Each country has its famous artists who have not only shaped the landscape of the country’s history by capturing their views and interpretations in their bodies of work, but who have changed the evolution of artistic periods in their own countries and in the world. South African artists – especially those who operated during our country’s difficult political period and continue to do so – give a voice to people who are silenced, and highlight the issues that most affect society, all the while participating in that very society. They are not outsiders, but contributors. The following names stand out from any South African artist directory.
Walter Whall Battiss
Walter Battiss’s work brought a bright, colourful dash of modern and abstract flavour to the South African palette that had not been seen before. He had not walked the streets of European cities and found his influence (like many of his contemporaries), but rather, had taken what little influence he could from Picasso and Gino Severini to drive his modernist, liberal oeuvre in its own unique direction.
Prominent and prolific modern artist, William Kentridge is one of South Africa’s most famous multi-media artists. Considered to be an expressionist (which is telling, given his early career sway of wanting to become an actor), Kentridge produces drawings and prints, animated films, opera, tapestries, and sculpture. He is most famous for his application of technique on his animations, working in layers of charcoal and harnessing the themes of the progression of time and the changes wrought within.
Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef
Everyone recognises the stylistically geometric shapes and beautiful blend of colour in the landscapes of the Pierneef masterpieces. Considered to be one of the best of the old South African masters with a European education and influence applied to the South African landscape, Pierneef struggled to find his acclaim, yet didn’t give up on his calling. He focused full-time on his art from the mid-1920’s and carved a niche for his pioneering style over the next two decades. Pierneef’s work is some of the most recognisable in international collections, in its ability to capture the unspoiled beauty of the South African landscape.
One cannot talk about famous South African artists without mentioning the country’s most valuable. Irma Stern’s work has broken records at Strauss & Co. art auctions – her modern style having not been swayed by negative populist opinion, and her unique artistic expression carried through her very prolific body of work. Stern travelled and painted tirelessly, building up a more than 50-year career that has made her one of the country’s most revered artists of the twentieth century.