From Africana to Callas


From Africana to Callas

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH tells of a valuable new art book, a crime novel and an imagined biography of a diva.


THERE are few things as fun as balancing a heavy, new hardcover book on the fingertips of one hand, feeling the weight and then starting to scroll, savouring the smell of ink as the pages fall open to reveal a tribute to local artwork.

Art collection

The book is Dust in the Glasshouse, the author is Deon Viljoen.

Art opens the doors to spaces where it is possible to take stock of what it means to be human, according to Viljoen, an expert in South African fine art. This impressive publication is focused on the art collection of a South African couple, known as the Atholl Collection. The couple want to stay out of the spotlight, but looking at who is included in the Atholl collection, one is baffled.

South African art, 120 years of it, stands in the shadow of apartheid, but judging by the illustrations and prints of the works, they speak of more than just apartheid. They are about the human malaise, the ability humanity has to create new problems for itself over and over again. Viljoen quotes WB Yeats' “The Second Coming" with striking certainty to explain his approach.

The book's title is taken from an artwork by Simon Stone, one of the 178 works by 35 South African artists that make up the Atholl collection. The only generalisation one can make about the collection is that the owners seem to have no predilection for landscape depictions.

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Keep in mind how outdated most publications on the larger corpus of South African art are (and in a case such as Esme Berman's Art & Artists of Southern Africa, outdated and with many errors). Viljoen is one of the few art critics who have made an effort to keep the scope current, with publications such as Southern African Art 1850-1990 and subsequently South African Art 1850-2002. Dust In The Glasshouse is not a sequel to those works, because it studies one particular collection in depth (especially on the basis of works by William Kentridge, Robert Hodgkins, Stanley Pinker, Irma Stern and Anton van Wouw), and logically there are quite a few artists and their works that are not reflected in the nine essays.

The good news, for me at least, is that Viljoen had to trim a lot to fit his original research within the scope of 243 pages. He's got enough left for multiple publications — hopefully one about Stern ...

The entire corpus of artists in the collection is brought into focus in the second biographical part of the book.

But what Viljoen discusses incisively is art of the very highest order. While he was an art reviewer in the Eighties, Viljoen was considered one of the few local critics who could authoritatively cover the entire field; this led to a connection with Stephan Welz, and his later work was on, among other things, the VOC. He focuses that knowledge in Dust in the Glasshouse in an incisive, valuable introduction, then nine sections in which he discusses themes such as resistance and nurturing/support, transformation and metamorphosis on the basis of the core of the collection.

What makes the book so special to me is the comprehensive catalogue of paintings, sculptures and works on paper. The thoroughness alone makes the work worth possessing. It's an incredibly thorough reference resource. One rarely gets discussions at this level gathered in one tome about artists such as Robert Hodgins, Chemu Ng'ok, Deborah Bell, Simon Stone, William Kentridge, Johann Louw, George Pemba, Stanley Pinker, Richard Mudariki, Gerard Sekoto, Irma Stern, Kate Gottgens and Georgina Gratrix.

The designer of Dust in the Glasshouse is Peter Willberg, the giant in the international ranks of typographers and designers of books on the fine arts.

Dust in the Glasshouse by Deon Viljoen was published in London by Beacon Rock and can be accessed in South Africa only at Clarke's Bookshop in Long Street, Cape Town.

Legal backbiting

The theme is nothing new. Two families on the warpath. What is different, and why this detective novel struck me, is that it is not set in the ranks of exotic eccentrics. This is not the internal strife and bloodletting of the Mafia. It's ordinary, fairly affluent people trying to figure out Nina's disappearance when her lover, Simon, returns alone from a weekend in the forests of Vermont. Here are not foot soldiers and consiglieri but lawyers and an advertising company that launches gossip campaigns. Legal backbiting on a colossal scale. The manipulation of perceptions. The thugs, finally, have healthy parental instincts. Dervla McTiernan is not an above-average writer but she has an impressive imagination.

What Happened to Nina? by Dervla McTiernan was published by HarperCollins and costs R425 at Exclusive Books.

Callas and Ari

Could there be anyone who isn't interested in knowing how Maria Callas's life went? Daisy Goodwin, who previously breathed life into Queen Victoria's cold loins, has her sights set this time on the singing goddess of the last century. Specifically, her marriage to the disgusting Aristotle Onassis. It's a reimagining, which means Goodwin can put certain things more into focus than others, condense or stretch time, all for the sake of a novel I can recommend without any reservations. Goodwin has superhuman powers. Feel free to Google her. She is an author, TV producer, visionary spirit on modern architecture. Endless are her triumphs, but few as poignant as Diva.

Diva by Daisy Goodwin was published by Bloomsbury and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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