Market Street Scene, Cape Town (circa 1943) signed 'G. SEKOTO' (lower right) oil on panel 35.5 x 45.7cm (14 x 18in). unframed
PROVENANACE: Acquired directly from the artist by Pola Pasvolsky (née Katz) (1919-1999) Purchased from her estate sale by the current owner, circa 1999
In simple terms, this painting could be described as an exploration of light and shadow and the effect of colour thereon. The question that arises is: how much were the influences of the Impressionist School filtering through to the ever confident and assured young artist, Sekoto? Sekoto himself denied all outside influence and frequently stated his own intentions:
"What I wanted to catch was the life of the people and their expressions. Landscapes would be rare. Mostly it was the movement that attracted me. I liked movement and the landscape would be in the background."
However, he openly acknowledged the introduction he was given to the work of Van Gogh by his friend and erstwhile colleague Ernest Mancoba, when at Khaiso School in 1938. It was here that Sekoto began his career as an artist whilst teaching and Mancoba, older, and an already established artist, helped encourage the young Sekoto to pursue his dreams. Sekoto's single-minded determination to travel to Paris was inspired by his encounter and friendship with Mancoba, who left South Africa before Sekoto.
By the time Sekoto had arrived to live in the Cape, in 1942, he was acknowledged as an artist of great talent and had received enough accolades from the media to know his career was on a sound footing. Whilst living in Johannesburg from 1939, he had met fellow artists, patrons of the art and had been introduced to artist, Judith Gluckman, who had undertaken to teach Sekoto how to use oil paints. His rapid command of this medium is evident in the oil paintings he had completed by the mid 1940s and his ever growing confidence is mapped through the developments that took place whilst living in the Cape and thereafter, when he returned in 1945 to Eastwood in the Transvaal (Gauteng) to live in his mother's home.
Sekoto was given an introduction to George Manuel, a journalist working in the Cape, by Brother Roger Castle, a tireless supporter of the talent of young African artists who as scholars attended St Peter's School in Johannesburg. Sekoto's cousin, Fred Norman, had introduced Brother Roger to the aspirant artist, and Sekoto quickly found himself invited to attend the art classes offered at the school and then to participate in teaching his fellow classmates. It was through Brother Roger's dedicated efforts that Sekoto found his work being exhibited at the Gainsborough Gallery, in Johannesburg, initially in a show of "African schoolboys" and thereafter being invited to exhibit in one man shows.
When Sekoto decided to explore his country more widely, Brother Roger arranged introductions and Sekoto found himself lodging with George Manuel's mother in District 6. Manuel lived with his family in his own home and Sekoto and he became good friends. Through this friendship Sekoto was quickly introduced into the close knit art circle in Cape Town, where he met and befriended fellow artists. Alexis Preller, Gregoire Boonzaier, Lippy Lipshitz, Louis Maurice and Peter Clark, amongst others, all became friends. Walter Battiss's influence enabled an invitation to Sekoto to exhibit in the 5th Anniversary exhibition of the New Group in Johannesburg in 1943, acknowledging his stature amongst his colleagues and the recognised acceptance of Sekoto as a mainstream South African artist.
A visible shift takes place in Sekoto's art after his arrival in the Cape. He was clearly aware of, and influenced by, the bright clear light that bathes Cape scenery on a dazzling sunny day. Many of his paintings of this period depict a background wash of blue, allowing the primary colours to shimmer against the cooler tones. Paintings such as Girl with an Orange, Omar, Street Musician, Convicts cutting a Hedge and Prisoners carrying a Boulder all use colour device to create atmospheric light and shadow. The contrast of blues against yellows and reds emphasise the clarity of light and captures the iridescent mood that typifies a sunlit Cape day.
This new approach could have been a purely visual reaction from Sekoto, supersensitive as he was to colour and its effects. It could be argued that the fact he was coincidentally meeting and befriending artists, themselves influenced by what they had learned from European exposure and influence, may have contributed to the new probing and delicate subtlety of colour usage.
It is suggested that Market Street Scene may have been a precursor to the iconic Houses District 6 where the painterly devices used by Sekoto in the former are tightened in the latter. Both paintings employ shadow from an unknown source leading the eye into the composition. The concept of yellow walls and red roof shadowed in blue, appear first in Market Street Scene and is compacted as an idea in Houses District 6. Both paintings display a fascination with light and shadow and together with colour, atmosphere of a given moment is defined and encapsulated.
In Market Street Scene the dandy, attired in fashionable suit and hat, lurks in the shadow, whilst the bright white tones of the newspaper he clutches, introduces the sun steeped activity of the passers by that he observes. In the far background, behind the line of trees, the white tones respond, in the depiction of a parked vehicle, and find their counterpoint in the sailor's white tipped cap and the lady in orange's sun hat. This painting suggests an autobiographical note in that Sekoto himself always dressed in a stylish fashion and here there is an intimate sense of the observer being observed, observing.
The row of trees that close off the composition in the background, depict light and shade through colour and suggest the musical beat of a metronome. The effect of this movement of the trees surging up and out of the canvas as well as striating the picture plane, boosts the sense of busy daily routine of the many different personages scurrying to and fro in the centre of the painting.
Sekoto's love of music and talent thereof is well documented. This painting offers yet another insight into Sekoto's musicality as well as his extraordinary painterly skills, and how he intertwined his mental processes into visual creativity.