“Darling, I’ve had the most wonderful idea!”
This could have been the beginning of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. It apparently owes its existence to the vision and passion of Lady Florence Phillips, wife of mining magnate Sir Lionel Phillips. She became aware, through her travels, of the cultural wealth of the European capitals and the contrasting barrenness of the Johannesburg mining town. She decided to make a difference by giving it an art gallery.
It opened to the Johannesburg public in 1910. Renowned British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the building, which is impressive. Although the foundation stone was laid in 1911, construction was delayed and the still unfinished building opened in 1915. It was enlarged in the late 1930s and again in 1986 as part of the centenary celebrations of the city.
Looking over the sweeping lawns and soaring fountains of Joubert Park, and tucked away behind the vibrant street vendors and the bustling taxis, it is one of the city’s less obvious treasures.
Now, of course I’ve known it was there. There have been times when I asked myself why it was ‘There!’
But I had never been there. Not because I am not an art lover. On the contrary; I still have not recovered from my first experience of the National Gallery in London. Art books just do not prepare you for the often stunning impact of the originals. But, I had never been before. And now I am so very glad that I have – twice, in fact, within the space of a week.
I browsed happily through the 17 different galleries with their displays of work by Albert Adams and Cecil Skotnes, as well as selections from the Gallery’s Founding collection, South African collection, Historical collection and Modern works – both local and international. A remarkable exhibition.
In the Sculpture Courtyard I pondered the large works by different sculptors. They included a dramatically alive statue of a standing man, his arms wrapped around himself and his head bowed. His silent emotions were almost deafening.
“The current holdings of the Gallery consists of over 9000 artworks. The contemporary South African collection is currently the largest and comprises photography, installations, new media and digital works, paintings, sculptures, prints and ceramics. It includes work by renowned artists Tracey Rose, Robin Rhode, Jane Alexander, Jackson Hlungwani and William Kentridge.”
There is, at present, a large photographic exhibition downstairs, dealing with the pains and joys of people, and questioning the relationship between seeing and perceiving. ‘To what extent is what we see in pictures merely a distorted image of ourselves?’ [Face the challenge of that one!] It is absorbing. I never wish to forget the haunting, pain-filled beauty of Alf Kumalo’s portrait entitled ‘Love.’
All around me was a taste of sadness – preserved in the capture of a passing moment of life, and of the deep value and dignity, of people.
As I left, I dropped into the Bookshop – which I knew would turn out to be a mistake! But I came away with a freshly completed work by a young artist – full of life and colour and passion. Interesting that there are no people in it! Is it great art? Well, it would depend whom you ask. But it came from his soul. It seemed to speak of a new day, a new hope, a new beauty. It is good.
I have been deepened and enriched. Take the journey too – you’re worth it!
Do you have any suggestions for Jerry?
Send him an email!