For several surrealist artists, the strangeness was an important theme in their work – for South African artist Keith Alexander, it’s a seminal motif that weaves through much of his oeuvre.
South Africa’s leading auction house, Strauss & Co, is pleased to offer three of Alexander’s works at its upcoming live sale in Johannesburg. The auction runs from May 15-17 and the works are part of an evening devoted entirely to surrealism and its influence on South African art and artists.
At first glance, the viewer might see an ordinary object in his works – a house, a rock or a lamp post. But as the viewer spends more time with the painting, they become aware of an ominous presence – something they didn’t understand when they first met, but speaks of something more. deeper and more visceral on a subconscious level.
A disturbing aesthetic
European and American surrealists drew inspiration from the enigmatic, airless, supernaturally enlightened compositions of metaphysical artist Giorgio de Chirico. Surrealists often manipulated scale, induced an atmosphere of angst, guilt, or bewilderment, and forced everyday objects into unfamiliar contexts.
Alexander did his honors thesis on surrealism, and it is the same techniques and themes of this artistic movement that we see in his paintings. They have an eerie aesthetic similar to that of French surrealist artist René Magritte and Spanish artist Salvador Dali. “In a short time, Alexander established himself as one of South Africa’s foremost surrealists,” says Strauss & Co. chief curator and art specialist Wilhelm van Rensburg.
When it came to landscapes, Alexandre was particularly adept – like his predecessors Magritte and Dali, he executed his work in a highly accomplished, hyper-realistic style – shimmering with a sense of restlessness and melancholy.
“The artist created an impressive body of work of over 500 paintings during his lifetime, in a short career of 25 years,” says Van Rensburg.
“His artistic journey began when he enrolled in a fine arts degree at the University of Natal, but the foundations for his themes of decay and ruin were laid much earlier.”
Alexander was born in 1946 in what was then Rhodesia, but his parents sent him to a boarding school in London, where damage from wartime bombings still lingered. He experienced the aftermath of World War II first hand – and the theme of rubble and crumbling masonry is a recurring motif in his works. Alexander met his wife, gallery owner and art collector Elizabeth White, at one of his exhibitions, where she purchased one of his works.
White encouraged and supported him throughout his artistic career – they traveled extensively across Africa, but their honeymoon in Namibia in 1980 set the tone for much of his work. It was there that he fell in love with the desert. The stark, stark and hauntingly beautiful scenes of the Namib Desert, the crumbling and abandoned mining town of Kolmanskop and shipwrecks like the Edward Bohlen that dotted the beaches inspired Alexander to create his own visual language.
Few artists have captured the haunting isolation of the desert towns of the Namib Desert more dramatically than Alexander. His images of Kolmanskop are an allegory of the decaying and crumbling regime of South Africa in the 1980s – starkly reminiscent of old times rich and luxurious, but now abandoned, reclaimed by the relentless dunes of the Namib. paintings, I use Namibia as a medium for colonial collapse, the transition, as in South Africa today, from the old order to the new. The physical language is so aggressive and hostile. At the end of it all, however, Africa will be here forever. Long after all the plans and dreams are gone, he remains the ultimate winner,” he said in a previous interview.
Desert also features prominently in three of the May sale paintings.
In the Hustle for Africa (est. R400,000 – R600,000) the viewer is confronted with the remains of an ancient Roman arch. At the center of this desolate scene, a ship is hurtling towards the viewer. Adding to the feeling of eerieness is a highly polished tiled floor, which reflects the ship. There is an impending sense of doom and destruction – of inevitable disaster.
In an interview, Alexander explained that a ship is much more a part of its origin than its destination. “A ship is almost like a living being, which can travel very far from its natural environment, while remaining intact and autonomous. Abandoned in a foreign environment, it is almost a perfect allegory of colonialism. Last Light (R 600,000 – R800,000) has a sense of an end – it features what looks like the facade of a European train station and a dusty road, lined with ornate streetlamps.
Upon his return to southern Africa, Alexander became increasingly aware of the contradictions inherent in his deeply colonial and political upbringing, another important theme that would later manifest itself in works such as these. the last light aligns with Alexander’s central theme of isolation and decadence – and juxtaposes the real with the imaginary. Twilight Light invokes a sense of finality – of lost times and crumbling empires, and underscores the futility of it all.
For more information on the sale, visit www.straussart.co.za. The exhibition is open to the public from 3rd until May 17and May 2022 at 89 Central Street, Houghton, JHB.