top of page

Feminism feeds into 'romantic turn'

First published in Business Day

Alexia Vogel’s art is pretty. It isn’t only the pinky toned palette that lends her painting this quality but her style and subject-matter. Mountains, valleys, rivers, bucolic settings are her focus, which she renders in a soft, misty, floaty manner. Since conceptualism fell out of favour, or receded, painting has been enjoying a revival and the craft of art has become important again. Art has increasingly become ‘prettier’. Aesthetics matter now. Not surprisingly this has led to a trend in contemporary SA art that you could call Romanticism.

It is a fitting label given artists like Vogel and her contemporaries such as Sarah Biggs, Zarah Cassim, Ruby Swinney and Heidi Fourie are particularly interested in depicting natural features. They are not faithful to nature. As with Vogel, Biggs evokes nature through a colour palette and brushstrokes suggesting organic matter rather than pinning down the features of a rural landscape or vegetation. In the past she planted small figures in her compositions to indicate the grand scale of the mountains, rivers, as per the Romantic painters of the 1800s. More recently she presents portraits of people embedded, immersed in nature, clearly swayed by its psychic impact. Fourie’s distinctive style of painting is perhaps less airy-fairy; her painterly gestures are solid and bold. Yet in her rendering of water, rocks and other natural phenomenon she imbues a sense of grandeur. This is romanticism at work.

For the first time in South Africa, an exhibition dedicated to this apparent revival or contemporary twist on it in art will be staged at the Barnard Gallery, Newlands, Cape Town on January 30. Titled New Romantics it wryly refers not only to a moment in the ‘80s featuring gender-bendering pop stars in frilly shirts but a painterly (and literary) movement in the late 1800s. It is the latter that has more relevance to this group of young, and mostly female artists (Marcus Neustter is the only male artist participating) who are concerned with rendering nature in a ‘romantic’ way.

What exactly does this ‘romantic’ term denote with regards to contemporary art? The artists participating in the group exhibition, which include Vogel, Fourie, Biggs, Robyn Penn, Katherine Spindler, Rose Mudge and Ronel de Jager, do not identify themselves as ‘new romantic’ painters. However, applying this outdated term to their art might be useful in beginning to understand why a generation of female painters are interested in depicting nature in all its grandness, digging into the way it enables a transcendental experience.