Cape Times

Replicatin­g nature’s balance pop artist’s aim

- Mary Corrigall

HELMUT Starcke’s 2007 artwork Truth proved to be one his most literal and prophetic.

Depicting a skeleton running across a hard desert landscape, the artist demonstrat­es that death cannot be outwitted.

The German-born artist, who died on December 8 after a long illness, perhaps tried to run alongside the grim reaper, but ultimately could not outrun him.

Neverthele­ss, as his art, particular­ly in the past two decades, was preoccupie­d with understand­ing existence, he perhaps left this world knowing a little more than most. Primarily, he aspired to replicate the “balance” in nature via his compositio­ns. It was a challenge he set himself and achieved many times in his 50 years as an artist.

However, he will probably be remembered for his subversive take on historical paintings.

Clio, the Muse of History (2001) was his wry revision of a Vermeer work, which chimed with the ways South African artists, from Penny Siopis to Wayne Barker to Johannes Phokela, reworked European traditions in painting to address colonial baggage.

Having lectured at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at UCT from the mid-70s to the early 1990s, he influenced generation­s of artists.

Starcke’s art was deeply rooted in his adopted country. He conveyed urban peculiarit­ies, the ironies of the apartheid state, before digging into the Dutch colonial legacy, even touching on present day political conflicts, before later pursuing metaphysic­al questions via his depictions of the raw beauty of the Western Cape.

He was born at a terrible threshold of German and world history – 1935. He grew up in the small town of Offenbach, near Frankfurt, and recalls slipping into his shoes in the middle of the night and taking refuge in makeshift bomb shelters when the town came under attack. Impending disaster haunted his paintings, with wild fires and cascading lines of objects hurtling through the air recurring in some of his most compelling works such as the triptych Melancholi­a (2012).

Coming from a working class family, his first exposure to art was through American magazines, which proliferat­ed in Germany after the war. Like many pop artists, his creative career began in the world of advertisin­g, where he worked as a graphic designer – at first in Frankfurt, which included time at J Walter Thompson and PN Barrett Advertisin­g in Cape Town.

He thought of himself as a social realist – “I wanted to capture what was out my window”. He reworked mass-produced images, photograph­s and advertisin­g slogans.

His first solo art exhibition in 1963, at the Lidchi Gallery, featured The Epileptic (1961), a painting which embodied his subtle, though searing political commentary, addressing the bystander stance that so many white South Africans took during that era. It may have also reflected his own sense of helplessne­ss in the face of an overwhelmi­ng political framework designed to subjugate and divide along racial lines.

He was careful to remain faithful to his own experience. “I did not see it from the other side,” he recalled. Neverthele­ss, the exhibition “caused a sensation… critics made reference to his satirical comment, his astringent vision”, observed a journalist.

Without any formal fine art training, art making operated as an experienti­al way of grasping art history and painterly struggles. Starcke’s interest in 17th century Dutch painting would inform Clio, the Muse of History. In it he replaces the 17th century sitter with a black African woman.

The work become well known to South Africans when it became part of the Iziko art collection and featured in numerous exhibition­s in their museums. Most recently it was prominent in Riason Naidoo’s 2010 exhibition From Pierneef to Gugulectiv­e.

Starcke’s painting embodied a subversive rereading of historical Western art traditions as a means of exposing colonial hubris. Starcke’s social commentary gave way to his growing fascinatio­n for art’s idiosyncra­tic vocabulary. This was enhanced when he took up a teaching position at Michaelis. This proved a turning point for Starcke, who was insecure about his lack of academic training.

It was a significan­t boost of confidence as the offer for the post came from Neville Dubow, a respected academic, art writer and artist.

“He gave me life when no one else would,” Starcke said, having felt that he had remained an outsider or unapprecia­ted by the art intelligen­tsia..

His artistic and philosophi­c concerns dovetailed in his use of a grid device in pastoral scenes and still life works where natural elements were central. This is best traced in dramatic works such as Mountain Landscape (1988), After the Fire (1994) or Melancholi­a (2012).

 ?? Picture: JANE STARCKE ?? IN HIS ELEMENT: Helmut Starcke in his Betty’s Bay studio.
Picture: JANE STARCKE IN HIS ELEMENT: Helmut Starcke in his Betty’s Bay studio.
 ??  ?? VERMEER-ISH: ‘Clio, The Muse of History’ (2001).
VERMEER-ISH: ‘Clio, The Muse of History’ (2001).
 ??  ?? POP ART: ‘Homage to Gustave Dore’ (1999).
POP ART: ‘Homage to Gustave Dore’ (1999).

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