Celebrating the European body

Abandoned Reading by Félix Vallotton is one of the works on show in the exhibition 20th Century Masters: The Human Figure.

Abandoned Reading by Félix Vallotton is one of the works on show in the exhibition 20th Century Masters: The Human Figure.

There is so much white flesh depicted on the walls of the Standard Bank Art Gallery in the exhibition 20th Century Masters: The Human Figure that the show could be sub­titled “50 ways to shade the European pigment”.

There are intense greens on the cheeks of Gino Sevirini’s siblings in The Painter’s Family (1936), a rusty yellow in Henri Matisse’s Young Woman in White, Red Background (1946) and bright pink in Francis Bacon’s Study for a Bullfight, No 2 (1969).

Although the catalogue of essays and chapter notes by curator Sylvie Raymond speak directly about the context of the body (“Bodies at rest, bodies in movement, ailing bodies, shining bodies …”), there is little speculation about what changing depictions of the Western body in history may mean in Africa today.

In his catalogue essay “Deep Encounters in Culture” about France’s involvement in South African cultural development, Sean O’Toole charts the history of the landmark exhibition The Neglected Tradition (1988) that had arisen as a result of a modest show held by Alliance Française in Johannesburg in 1986. The show had provided the impetus for The Neglected Tradition, which had “prompted a reappraisal” of Paris-based exiles Ernest Mancoba and Gerard Sekoto.

The latter is hailed as a painter and musician whose talent “was enhanced by his exposure to both our countries and both our peoples”, according to French president François Hollande in the catalogue. His legendary status echoes the place that Mahatma Gandhi occupies in South Africa and India’s dealings.  Yet the absence Sekoto’s work in the exhibition probably has more to do with the major works that were once acquired by institutions of the Lyon and the Rhône-Alpes regions than with ideology.

The presence of paintings by non-French artists, such as the Spaniard Pablo Picasso and the Irish-born Francis Bacon, attest to this.  

The organisers of the France-South Africa cultural seasons have made bold assertions that the two countries can teach each other a lot about social unity in the face of diversity.

Yet what the 20th Century Masters exhibition shows is universality and the frailty of the human condition. Federico Ferrari calls the body a “silent locus of wordless knowledge”.

Hopefully, this meaningful silence will not be disrupted by noise about ­representation and the nature of official and financial institutions’ backing of the arts.

20th Century Masters: The Human Figure is on show at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, until September 15

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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