An Introduction to the University of Pretoria's South African Modernism Collection

The first 20 years of collecting art by the University of Pretoria (1931-1951)

Mother and child by Maggie Laubser (1924) by Maggie LaubserOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

What do we mean by South African Modernism?

South African Modernism was a turn-around for fine arts in the country. It introduced avant-garde European art movements like Post-Impressionism, expressionism and Cubism to South Africa.  These new movements came to inspire the New Group. The New Group was founded in 1937 by a group of young artists who had returned from Europe where they were exposed to new modernist trends.

Studio Interior, Yggdrasil (1946) by Alexis PrellerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

The University of Pretoria's modernist collection

The University of Pretoria has a large collection of South African Modernists works which were collected during 1931-1951. Modernist works in the collection include Maggie Laubser, Irma Stern, Alexis Preller, Gregoire Boonzaier, Bettie Cilliers-Barnard, Maud Sumner, Hendrik Pierneef and Walter Battiss to name a few.

Portrait of Paul Kruger (1915) by Hendrik PierneefOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

1922 - A Donation To Start A Collection

The first work in the University of Pretoria's art collection was donated by the artist Henkdrik Pierneef in 1922.

Pierneef created a work of Paul Kruger, the last president of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek in 1915. He gave an edition of the work to the Universities first museum in 1922. This museum was in the Old Arts Building where the University of Pretoria Museums are housed today.

Portrait of Prof ML du Toit (1938) by Hans NelOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Professor Martin du Toit

Professor Marthinus (Martin) Lourens du Toit (1897-1938) was a patron of South African visual art in the 1930s. Du Toit was head of the Department of Afrikaans Art and Culture at the University of Pretoria between 1931 and 1938. 




His vision for the new department included the ideal of exposing students to the work of South African artists. He believed in the future of the arts in South Africa and was passionate about establishing it in the 'North' of South Africa, particularly in Pretoria.

Exterior of Extramural Building (1926) by H VisserOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Free of Charge Exhibition Space for Artists

Professor Martin du Toit (1897-1938) initiated a series of art exhibitions in the Transvaal University College's (now the University of Pretoria) MacFadyen Hall to display the work of contemporary, often contentious artists. The university wished to support artists and provided this exhibition space free of charge. 

Exterior street view of MacFadyen Memorial Hall in Pretoria (1926) by H VisserOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

The MacFadyen Memorial Hall

The Transvaal University College used the MacFadyen Memorial Hall in the Extra-Mural Building of the University, located at 239 Vermeulen Street in Pretoria, as a site for meetings, concerts, lectures, theatrical performances, art and other exhibitions.

Photograph of Afrikaans and Art lecture room Old Arts Building (1932) by Unattributed photographerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Strategic Collecting

Du Toit used these exhibitions as a starting point in building up a collection of both South African and international art. These works were also used for educational purposes at the University of Pretoria. In this image we can see Art History students discussing works such as Arum Lilies (against the back wall) by Maggie Laubser in a classroom located in the Old Arts Building of the university. 

Arum Lilies (1922) by Maggie LaubserOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

1931 - Arum Lilies

Maggie Laubser's Arum Lilies was the first official painting of the University of Pretoria, donated by the artists herself in November 1931, after she held an exhibition at the university's MacFadyen Memorial Hall. Du Toit collected three works by Laubser in the 1930s.

Photograph of Maggie Laubser by Unattributed photographerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Who was Maggie Laubser

Maria Magdalena Laubser (1886-1973) was a South African artist mostly known for her painting. Laubser with the South African artist Irma Stern (1894-1966) is generally considered to be responsible for the introduction of Expressionism to South Africa. 

Wild Fig Tree (1930) by Hendrik PierneefOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Support for the Arts by the University of Pretoria

This form of academic support toward South African artists was rare in the 1930s, and took place during a decisive period regarding the politicised debates concerning ethnicity, modernism, nationalism, national art, and their relation to cultural identity and artistic expression.

1931 - Wild Fig Tree

Hendrik Pierneef donated the Wild Fig Tree in 1931 to the Art Department where it hung in one of the classrooms until 1935 at least. Pierneef became one of South Africa's most significant landscape painters.

Who was Hendrik Pierneef

Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957), was a South African landscape artist. Pierneef's distinctive geometric and modernist style is widely recognised. His work was greatly influenced by the beautiful South African landscape.

Delville Wood, Landscape with crater (1926) by Bertha EverardOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Art as Tokens of Appreciation

By exhibiting free of charge, many artists donated works at the end of the exhibition. The University used these exhibitions as starting point in building up a representative collection of South African art, which grew with donations from artists and art collectors.

1935 - Everard Group Exhibition

Bertha Everard donated the painting Delville Wood Landscape with Crater after the Everard Group exhibited at the MacFadyen Memorial Hall on 19 October 1935.

Who was Bertha Everard

Bertha Everard was a South African Landscape painter. She was greatly known for her expressionistic landscape paintings. Everard also took the initiative with her mother and sister to form the Everard Group in 1913, which is now known as the Everard Read Galleries.

Red Lion Square London (1936) by Gregoire BoonzaierOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

1936 - Red Lion Square

Red Lion Square London was painted by the South African artist Gregoire Boonzaier (1909-2005). Boonzaier won first prize with this painting as an art student at the Central School of Art and Design in London. This work was donated after an exhibition at the MacFadyen Hall.

Who was Gregoire Boonzaier

Boonzaier is seen as the father of the Cape Impressionism, a local stylistic form related to the western Impressionism school. His artworks range from still life paintings, landscapes and portraits and he often contributed the struggle against apartheid in his subject matter prolifically as a founder of the New Group in 1938 with other South African artists such as Walter Battiss, Lippy Lipschitz, Freida Lock and Terence McCaw.

My Mother (1936) by Maud SumnerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

An Art Committee was Established

An art collection fund and art committee only came into being during the 1940s, and from that time onwards, many more works were bought directly from artists, allowing the authorities to make specific choices. 

1945 - My Mother

In 1945, the artist Maud Sumner held an exhibition at the MacFadyen Memorial Hall where she donated the work My Mother.

Who was Maud Sumner

Maud Frances Eyston Sumner (1902-1985)was a South African artist, writer and poet. Sumner’s artwork depicted scenes of everyday life including interiors, still life compositions, and human figures. Sumner identified herself with French art in her early years. Spending most of her time in Paris, and influenced by her french teachers Desvallières and Denis. 

Early art exhibition by Maud Sumner in the MacFadyen Memorial Hall (1945) by Frik DreyerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Maud Sumner exhibition at the MacFadyen Memorial Hall - 1945

An Archival photograph taken from Die Brandwag 8(382) magazine on 6 July 1945, showing an exhibition with viewers in the MacFadyen Memorial Hall. This exhibition was held by the artist Maud Sumner in 1945.

Studio Interior, Yggdrasil (1946) by Alexis PrellerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

South African Artists of Significance

The University of Pretoria collected significant works by South Africa's most well known artists during this period, however there are still many gaps in the collection due to the collectors' preference at the time. 

1946 - A Famous Studio

Studio Interior, Yggdrasil by South African artist Alexis Preller (1911-1975) was donated to the University of Pretoria after exhibiting at the Macfadyen Memorial Hall in 1946. The painting was of the artist's interior of his studio which he named Yggdrasil

Who Was Alexis Preller

Alexis Preller (1911-1975) was a South African painter. He was greatly influenced by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Piero della Francesca, whos works he encountered at galleries and museums during his studies in Paris and his travels in Europe. Preller’s work can be defined in between surrealistic and expressionistic.

Herero Woman (1949) by Bettie Cilliers-BarnardOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Establishing Modernism

The MacFadyen Hall exhibitions seem to have offered a good reflection of the art scene in South Africa in the 1930s, in which the dialogue between modernism and conservatism, and national art, was being played out. Modernism had since influenced significant artists in the country.

1949 - Herero Woman

For this work, Cilliers-Barnard was inspired by the Herero, an ethnic group from the South West Africa (today Namibia) and Botswana. The Herero are known for their colourful dress and headgear largely influenced by the German colonisers. Cilliers-Barnard donated this work after her exhibition at the University of Pretoria in the MacFadyen Memorial Hall in July 1949.

Who Was Bettie Cilliers Barnard

Bettie Cilliers Barnard (194-2010) was a South African artist, one of the first to complete her art studies at the University of Pretoria. She was well known for her abstraction as well as the rich symbolism of her work. 

Boy with Bird (1950) by Walter BattissOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Showing The Collection For The first Time

In 1950 the University of Pretoria had it's first exhibition showcasing its art collection. At this time, the University was already privileged, owning artworks by some of the best Modernist artists in the country.

Who Was Walter Battiss

Walter Battiss (1906-1982) was a prolific South African artists working in all media from oils to prints to sculpture.  Battiss had a love for South African rock art and studied it intensively to write about it and to incorporate it in his later artworks. His travels to the Middle East and to various Greek islands were constant sources of inspiration for his artworks.

1950 - Boy with Bird

The South African artist Walter Battiss donated Boy with Bird to the collection in 1950. The painting of a young boy, dressed in a yellow sweater and holding a blue bird was typical to Battiss style then.  

Blikkiesdorp (1940) by Gregoire BoonzaierOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

An Expanding Ongoing Collection

The University of Pretoria's art collection has expanded since its first work in 1922 and it's first exhibition in 1931. The Art Committee is still acquiring works to add to this collection and filling gaps where needed, supporting young and established South African artists.

1950-Blikkiesdorp

This work titled in Afrikaans as "Blikkiesdorp" (1940) or squatter camp is by the South African artist Gregoire Boonzaier (1909-2005). The work shows corrugated tin roof houses on the South African West Coast in the 1940s, as he held an enduring historic interest of the Cape regions of South Africa. It is assumed that the work might have been  donated after the exhibition in the MacFadyan Memorial Hall at the 1950 UP exhibition.

Credits: Story

The UP Museums would like to thank Professor Jeanne van Eeden (Joubert) for her written contribution to the history of the University of Pretoria's first years of collecting which inspired this story; the University of Pretoria Archives for locating the archival images; Collections Curator, Gerard de Kamper for his knowledge of the collection and contribution to this story; The University of Pretoria's Art Committee for their ongoing commitment to filling important gaps in the collection and supporting both young and established South African artists. 
This story was curated by Lelani Nicolaisen. Photography credits to Thania Louw and Art2Motion.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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