About Masterpiece of the Month
Reflecting on the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collection this year, distinguished UCT art historian Anna Tietze is presenting an essay each month 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).
Artists can take inspiration from the same work and produce very different results. This can be seen in an intriguing juxtaposition of two paintings on show in the current retrospective at the Iziko South African National Gallery: As the Singing Leads, so the Dancing Follows (c.1665) by Jan Steen (1626-79) (right) and As the Old Ones Sing, so the Young Ones Pipe (1998) by Johannes Phokela (b.1966) (left). Both of these artists have been influenced by Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), and in particular, Jordaens’ painting As the Old Ones Sing, so the Young Ones Pipe (1640).
Jordaens took the idea of his title from a popular contemporary proverb and produced a number of versions of this work. Jan Steen, a younger artist, was aware of Jordaens’ oeuvre and appears to have been inspired by him to pictorially re-work the same proverb (although using a slightly different wording of it). The style and scale of his work is very different from Jordaens, however, as is the social class of his depicted characters, but he borrows Jordaens’ idea of depicting three generations of a family, and he re-uses many of the older artist’s symbolic props.
By contrast, the contemporary South African artist Johannes Phokela (b.1966) has very overtly borrowed from Jordaens. In the spirit of post-modernism, however, he has updated the ‘original’, and inserted into his version some unsettling new messages: he has added a dancing woman at right, naked except for a slip of drapery around the shoulders, a short, fringed skirt and decorative ankle bands. He has removed the vase of flowers and snuffed-out candle from the left of Jordaens’ work and replaced it with an African mask. And where in Jordaens there is a cage of songbirds at right, in Phokela the cage holds the severed head of a black man, staring lasciviously at the dancing woman below him. As so often in Phokela’s work, the changes introduce startling updates which give an old work added dimensions and a new life. To understand his painting, however, we have to start with the seventeenth-century genre paintings1 on which he builds.
Analysis of Steen’s As the Singing Leads, so the Dancing Follows
In Steen’s As the Singing Leads, so the Dancing Follows three generations are present at a music-making event in a tavern: there are the middle-aged to old participants, two young adults, and finally children. Steen pictures the two young lovers at left, ready to dance; the music will be provided by the seated fiddler and the young flute-player in the left foreground. An old woman is being served at the table at right, while another elderly couple look in on the scene at the back. Drink flows, a poodle dances on its hind legs and a smoker’s pipe lies temporarily unused on a cask behind the flute-playing boy. Another pipe lies broken near the fiddler’s chair. A parrot perches at left below a cage, while at top right an owl can be dimly seen, behind a hanging curtain. Now very hard to decipher, after poor restoration in the early 1980s, this bird sits above a piece of paper on which is written the picture’s title.
As noted, the title was taken from a well-known proverb of the day, worded with the slight variations we see in Steen and Jordaens, but familiar to a wide audience.2 Its message was a sobering one, that the young imitate their elders, for good or for bad. In pictures like this, the adults are drinking and having fun, but we are warned that their licentious behaviour has consequences, especially for the young.
The dog and birds in this picture wordlessly hint at its message of imitation and (baleful) influence: the parrot is famed for its capacity to copy without understanding, the owl – normally a symbol of wisdom – symbolises foolishness instead, when pictured in a daytime setting (because of a belief that it was unable to see adequately during daylight), and the performing poodle, then as now, represents a creature without autonomy, forced to humiliate itself for others. Add to this the significance of the alcohol, being served by two young boys, and a picture emerges of foolishness rather than – or as well as – fun.3
There are additional signifiers in the work that are harder to retrieve with the passage of time. The smokers’ pipes clearly signify adult as opposed to childlike pleasures, but the broken pipe lying on the ground adds an extra dimension of warning, with its hint of carelessness and destructiveness. More opaquely still, the gestures and poses of the figures tell us that these are simple, poor people: to a seventeenth-century viewer, the lolling figure of the fiddler, and the hunched pose of the old woman to right and onlookers behind would have signified their lowly social status. So too would the dishevelled appearance of the young dancer at left. To an age acutely concerned about bodily decorum, excessive gesturing and movement signified an ill-disciplined body and an ill-disciplined mind. Prosperous middle-class patrons who would have purchased a moralising work of this kind would have hoped to differentiate themselves from this kind of life and behaviour – it was, to them, coarse, chaotic and amusing, but not to be emulated.4
Analysis of Phokela’s As the Old Ones Sing, so the Young Ones Pipe
Phokela’s re-working of this theme has the grand scale and much of the sense of hedonistic chaos seen in Jordaens’ painting: he retains from the Flemish artist’s work the obese singing man, the toothless old woman and the wine-drinking mother who ignores her infant as she leans towards the paper bearing the song’s lyrics. This is a wealthier world than that of Steen’s painting: a voluptuous naked dancer entertains the party, the table groans with good food, and furniture, tableware and costumes are lavish. In Jordaens, and in Phokela, the proverb’s warning is communicated through images of luxury and excess and through a pictorial style, Rubensian in quality, which see bodies and draperies sway, creating a sense of unpredictable movement.
How much does Phokela want us to refer back to the seventeenth-century tradition, when approaching his work? The regularity with which he returns to the old masters and the evident respect with which he studies them make it likely that he expects us to familiarise ourselves with his sources. But his adaptions and additions make clear that he is also moving beyond them and introducing new debates. And into this particular work he inserts questions of racial politics, the relationship of Africa to Europe. This is most clearly seen in the figure of the dancing woman – a pale, full-bodied Rubensian beauty whose dress, nevertheless, is part African in inspiration. She is stared at by the face, the disembodied head, of a black man in the birdcage held above her. Phokela comments on the compromised position of the black spectator in this quintessentially European scene. The black viewer is allowed only a fragmentary presence and is imprisoned in the cage. As with caged animals, he is a subservient outsider. But from his cage he stares at the woman’s body, referencing long-held fears and prejudices about black sexual power.
This is the main drama of Phokela’s image and it is reinforced subtly by the African mask in the little niche at left. As noted earlier, this mask replaces a vase of abundant flowers and a snuffed-out candle in Jordaens’ – symbols of the passing of time and the futility of valuing luxuries. In place of this warning, Phokela returns to the theme of the relationship of Africa to Europe and touches here on the exclusivity of the European pictorial tradition. The mask is not immediately noticed, but once we spot it, it is with a shock at its ‘otherness’ in this scene. With a wryly comic intent, he ensures that the mask’s face – at its jaunty angle and with wide-open eyes and mouth – echoes that of the portly reveller at right.
Finally, Phokela superimposes over the whole a tripartite grid. It is a device he uses often in his paintings and while appealing at a stylistic level – imposing a simple geometry over the Baroque forms of his composition – it also references the tripartite structure of many traditional altarpieces, so-called triptychs. These were intended to be read in parts, like chapters in an unfolding story, and something of this is carried over into Phokela’s work. But surely the chief impact of this triptych structure in his modern re-workings is that it endows them with the sanctity of the original religious imagery. A vestigial memory of this structure in works of the distant past informs our attitude to Phokela’s work of the present. Present and past are locked together in a series of echoes.
Acquisition by Iziko South African National Gallery
Phokela returned to South Africa in 2006 after nearly twenty years in London. He now lives here permanently, but his work is represented in a number of international galleries and this one entered the gallery’s collection in 2000.5 Meanwhile Jan Steen’s work was one of the large collection of Dutch and Flemish works presented to the nation by Max Michaelis in 19146 which, until the amalgamation of all Cape Town collections into Iziko Museums, formed the separately administered Michaelis Collection in Cape Town’s Old Town House.
1 Genre painting was, at the most basic level, a depiction of the mundane lives of ordinary people, of types rather than famous individuals. In the hands of the seventeenth-century masters of this art, however, genre was more than just a slice of life. It was intended to carry hidden meanings, meanings which were often moralising warnings about human behaviour.
2 Dutch seventh-century society enjoyed high levels of literacy. One of the favourite types of reading matter was ‘emblem books’, books of moralising proverbs illustrated with pictures. Painters drew heavily on the symbolic imagery used in emblem books and expected their viewers to be familiar with it. This particular proverb derived from the famous producer of emblem books, Jacob Cats.
3 Steen was from a wealthy family of brewers and at the end of his life, when the art market was in difficulties, opened a tavern of his own (in addition to making a living as a painter), so his moralising in this work has a large element of ‘tongue in cheek’.
4 However in this work, as often, Steen uses members of his own family as models (the two boys at right and the dancing young woman are modelled on his children) but he alters their social status to fit the demands of his pictorial drama.
5 Purchased from the artist with funds generously provided by Zonnebloem and Business Arts South Africa.
6 The Michaelis Collection was paid for by Max Michaelis but assembled by Irish art collector Hugh Lane. Lane bought this work in 1911 for £4000 from Agnews Gallery, London. For more on the Michaelis Collection, see Masterpiece of the Month, August 2022.