 painting by Laubscher, Still Life with Coffee Pot and Fruit (estimate R1.5 – R2 million), sees this Paris-trained artist use a well-known genre scene in service of declaring his personal style. Painted a year after Laubscher’s return to South Africa from Paris, this confidently detailed School of Paris picture also captures Laubscher at the edge of an important transition – he would shortly devote his career to landscape painting.
     Widely admired for his graphic style and social realist subject matter, Clarke’s 1959 gouache on paper, Tree, Eroded Bank and Birds, Teslaarsdal (estimate R400 000 – R600 000), dates from his influential Tesselaarsdal period. Clarke first visited this village below the Kleinrivier Mountains near Caledon in 1949. Over the next decade he frequently returned for lengthy stays during which he herded sheep and painted the ‘ordinary people’ he stayed with. These encounters distilled his social vision.
     Strauss & Co’s March sale comes shortly after its dedicated contemporary art sale, held during the week of Cape Town Art Fair in February. A burgeoning category underpinned by robust sales in the primary market, Strauss & Co’s has since 2009 established reliable benchmark prices for important artists like Wim Botha, Robert Hodgins and William Kentridge.

Strauss & Co
Fuse, Wim Botha R500 000 – R700 000

     Kentridge’s interest in the iconography of Ancient Egypt, which dominates his 2004 charcoal drawing Latopolis (estimate R1 – R1.5 million), originated out of an invitation to produce Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (1791) for La Monnaie, the federal opera house in Brussels, Belgium. Kentridge’s set designs referenced Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Egyptian-themed set designs for an 1816 production. Latopolis features two differently rendered images of the Temple of Khnum, a red sandstone structure that was one of the last Egyptian temples ever built.
     Botha’s 2011 bust depicting two lovers bonded in a kiss, Fuse (estimate R600 000 – R800 000), slots into a worldly tradition of sculpture that encompasses Hindu temple figures and Auguste Rodin’s iconic marble, The Kiss (1882). Botha is well known for his appropriation, mimicry and distortion of well-known symbols and icons – what the artist describes as ‘saturated images’.
     Hodgins also alludes to classical western art in his late-career oil, Study After Michelangelo No. 1 (estimate R350 000 – R500 000), which is based on Michelangelo’s drawings towards an incomplete fresco depicting the Battle of Cascina for the Palazzo Vecchio, Italy. The classically sculpted Renaissance figures appearing in Michelangelo’s drawings are starkly at odds with the lumpy, corpulent figures preferred by Hodgins throughout his career.
     Strauss & Co’s March sale will be held at the Vineyard Hotel, Cape Town, on Monday, 5 March. As is custom, the company will host a preview from 2 to 4 March, from 10am to 5pm, as well as offer an extensive programme of talks and social events.

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