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Frans Oerder: “The Decorator”

Frans David Oerder is another South African painter in a long line of great artists to come from the Southern tip of Africa. In Oerder’s case his contribution is visible in both his art and the learnings that he could pass on to other artists.

Frans Oerder Art Frans was born in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam in 1867. His father, Johannes Carolus Oerder, was a municipal worker who also had seven other children. As is often the case, a career as an artist was not the career choice that Oerder senior would have made for his son. However he was willing to compromise and allowed Frans to train as a decorator.

In 1880 he enrolled at the Rotterdam academy of art where he eventually completed his training as an art decorator by 1885, one year prior to the actual end date of his course. His efforts did not go unnoticed and he became a very worthy recipient of the King William III gold medal and bursary. This accolade presented the new graduate with more opportunities. Things were going well for this new aspiring artist.

Frans Oerder embarked on travels to Italy followed by a move to Brussels to study at Ernest Blanc-Garin’s newly formed art academy. This move provided him one of his last opportunities at formal education before embarking on the balancing act of being a professional artist and putting food on the table.

His next step was moving to South Africa, literally the other side of the world. This would become his new home and while his experience of life as an artist had started in his homeland he would now have new challenges to face.

Stanley Pinker’s Influence

South African artists of the 50’s, 60, and 70’s had a tendency of heading for the famed European cities in search of artistic enlightenment. Stanley Pinker followed this trend, trading the African sun for a European chapter. His travels took him to the streets of London and France, but not before being educated at Cape Town’s own Continental School of Art.


The late 1940’s saw Pinker, who had moved from Namibia to the republic some 10 years earlier, enrol at the Continental School of Art under the guidance of Maurice van Essche. His next stop was the Hammersmith School of Art in London. He returned to South Africa for a stint at the Cape Town Art Centre during the 1960’s. His next stop was the Michaelis School of Fine Art, where he became a much loved teacher and mentor. Still remembered by an array of accomplished artists; Marlene Dumas being one of them. 

His art is remembered for being a breath of fresh air, many admirers remembering his ability to incorporate some odd objects to his art. Some remembering the buttons he stitched to the back of the coats of musicians in one of his earlier paintings. Stanley Pinker’s art accumulated substantial value, Wheel of Life fetching R 2,4 million on an auction by Strauss & Co.

This artist not only had a following, he created a legacy. He held several exhibitions at SAAA, Western Cape (now AVA). He was awarded the Rembrandt Gold Medal at the Cape Town Triennial. His lifetime devotion to art also earned him the Molteno Medal. His work is housed in many of the major public galleries in South Africa as well as countless private collections, locally and abroad.

The Stanley Pinker legacy goes far beyond the canvas, this great teacher and mentor helped other along the way of artistry.


The Wandering Mind of Walter Battiss

The wandering mind of Walter Battiss made him one of the unique characters of his time. He had an almost unusual interest in African art, ranging from Ndebele artwork to Bushman rock art. Some commentators attribute his eccentric style to the influence of his friendship with Picasso in the 1950s.

(Photo Credit: and
(Photo Credit: and

He was a founding member of The New Group, a collective of young South African artists who set out to explore fresh ideas in art and explore new frontiers. A large number of this group had been studying in Europe at the time and their arrival in their motherland left them disillusioned with the conservative culture surrounding South African art. This group enjoyed a tenure of about 10 – 12 years after which it was disbanded as a result of being institutionalised. It was in this period of time that he released his first book, ‘The Amazing Bushman’.

The Walter Battiss Company notes that it was 1955 when the started experimenting with calligraphic art and evidence of human and animal abstractions became evident. It was about this time when Ndebele art became a prominent feature of his artworks.

(photo credit: and
(photo credit: and

The early 60s saw his curiousity soar to new heights as his interest in Islamic culture took him on several trips to Central Africa and the Middle-East. One might surmise that this was the period of time that he wanted to explore the rest of the world. Towards the end of that decade he made numerous trips to the north; including Greece in 1968 and Seychelles in 1972. Walter Battiss traveled to many other parts of the world as well, including Hawaii, Zanzibar, Fiji and Madagascar.

Walter Battiss was an influencer and innovator. He had a special interest in man and his environment. His impact on many young artists and the South African art scene remains as valuable as the art he left behind.

Walter Battiss: A Bright Imagination

Walter Battiss, one of South Africa’s foremost abstract painters, spent a large part of his career coupling art and education. Amongst other things he was the art master for Pretoria Boys High from 1936 till the late 1960s. He travelled, collaborated, wrote books, exhibited; doing everything an artist could do.

He was born in 1906 in Somerset East, Eastern Cape. In a few short years his family moved to Koffiefontein and then eventually settled in Fauresmith, where he matriculated in 1923. He started working as a clerk at the magistrates court just the following year. After gaining some work experience he enrolled in tertiary studies.

He completed a diploma at Witwatersrand Technical College followed by a teacher’s diploma at Johannesburg training college. Soon afterwards he went back to work at the magistrates court while also studying. He finally obtained a bachelors degree in fine art at UNISA; by this time he was already into his thirties. Unlike many other local artists, he did not study overseas at this time.

Battiss met up with Picasso and Gino Severini in the 1950s and was even invited to lecture on South African art during that same year. He took some time to travel through Europe in the 60s and visited the Seychelles in the early 70s. This saw the birth of his legendary and imaginative ‘Fook Island‘. His imagination and ideal of Fook Island led him to a much deeper place than just being a quirky artist. This was his weapon of choice against apartheid; he noted that Fook Island exists inside everyone.

Walter Battiss: African Art

It is clear that Walter Battiss was more than colour, imagination and abstract art. He was a deep thinker and used his art to speak to people.

Come back for more of Walter Battiss in the weeks that follow.

The Rise of Robert Hodgins

When you think of Robert Hodgins, you are reminded of the artist, the expressionist, a man who earned the kind words his friends remember him with. Spending much of his life as a “working” man, he left his position as a Senior Lecturer at Wits to become a full-time artist.

Hodgins had done a number of exhibits from as early as the 50’s, even though his work was only recognised in 1981. Living in apartheid-South Africa, he used his art to make anti-apartheid statements. This was a trend followed by many artists. He particularly enjoyed satirizing figures of power. These expressions had a major impact on the social climate of South Africa. In response to this Standard Bank National Arts Festival hosted a major retrospective exhibition in 1986.

Robert Hodgins had quite a remarkable rise from his days of teaching painting and drawing in Pretoria to the much loved South African artist he became towards the end of his life. His biography reads like a novel, an inquiring artist who made his way through life and became an accomplished artists towards the end.

Some of his earliest works include “Hidden Man” which he produced during his time at Pretoria Technical College; he actually made his own frame for that painting. “Man with a Cup” made its way to the Gertrude Possel Gallery, Hodgins’ work at the time was characterised by dark lines and sombre line work.

Art and politics are an unlikely combination, but in the 80s Hodgins used art to cut to the bone of inequality. (photo credit:,,
Art and politics are an unlikely combination, but in the 80s Hodgins used art to cut to the bone of inequality.
(photo credit:,,

The early 1980s saw the arrival of the iconic Ubu character in Hodgins work. Ubu Roi was a character from one of  Alfred Jarry’s stories. Ubu became a central figure of Robert Hodgins’ art, especially during the 80s, when so much of his work was focussed on depicting the social wrongs of the day. In “Ubu and Mr America”, a dreamy-eyed Ubu, painted in a series of lines, swirls and flat planes of colour gazes lustfully at muscular bodybuilder. In contrast, the Mr America figure is painted with warm colours and textured with fine indentations, like the pores of human skin.

This was the real Robert Hodgins, the artist who was not content with the status quo, but chose to use his expression as a voice against injustice. He started building a loyal following, not only because he made a statement, but because he spoke their language.

Exhibition: ‘Life, Distilled.’

This exhibition is about LIFE itself:

its emotions, memories and happenings,

distilled into a single moment: captured on canvas, by lens, in wood.

Life, Distilled - an exhibition of South African art by Absolut Art Gallery

Roberts Hodgins | Frans Oerder | Tinus de Jongh | J. E. A. Volschenk | Piet van Heerden | Adriaan Boshoff | Pieter Bauermeister | Edward Roworth | Lisa Roberts | Robert Gwelo Goodman | Louis Maqhubela | Sydney Kumalo | Thijs Nel | Daniel Rakgoathe | Nat Mokgosi | Erik Laubscher | Zakkie Eloff | Stanley Pinker

Each of us experiences life in an indelibly unique way – and we capture and communicate our experiences just as uniquely. Some capture experiences in paint, photographs or penned words on paper, distilling life down to the most absolute essence. For some it is a moment of exquisite joy they capture. For others, despair and disappointment. For some, they ask questions about life and its meaning – while for others again, their distillations of life attempt an answer.

“We do not remember days, we remember moments.” ~ Cesare Pavese

Life, Distilled seeks to shift your gaze away from the constant clutter of our lives, and block out the noise so our ears can hear our own true heartbeat. Each work presented is an opportunity to leave the toil and hassle behind you and return to simplicity, purity and clarity.

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Irma the Rebel, Irma the Red

Letters from the Artist 

Absolut Art Gallery - Irma Stern's Letters

Irma Stern is perhaps the absolute epitome of South Africa’s presence within the European movement of avant garde. (Read her biography here.)

As promised, we’re going to be looking at Irma Stern’s letters and how they revealed a dislocated and magnificent turbulence of the heart — reminiscent of Van Gogh’s experience of life, love, art and identity.
Stern’s identity can perhaps painted as a dichotomy of black and white, torn as she was between her deep identification with the Africa of her birth, and her European heritage as a German Jew.

This prolific letter writer was (in a sweet serendipity) born in a post office, deep in the Northern Province of South Africa. When she was three years old, her father was incarcerated by the British for his pro-Boer perspectives, and Stern’s mother whisked her two young children away to Germany until his release. With the explosion of World War 1, the family returned to Germany yet again, where Stern confessed to having felt trapped, cloistered, claustrophic and dislocated.

“… this divided upbringing leaves one with the feeling of belonging to nowhere.” 

Upon returning more definitively to South Africa as her true home, Stern’s avant garde Expressionism caused an uproar across the country, with a police investigation triggered by charges of alleged immorality surrounding her 1922 exhibition. Nothing, however, could break this strong woman’s fierce and passionate independence, and she diligently transgressed the conservative cliches of what it meant to be an artist and woman in South Africa. She travelled prolifically. She worked like a man. And in her own words:

“My appearance is that of a well-dressed lady, but inwardly I run more and more wild.”  

With a dogged ferocity that was then considered unfeminine, she closed herself up in her studio – coffee and cigarettes her only sustenance – and worked for days. She ran her business solely on her own: framing her paintings, packaging them and arranging sales. However, beneath this almost rebellious strength, was a highly sensitive, compassionate and humble heart which carried within itself raw wounds of pain, tragedy and grief. Excerpts from letters to her friends paint an emotionally evocative picture of her.
To her friend Max Pechstein, she wrote:

“You have made me so contented, so eager to work and happy, with a few words you cast down all the dark hours of despair and inner conflict.”  And after her first solo show: “I really can’t tell you over the telephone how grateful I am to you for all the good things you have done for me! I am truly always aware of it – how wonderfully you have helped me along – how you showed me what is true and good in my work and what is empty phrasing, and then how you have helped me with other people, have smoothed the path for me. For I know what human impediments you have cleared from my way through your interest in my work!”

(In a tender gesture of grateful reciprocation, Stern sent Pechstein food parcels during the war.)

After the war, she vowed never to return to Germany, writing to her childhood friend, Trude Bosse, 

“I have buried the past … It hurts more than one thinks. A country, its well-disposed people – all of this into a mass grave. Everything that comes from Germany is like a bygone century to me, like the echo of a sunken world.”

Art historians and theorists have judged, some harshly  and some more compassionately, Stern’s character, identity and heart – like Neville Dubow and Marion Arnold who said Stern was “quite highly talented, though sexually frustrated, emotionally drained, humanely ambivalent, politically disinterested and suspect.” And that her work was “the vent of a physically unattractive, unloved and unhappy woman” Perhaps more realistically, German curator Irene Below acknowleged Stern as “a sensitive, acutely observant, qualified artist who, from childhood, came to grips with her life and her experiences in two extremely different worlds.” 

Her boldly vibrant and exuberant colours antithetically mirror her dirtier, mournful colours  — like a self-portrait. Unlike her South African and European contemporaries who painted portraits of themselves in abundance (like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gaugin and Frida Kahlo) Stern declined. Why? 

We’ll be talking about this enigma of a woman on our Facebook page – and would love to hear what you think the answer might be. Click here to join the conversation!



  • Google “Beyond Black and White: Rethinking Irma Stern by Claudia B Braude” for deeper insights into Irma Stern’s life and work.
  • And click here to read more about her by acclaimed UCT art academic, Clive Kellner.