The leader in the South African fine-art auction market, Strauss & Co, presents the third in a series of non-selling exhibitions in which pairs of important modern and contemporary artists are displayed together to highlight synergies and comparisons between their lives and work. This year the exhibition features two great South African painters of society, George Pemba and Robert Hodgins.
These unlikely pairings set off an interesting dynamic: though Pemba and Hodgins were contemporaries in age, and both took painterly observations of society as their main subject matter, in other ways their experience and artistic expression of it could not have been more different.
Pemba is one of the most important 20th-century Black modernist artists in South Africa, approaching the status of a national treasure. Born in 1912 and having lived most of his life in the Eastern Cape, he is one of the artists most typical of the generations of Black artists neglected in the South African art establishment in the mid- to late-20th century, who have come to critical and collector attention in the decades since. His career is primarily marked by a post-expressionist and deeply humane approach to subject matter. Indeed, unusually for a Black artist, Pemba travelled around the country to make observational studies of the everyday lives of South African Black people. Not only did Pemba depict African life in rural areas, but he also painted many scenes of the urban life of ordinary people, caught up in the socio-political situation of his time, with sympathy and pathos.
Hodgins was born in 1920 in England and settled in South Africa in 1953, only coming to painting full-time, and to career prominence, later in life — much like Pemba. He preferred satirising society, however — his works teem with imposing businessmen and strutting military officers, and he mocks their foibles and false sense of self-importance. His work very often had a subtle and, at times, an overtly critical, political reach.
Their styles are also in marked contrast. Pemba employed a type of social realism, sensitively rendering imagined images of the past and everyday images of the present, emphasising the human dignity of his sitters and their great courage in adversity. As Jacqueline Nolte states in the catalogue to the Pemba retrospective exhibition held at the Iziko National Gallery in Cape Town in 1996, “Pemba’s personal journey, through… spaces of desperation, solace, joy and quiet resistance, is evident in his extensive painterly testimonies.”
Hodgins’ style can be characterised as semi-abstract and expressionist, showing human frailty. Neil Dundas writes in the catalogue to the group exhibition: Satire & Irony: Robert Hodgins, Stanley Pinker and Alexander Podlashuc from the Kilbourn, Block, Wiese and Podlashuc Collections, held at Welgemeend in Cape Town in 2019, that, “Ignoble nobility, venal popes, untrustworthy clergymen, men in uniforms or formal suits of importance, disguised somehow by their clothing to compensate for their low morals, vicious demeanour, criminal intent... became the order of the day for Hodgins. Yet not all was cynicism or condemnation. He regarded ladies of ill repute, men in loud suits, bewildered ex-boxers struggling with the after-effects of being too often battered, all with a degree of understanding, humour, and fellow-feeling.”
This exhibition reassesses the work of both artists as being intellectual and emotional in origin. The works are products of a disciplined knowledge of artmaking and of transforming life into art.
Venue: Strauss & Co gallery, Safika House, 89 Central Street, Houghton, Johannesburg
Dates: 1-30 July 2021
• From the July issue of Wanted 2021.