Alarm bells toll for iconic artworks

2011-05-06 14:27

Two priceless artistic treasures are battling years of neglect at the Pretoria City Hall.

The larger-than-life-size paintings by the late Walter Battiss and John H Amshewitz, part of the cultural and artistic heritage of South Africa, are in danger of being lost forever.

The paintings have been hanging in the city hall for half a century and are in dire need of cleaning and preservation. On learning of their condition, I sourced the skills of Michael Bernardi, the visual art specialist at Bernardi Auctioneers in Tshwane.

The Bernardi auction house has sold a number of Battiss pieces.

“The most expensive Battiss that’s been sold in South Africa was R1.3 million and I sold that one,” Bernardi tells me as we enter the city hall to inspect the artworks in this monolithic concrete structure.

With the recently installed statue of Chief Tshwane to our backs, we enter the city hall by passing grand stone columns.

Then, as you walk into the foyer, the two oil-painted panels take command of the view – the Battiss to the right and the Amshewitz to the left.

Battiss’ work is titled Fauna of Pretoria and was presented to the city on the occasion of its centenary in 1955 by Ivan Solomon, who was mayor of Pretoria from 1932 until 1936.

The artist chose the motif of indigenous animals as his subject matter.

This was in keeping with the spirit of the Boer settlers.

All the farms around Pretoria were named after these animals – think of Olifantsfontein, Koedoespoort, Kwaggasrand.Amshewitz, on the other hand, chose a much more triumphalist motif – a host of Voortrekker families bravely crossing the Drakensberg mountain range en route to the interior of the “Vaderland”.

At its centre is a family perched on a rocky outcrop.

The father is hoisting the flag of the Transvaal Republic, while at his feet his wife cradles a baby and hands over a pistol to their young son.

The son holds a rifle in his right hand. Another main figure is what could be the family’s older daughter with a rifle.

In the background, you can see the rest of the Voortrekker clan with wagons and cattle.

The imagery easily appeals to Afrikaner sentiments of struggle and conquer.

The two artworks lend themselves to Italian scholar Umberto Eco’s idea of the “list” as a tool for ordering thought and the world in general, so the two artworks are painting as “list making”.

If you consider that these paintings were created in the service of the colonial South African state, the painted “list” acquires deeper meaning.

The understanding here is that only when a culture can list its shared resources – physical and ideological – can it preserve a fixed view of its own history and identity.

So the two artists made lists of territories, livestock and wildlife, rivers and even memory.

These lists then became one of the foundations of imperial control. Perhaps this appeal to the old order is the reason these works have been neglected.

But as Bernardi points out: “These artworks belong to everyone. And the damage is not irreparable.” According to the city’s art conservator, Jan Middeljans, who is based at the National Cultural History Museum, the damage is caused by a water leak inside the building’s walls and some vandalism on the part of visitors to the city hall.

“The water has caused the board behind the Battiss to dissolve. There’s some cold-drink and other marks on the Amshewitz.”

Middeljans says the museum “informed the city council’s heritage department about the damaged artworks last year and a tender was put out, but nothing has happened since”.

He says the restoration process would “take approximately four to six months to complete”.

Though the Amshewitz can be cleaned on site, Middeljans says “the Battiss would need to be taken down and have its backboard replaced and some parts of the canvas restored”.

The other solution would be to take the artworks down and store them at the museum, “but the thing with public art is that it must be seen by everyone”.

Middeljans’ idea that “they should be covered and protected with Perspex glass” is a viable solution after restoration. Bernardi believes that the two paintings can be saved, but “something must be done soon – not next year, not next week, but as soon as it can be organised”.

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