Against a backdrop of knobbly grey mountains and a cloud-stained sky, the once magnificent South African National Gallery adorns the Government Avenue Gardens like a huge slice of architecturally colonial wedding cake.
The mish-mash of Doric columns, tiled cornices, mosaic niches, and Cape-Dutch windows makes for an awkward façade. Yet perhaps this is an accurate reflection of Cape Town’s own complex and convoluted history, which is in itself, is a mish-mash of cultures, colonisers, and controversy.
The Gallery’s permanent collection leans heavily towards the contemporary, with vast, vacuous rooms dedicated to artworks made from plastic bags and soil. It’s certainly not for everyone, although the collection does offer some respite through internationally acclaimed works by Irma Stern, Moses Tladi, and John Mohl, not to mention a wonderful exhibition of drawings from the permanent collection.
“…the idea of the romantic landscape evolving alongside colonialism… could warrant a true blockbuster show”
Once you have waded through the displays of challenging contemporary themes, you discover the gallery’s most recent exhibition. ‘Framing Landscape: The Picturesque and The Sublime’ is irresistible. Small but pleasantly formed, the exhibition encourages the viewer to consider the development of the romantic landscape alongside the expansion of European colonialism. It questions whether the African landscape could ever have found its place within such a euro-centric genre, and considers “the historical insecurity regarding the place of the artist of European heritage in the African landscape”, which is concluded to be an “insecurity not without cause”.
Through the works of Heinrich Wilhelm Hermann, John Roland Brown, Jans Wijnants, and prints by JMW Turner (to name but a few), the exhibition draws the somewhat complex distinction between the concepts of the sublime and the picturesque, between emotion, glory, and aesthetic idealism.
There is endless scope for an exhibition with such an investigative title. The (text-heavy) text panels introduce scintillating ideas that, sadly, are not fully reflected by the artworks on the walls. The idea of the romantic landscape evolving alongside colonialism, and the place of the African landscape and African artists within it, is an enormous topic that could warrant a true blockbuster show.
I would like to have seen more African artists on the walls – quite how a South African landscape exhibition can escape the work of John Mohl I am not sure – it is almost as though the exhibition perpetuated it’s own ideas about the place of the European landscape technique in Africa by its lack of representation.
Nevertheless, the high-quality artworks made for a thought-provoking and unusual take on a truly classic theme, and I highly recommend a visit.