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Masterpiece of the Month: Gerard Sekoto, Street Scene (1945)

Anna Tietze writes about Gerard Sekoto’s painting, Street Scene (1945), for January’s edition of Masterpiece of the Month

About Masterpiece of the Month

Reflecting on the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collection in 2022, distinguished UCT art historian Anna Tietze is presenting a monthly  essay shining some light on an artwork of her choice from the gallery’s historical collection. Anna Tietze is the author of A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity (UCT Press, 2017).

Gerard Sekoto, Street Scene (1945), oil on board, 30.5 x 40.5cm

Gerard Sekoto, Street Scene (1945)

Introduction

In the early 1960s, the government greatly increased the South African Gallery’s acquisition budget but added the proviso that, from now on, art by South African artists should be the gallery’s main focus. Under the new Director, Matthys Bokhorst, 160 works from the national school were acquired in the 1960s, nearly twice as many as in the previous decade. Among these acquisitions was the gallery’s first work by a black South African artist: this painting, Street Scene by Gerard Sekoto, bought in 1964. 

Like other black South African artists of his generation, Gerard Sekoto (1913-93) had had little opportunity to receive an art education. School ‘art’ classes for black children were scarcely available at the time, the emphasis being on useful craft skills rather than on the fine arts. Tertiary education training was likewise almost non-existent. But on leaving school, Sekoto was fortunate to attend the Lutheran Mission Teacher Training College, Grace Dieu, in Pietersburg (now Polokwane), Mpumalanga where, unusually, art classes were offered as part of the curriculum. Here Edward Paterson, a graduate of London’s Central School of Art, was fostering an interest in woodcarving and building up skills in this medium among a generation of students.

While his Grace Dieu training was in sculptural work, Sekoto had always favoured painting and drawing as means of expression and in these he was largely self-taught. He worked at first with the relatively affordable media of watercolour or tempera and later graduated to the more expensive medium of oil-painting as his ambitions grew. But, from his early sculptural training, he retained a feel for weighty monumental form and this was a feature of his figurative painting throughout his career.

Analysis of the Work

In Street Scene, the three figures all have the simplified, solid presence that became the hallmark of Sekoto’s work. They are generic figures rather than individuals: only one face is sketchily indicated, the other two obscured. The eye rests instead on the bodies, modelled by the strong light falling on them from the left. They have the weightiness of the wood sculptures that Sekoto would have been familiar with from Grace Dieu.

Once Sekoto turned from water-based paint to the medium of oils, he began to work with strong colour and a dense texture that gave the painting itself a sense of solidity. Though Street Scene is only a small work, the textured use of the paint, combined with the choice of strong oranges, blues and yellows, gives the image a kind of monumentality. Paint is laid on very thickly and the weave of the canvas, glimpsed through the brush marks here and there, adds to the tactile effect. Sekoto adds to this a very deliberate pattern-making, in the shapes of the buildings, the fall of the shadow, and the striations of the corrugated metal that makes up much of the wall and roof surfaces. Half-open doors, small window-panes and frames and the open container in the  front add further to the abstract geometry of the scene. Ostensibly a view of everyday life, this little work is in fact a highly abstracted image, one which relies on pattern and mark-making for its effect.

The work was painted in 1945. By this time, Sekoto had spent four years as a teacher, then left to pursue a full-time career as an artist, living and working first in Johannesburg (1938-42), then in Cape Town (1942-45) before moving to Pretoria (1945-47). In Johannesburg, he secured a one-man exhibition in 1939, unusual at the time for a black artist, and in 1940, the Johannesburg Art Gallery bought one of his works, their first acquisition by a black artist. In Cape Town, he became friendly with the founder members of the New Group, a group dedicated to modernising South Africa’s generally conservative art scene. A friendship with New Group sculptor Lippy Lipshitz was particularly important: it cemented Sekoto’s desire to bring sculptural weight into painting and awakened an interest in the African sculptural tradition that had inspired modernist artists like Picasso and Matisse.

By the mid-1940s, Sekoto had carved out a reputation within South Africa as an important figure in the national school; he had exhibited alone and with others in provincial and national shows and was the only black artist selected to show in the South African Art Exhibition which opened at London’s Tate Gallery in September 1948. But he was acutely aware that his opportunities remained limited in apartheid South Africa. Seeking a larger and more inclusive art world, he emigrated to France and settled in Paris. The early days in Paris were difficult but Sekoto remained here for the rest of his life. Interestingly however, while he occasionally painted scenes of Paris streets, it was images of South African township life that remained his favourite theme even long after he had left the country. In these works, a shallow space, high horizon line and densely grouped bodies offered an essentially sculptural vision.

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