Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mastering the female body

Like the heavy curlicue gold frame surrounding Renoir's Jeune Fille au Ruban Bleu (Young Girl with Blue Ribbon) (1888), the thick white line painted on the floor in front of the painting reminds you that the work is precious. An alarm will go off if your toe inches over the boundary and a nearby guard will appear. There aren't usually security guards in the exhibition areas of the Standard Bank Gallery in Joburg, but then it's not every week that works by Renoir, Manet, Degas or Braque go up. 
These are the supposed "masters" referred to in the title: 20th Century Masters: The Human Figure.
"Master" has become somewhat of a redundant term in art theory, now that the authorship of art has been challenged and the values cementing status have become so slippery. So, it's somewhat of a relief to discover that Sylvie Ramond, the curator, who serves as the chief curator and director of the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon, did not come up with the wording of the title. It was the SA contingent at the gallery that imposed the "Masters" in the title, Ramond explained when we chatted.

This is a curious discovery, particularly because the word "master" is likely to annoy Afrocentric art afficionados here who have grown tired of Western artists being placed at the centre of art narratives, as the term implies. This exhibition isn't really for art specialists - though you may find them quietly revelling in a Frederic Leger or a Francis Bacon - it is for ordinary people who turned out in droves for the Picasso and Africa exhibit that showed at the gallery in 2006. Hailed as the most well-attended art exhibit in the country, it proved that European "masters" have pulling power that far supersedes local or African work. Hence the gallery's preference for this outmoded term.