There is something enduringly Cape Town-esque about the ‘Modern Masters’ show held at Ebony Gallery. The dark-painted walls and designer furniture cooperate with the works by canonical South African artists to justify why this is a city that pioneers weight-loss diets, has internationally acclaimed cafes and weekly vintage-wear markets. As the manager of the space states, their mandate is to promote an aesthetic lifestyle.
In conversation, one of the owners of the gallery remarked that their focus is on contemporary art, but this exhibition was put on in an effort to do something more classical, and display the icons that young South African artists draw their inspiration from. This intention to do public good is further echoed by the gallery manager who states that the space’s intention is to educate. The space and the works exhibited foster an atmosphere of benevolent lavishness.
An example of this is a work the viewer encounters on entry, Erik Laubscher’s Landskap Met Son II (1965). The large abstract painting is striking. The composition is simultaneously sharp and soft; the organic shapes suggestive of nature are controlled by the semblance of geometry. Everything is in its right place. The colours are affined; foliate greens, various ocher hues and wheat-yellows impress the viewer with the sense of a sunny African afternoon. The thick application of the paint adds texture, rescuing the canvas from insipidity. The painting becomes elegant as opposed to slick. Set against the backdrop of a museum, it would have encouraged hushed awe, but with the window showing the bustle of Loop Street, the serenity of the work is turned inward. The viewer engages without the obligation to venerate. The visual experience and the pleasure to be gained from it is an invitation, not an imperative and this is felt in all the paintings.
Aside from Laubscher the show features works by Norman Catherine, Walter Battiss, Irma Stern and other textbook heavyweights, but in this space the viewer finds them tempered. Placed behind couches, above desks, and on coffee tables the revered works are not merely to be admired, they are put to practical use, it is almost an applied art. The viewer gets to see what happens to an artwork before it makes it to a museum and after it leaves the auction house. The show is intimate and domestic, without making the works homely. The art is demystified by this recontextualisation but it remains ‘pretty’; the creation of a visual banquet removes need for interrogation.
In this tribute to beauty the viewer feels that they are standing in the embodiment of the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. The surroundings feel like a catalyst for self-actualization. The rising cost of food has no place here. The exhibition is a neverland of tasteful objects, a breeding ground for both idealism and ignorance.
The self-congratulation and ease fostered by an exhibition like this displays the need for criticality. The gallery identifies as aesthetic, educational and apolitical, but the roots of many of works lie in a very specific ideology. While not all the artists participated as actively as Pierneef in the crafting of an exclusionary national identity, the status of these artists as celebrated is not divorced from the politics of their day. Cultural objects of antiquity are underpinned by antiquated notions; It cannot be forgotten that this art comes from a period when South Africa was a leper in an international community that believed autism was caused by inattentive mothers and that homosexuality was a mental illness.
Aesthetics are a welcome reprieve from the unpleasant burdens of modernity, but a critical awareness of their function is necessary to stop them from being a mere crutch for the cult of lifestyle. The exhibition shows that culture is not homogenous; there is culture that is consumable and culture that is critical, the challenge is to stop these two from being mutually exclusive.
In ‘Modern Masters’ the border was blurred between the end of aesthetics and the beginning of cosmetics .