Barnard Gallery, Cape Town
30.01 – 06.03.2018
I arrived at Barnard Gallery in pursuit of the inexpressible. “All sorts of things, which cannot be explained or depicted visually, can be found in the exhibition,” curator Mary Corrigall had promised of her group show ‘New Romantics’. Both the press release and an accompanying article Corrigall wrote for Business Day – Artwork as a New Romance Rooted in Nature’s Magic – suggested that the exhibition considered the unknowable, which struck me as only a sly way of saying nothing and also of saying nothing in particular. What was it Wittgenstein had written? The inexpressible is contained, inexpressibly, in the expressed.
‘New Romantics’ is the illustrated guide to Corrigall’s thesis: that there is a certain romantic turn in South African painting, away from conceptualism and towards more spontaneous image-making, a turn away from reason and logic. Of the defining characteristics of this movement, Corrigall identifies nature as subject and a shared ‘prettiness’. To this end, the exhibition includes foliage and tasteful pastel hues, a sheep in the middle distance, a cumulous cloud, a pink landscape, a forest.
The exhibition includes works by Alexia Vogel, Heidi Fourie, Sarah Biggs, Robyn Penn, Katherine Spindler, Rosie Mudge, Jaco van Schalkwyk, Marcus Neustetter and Ronel de Jager – nearly all contemporaries, nearly all painters, nearly all women, and all the same shade of pale. Incidentally, none of these artists consider themselves New Romantics, an inconvenient fact Corrigall concedes, off-hand, in her article.
The term Romanticism denotes an artistic, musical and literary movement that began in Europe in the mid-1800s. Breaking away from the Enlightenment’s dogma of reason and rationality, the Romantics championed imagination and intuition as embodying the ideals of individual rights and personal liberty. In natural scenes and landscapes, artists found allegories for boundlessness and freedom. These allegories offered veiled critiques of both the politics of the time and of pervading cultural values. Romanticism pushed back against the alienation of the industrial age, and against the current of modernity, turning instead to an idealized past and the solitude of nature.
Curiously, Corrigall’s text also includes reference to 1980s New Romanticism, a British pop-culture movement that had little to do with art – or landscape or the sublime – and very much to do with frilly shirts, Boy George and MTV. How this post-punk aesthetic is reflected in the exhibition is unapparent, save perhaps by Mudges’ glittery triptych. But then, not all that glitters is British New Romanticism.
I admit I spent most of my time in the gallery reading and rereading the curatorial statement, distrustful of its premise. As a foreword to the works exhibited, the text, though slippery and often vague, is prescriptive rather than evocative. Such is the danger of thematic curation. Such is the danger of a curatorial thread that follows “an unknowable entity evading description” (this being the definition Corrigall offers of the sublime).
Among the more vacant works exhibited is van Schalkwyk’s oil painting, Faraway Exotic, a forest scene painted in sepia tones and in a naturalistic style. It offers considerations on neither its medium nor its contents, however it is “pretty” and does include “nature”, so there it is. Penn’s cloudscape and Spindler’s sheep are similarly lacking in romantic inclinations despite their subjects, which speak to meteorology and agriculture yet fail to evoke the ever-illusive sublime.
Further confusing the premise of the exhibition are largely nonfigurative works by Vogel, Fourie, de Jager, and Neustetter that pursue languages of abstraction; exploring tones and mark-making, rather than the pastoral and picturesque. Only the titles, such as River Run II and Exploring 1950 Celestial Maps, weight these works in the natural world.
Biggs’ paintings alone appear to share more than superficial parallels with romanticism. In all three a lone figure appears subsumed by nature and abstract pools of colour. Her paintings evoke metaphorical and allegorical readings that are perhaps more telling of an inner, enigmatic space than of a physical place.
That Corrigall does not address the relevancy of a displaced European movement in contemporary South Africa seems something of a glaring oversight. Words like postgeographical worry me. Like apolitical. Can one speak of the land, I wonder, without asking who owns it? To paint in a manner borrowed from another continent and from another century is to paint within a fraught history of second-hand references. Yet neither the curatorial premise nor the works exhibited engage with the implications of their referentiality.
This ‘new romanticism’, unlike Romanticism proper, is divorced from the rebellious spirit that pushed against the rational convictions of objectivity. It is a faint echo of that grand project of individuality, strangely unmoving, more surface than depth.
Corrigall’s thesis left my most pressing questions unanswered. What validity does romantic painting have within South African art discourse? Can the pervasive irony of the Internet age be mollified by prettiness? Is there a space for nostalgia without quotation marks?