Showcasing SA beauty in the Foundation Collection
Two years are important in the early histor y of the Johannesburg Art Gallery ( JAG): 1910 and 1915. The first collection of art works – the Foundation Collection – was exhibited in Johannesburg for the f irst time on 29 November 1910, and five years later the imposing sandstone museum opened its doors, in November 1915.
It was Hugh Lane, the man who put together the first collection, who nagged the famous British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to design the art museum.
Lutyens (1869-1944) was responsible for several building projects in South Africa, but it was in India that he made his mark. He was instrumental in designing and building a part of Delhi, now known as New-Delhi, goodnaturedly also known as Lutyens’ Delhi.
When JAG was opened in 1915, only the f irst phase of Lutyens’ design had been completed. Money was scarce a year after the outbreak of World War I, and the second phase, Lutyens’ eastern and western wings, was only built in 1940.
In 1986 a new, northern façade was designed by the architects Meyer Pienaar, which virtually doubled the size of the existing building.
A hundred years later and nothing is left of the open spaces of Joubert Park and its surrounds. JAG sits in the heart of the city – on the one side bordered by a set of railway lines and on the other three sides by high-rise apartment blocks of 10 or more storeys.
Through all the changes that took place over a period of 100 years, JAG has stood the test of time as a public institution that has exhibited modern and later also contemporary art. More tempered maybe than the initial ideas of Florence Phillips, the driving force behind t he establishment of t his institution, who had the “upliftment of the colonial philistine” in mind.
The collection grew slowly over time. Who will recall the uproar when JAG in 1973 bought Pablo Picasso’s Tête d’arlequin II, 1971, a pastel and crayon drawing for R28 000 with the aid of the Friends of the Art Museum? The city council donated a third of the price, and many Joburgers believed that the money could have been better spent.
Apart from the joy JAG’s collection
FORTY YEARS LATER, THE PICASSO IS DEFINITELY WORTH MORE THAN THE R28 000 PAID FOR IT IN 1973.
has brought thousands of visitors over the years, this collection has increasingly drawn the attention of foreigners 100 years on.
Today the exhibition Masterpieces from Johannesburg Art Gallery: from Degas to Picasso kicks off in Pavia, south of Milan in Italy.
A selection of just under 80 works of art from the JAG collection – among others those of Edgar Degas, Gustave Courbet, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso, as well as works by South African artists such as Irma Stern, Maud Sumner, Maggie Laubser and George Pemba – will be exhibited in the Musei Civici di Pavia until 19 July.
The city museum of Pavia is located in the former stables of the Visconti castle, which was built in 1360 in the Italian Lombard-Gothic style.
The Ita l i an i nterest developed when this museum exhibited a large collection of Monet works in 2012, says Musha Neluheni, JAG’s curator for the contemporary collection, who was responsible for putting together the Pavia exhibition. “Through research they discovered that JAG owned Spring, an early Monet. We lent them the painting and the discussions progressed from there. They were exited about our collection and offered to hold an exhibition over there,” says Neluheni.
“It’s wonderful exposure for JAG,” says Antoinette Murdoch, JAG’s head curator. “Just listen to the name of the exhibition: Masterpieces from Johannesburg Art Gallery: From Degas to Picasso. They are going big with JAG, with publicity and enormous banners. What wonderful exposure in Europe!”
Musei Civici di Pavia will bear the costs of the exhibition from packaging, transport and insurance to the marketing, catalogues and presentation of the exhibition.
Murdoch was invited to the opening, but Neluheni and Tara Weber, JAG’s registrar, will travel with the works of art to Italy and also look after them on the return trip.
Before the works of art are packed here in Johannesburg and later again in Italy, their condition is thoroughly checked by qualified conservators. Photographs are taken of the works and a written report on the condition of every work of art
accompanies it to Italy.
When the packed works arrive in Italy, they are left untouched for 24 hours to become acclimatised before they are unpacked. They are again scrutinised, based on the photographs and reports.
If you take into account what the works of art are worth, these painstaking steps are quite understandable. Forty years later, the Picasso is def initely worth more than the R28 000 paid for it in 1973.
This venture costs millions, says Neluheni and Murdoch. “The insurance alone is astronomical,” is all they are prepared to say.
The Monet, which gave rise to this exhibition, comes from JAG’s initial collection and was donated by Otto Beit. This is the piece that was exhibited in the Whitechapel Art Museum in London in 1910 before it was shipped to Johannesburg. And it led to British art critics asking: “Must we travel to the colonies to see good, modern art?”
During a visit to Britain in 1909, Florence Phillips (1863-1940), the driving force behind the art collection and wife of the mining magnate Lionel Phillips, met Lane, the director of the Dublin City Museum at the time. At the Phillips’ estate, she informed Lane of her plans to establish an art and culture centre of international standard on the Transvaal Highveld.
Her aim was to purchase old masters, and at the same time to stimulate interest in handicrafts so that inhabitants of the City of Gold “could use their own skills and begin to appreciate beauty”.
Lane was thoroughly aware of the fact that the market for old masters was dominated by the Americans and that these works would be frightfully expensive. So he convinced her to rather concentrate on the works of contemporary artists.
Lane (1875-1915) died six months before JAG opened when the Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Cork.
This initial collection of the Johannesburg Art Museum is the largest Lane ever collected and included works by leading 19th century French and British artists, as well as those of lesser known European painters. Despite Lane believing the works of British artists were the best examples of modern art, he did not include artists such as Turner and Constable in this collection.
And now, 100 years l ater, these works that were selected with great care are not only unafforable, but will grab your imagination.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Regina Cordium (Queen of Hearts), 1860 (25.4 x 20.3cm), oil on panel.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Tête d’arlequin, 1971 (50.2 x 65.2cm), pastel and crayon on paper. This work was purchased for R28 000 in 1973.
Maud Sumner (1902-1957), Portrait of the artist, 1936 (79.8 x 64cm), oil on canvas.
Antonio Mancini (1852-1930), Portrait of Florence Phillips, 1909 (90.1 x 76.5 cm), oil on canvas. Phillips was the driving force behind the establishment of JAG.
Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Portrait of Mrs Van Muyden, 1915 (43 x 25.6 cm), pencil on paper.