A small but keenly interested group gathered to hear Gail Behrmann talk about her exhibition Journey at David Krut Projects, Parkwood, on Saturday 23 January 2010. It was one of my first art events of the new decade and how glad I am that I made the effort to go and listen to the artist talk about her work and her journey as an artist.
The show included three large oils on canvas, a series of map-like pencil drawings, executed in miniscule detail, some in segments fanned to form a fragmented but continuous journey. Other journeys flow out of fold-out moleskin notebooks (2600 mm in length) such as Beyond the River & Into the Trees Book 1 (2004). The meticulous pencil work seems to record in minute detail a journey undertaken with intensity through a sequence of previously undiscovered lands and continents, somewhat like a journey through life.
Each of the four books took her a year to complete and a month for each of the fanned collage series, titled Fragments (2009). The colourful Notebook (2003) series, mixed media on paper, were made while lying in bed recuperating from an illness – hence some of the flower references. ‘I received a lot of flowers’ Behrmann says.
According to Behrmann, Journey was influenced by and benefited from reading The Journey by Rabindranath Tagore, The Leyou Tombs by Li Shangyin and She Rose To His Requirements by Emily Dickinson, and by the lives and works of a number of writers and artists.
In sharp contrast to the finely executed pencil drawings, Berhmann’s exuberant predominantly yellow and white abstract oil paintings New Day (2004) and Ripples of Bird Songs (2008) light up the gallery space. Twilight Shadows Across my Heart (2009) strikes a more subdued tone with a shimmering grey, blue, mauve and a striking solid red palette, but she retains a purity of colour throughout. It is easy to understand why David Krut, gallery owner, has dubbed Berhmann’s small and meticulous drawings as ‘her pain’ and the large colourful canvases as ‘her pleasure’.
Behrmann explained that compared to pencil drawing, oil painting is a much freer medium, one that allows errors to be made – and that sometimes a so-called mistake can take a work in an entirely new direction. But, as Behrmann is quick to point out, although abstract art may lend the appearance of spontaneity and untamed brush strokes, each work is in fact carefully planned and conceptualised.
‘One of the main motivations for Berhmann’s Journey is art historical’ said Krut. As the discussion progressed, the importance of artist, teacher and activist, Bill Ainslie (1934 – 1989), and his contribution to the development of a number of pre-eminent artists, including Behrman, began to take centre stage. Bill Ainslie’s method of teaching, a seemingly laborious process, entailed developing the artists’ own artistic language by first concentrating on drawing and line, then colour and form.
The exhibition contextualises Behrmann as one of a group of artists who emerged from Ainslie’s tutelage at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, set up in the 1970s during a particularly turbulent political period in South Africa’s history. Behrmann was part of a group of artists who lived and breathed art under the auspices of Ainslie, whose studio provided a space for young artists to explore and practise their art. He taught his students how to observe the world around them and how to see before discovering their own form of visual expression.
Ainslie nurtured the talents of artists such as Behrmann, Dumile Feni, William Kentridge, Sam Nhlengethwa, Kagiso Pat Mautloa and David Koloane and Lynda Ballen, amongst others. By all accounts, Ainslie was an extraordinary teacher. Behrmann tells how he encouraged students to draw and draw until he began to sense that the artist was beginning to truly see. Only then was the young artist ready to move on to other forms of expression. Once Ainslie’s protégées came to terms with line, he would begin to instil an understanding of colour, of colour and form, an understanding of shades and tones colour.
His students would then have to grapple with, for example, a still life made up of only black objects in order to come to grips with all the many nuances of black, how it is absorbed and reflected on different surfaces and in different light. Grey could be the next colour to master before moving on to other colours in the spectrum, to discover the relationship between different colours and hues. Behrmann says that she was so in awe of Ainslie’s paintings that it was only after she left his studio that she began to paint, that is, apart from painting exercises in his classes.
For her first year with Ainslie, Behrmann says, she was so depressed she could not move beyond doodling black circles. Ainslie allowed her to draw these circles until she could break out of the cycle (so to speak), gain greater insight and begin to move forward.
Ainslie created an environment for young artists to learn their craft and to discover what it meant not only to be an artist, but an artist in a highly politicised society. She refers to Ainslie’s Saxonwold studio as ‘a large egg, a fertile space where artists gathered in the 1970s, a place where artists knew something extraordinary was happening’, where they could develop and grow, as artists and as individuals.
Behrmann and fellow artist and teacher Lynda Ballen spoke about how black artists from poor backgrounds were provided with materials and a space to work. Ballen recalls the dynamism of the discussions that took place in Ainslie’s studio. Everyone at the studio was given an equal voice to deliberate on their artistic frustrations and aspirations in a highly politicised country. Ainslie, his students and artists would work in the studio all morning, then break for lunch and talk art and politics. They would work late and go out together, sharing views, talking art, exchanging ideas and thoughts.
What stands out for Ballen and Behrmann is how democratic life in the studio was during a period of entrenched racial segregation and political violence. Middle class housewives from the wealthy northern suburbs were taking art classes and making art alongside academically trained artists and less privileged black artists. Everyone shared an equal and common platform and participated in conversations and discussion, irrespective of background.
Ballen spoke about the debates raging as to whether black artists should be trained and whether imperialist western art training should form the basis of the training. Behrmann pointed out that it was in fact many of the white galleries that encouraged black artists to produce what became termed as Township Art, picturesque depictions of life in the township – because that was what was expected of black artists and that these works were perceived to have a better chance of selling. David Koloane was particularly vociferous at the time rejecting the view that simply because someone was black that he or she could not respond to their surroundings – and to nature – in the same way as their white counterparts and produce landscape, figurative and abstract studies.
Behrmann and Ballen referred to the discourse, particularly during the 1970s, whether black artists could legitimately become abstract artists. As Behrmann reminds us, there is a proliferation of abstract forms in the African traditional, so much so that African art was given credence for having inspired Pablo Picasso and his peers to experiment with abstract shapes, such as African masks and sculptures, leading to a new visual language in Modern Art. Behrman points to another example of geometric design that found in ‘traditional’ art such as the murals of the Ndebele people.
Behrmann is an artist who emerged from a very particular group of artists working in Ainslie’s studio the 1970s. In spite of the contrast between the intense pencil work and the more flamboyant large painted canvasses, the exhibition makes sense in terms of a very personal journey. This gives credence to Kurt’s observation that Behrmann’s Journey is framed within a very specific historical context, one that deserves to be properly recorded and documented.
Perhaps this exhibition and the discussion with the Behrmann will spark a forum to record individual recollections of Ainslie’s studio, personal experiences of the artists and the careers of this group, many of whom have become leading artists in South Africa.
 Bill Ainslie, Hans Hoffman, Cy Tomboy, Claude Monet, John Holland, Willem de Mooning, Patrick Heron, Nel Erasmus and Mark Rothko.