A quirky look at the past

2008-10-02 00:00

THE new exhibition in the Tatham’s Schreiner Gallery — drawings and paintings by Tim Quirke — is unusual in that it incorporates something belonging to the gallery. Seven of Quirke’s paintings are framed in large, gilt Victorian frames, the kind that are often seen around solemn civic portraits or Victorian genre paintings.

The frames belong to the Tatham, and Quirke is using them to form part of the meaning of his work, which explores changing perceptions of history. “I wanted to do a kind of painting that might have been visible to people who were contemporary with the frames,” he explains. There is humour in the paintings, and gentle satire — and some recognisable faces for Maritzburgers.

Quirke himself appears, as do some of his friends, as colonial figures in the landscape. Asked about the work, he talked about one of the paintings (shown in the photograph) which has, in the style of Victorian paintings, a number of references. The horse combines “the horse of romanticism of the 18th century, with the Greek and Roman image of the horse as a symbol of civic pride”. And the two white men driving it are coming through the painting from right to left. “It’s from the end to the beginning in terms of how we read. The passage and journey of colonial civilisation in Africa. The black woman holding her child is looking away from them, but it is a peaceful scene, with the landscape as a spectator of the action,” says Quirke.

Another, which includes a self-portrait, shows a hunter and his black companion making tea over a fire. Although it is daylight, a full moon is coming up over the hills on the horizon. “It’s about arriving in Africa, being in-between two worlds, at a moment of transition,” he says. “When I was planning the exhibition, I thought: should I make an attack on the assumptions in the culture? Then I thought: there’s enough of that. I want to take something I love — the landscape — and use it, rather than establish a cold distance.

“There is something in the Victorian spirit that is fantastic, despite what is problematic about it. So I’ve tried to show that, with a little bit of humour. I’m not arguing for it, but just saying there was something else going on. I’m using the language of traditional drawing and painting to talk about what is going on in the present day.”

As well as the seven large oils in their handsome, heavy frames (the paintings will be for sale, but not the frames), Quirke is going to exhibit his sketchbooks, preliminary drawings and pastel and gouache sketches. The landscapes are all real places, sketched from life — Quirke prefers not to use photographs — and the exhibition represents a year’s work for the artist.

Quirke is now a full-time artist. He spent his working life in Johannesburg, and then came to KwaZulu-Natal 13 years ago, spending time in Ixopo before coming to Pietermaritzburg. His exhibition will run until November 16 in the Schreiner Gallery, opening at 6 pm today. Gallery hours are 10 am to 6 pm, Tuesday to Sunday. For more information, phone 033 392 2801.

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