Almost 100 years ago, just after the now-famous South African Modernist artist Irma Stern’s (1894 – 1966) first exhibition in Cape Town, a review in the local press appeared under the headline “Freak Picture Exhibition, the Art of Miss Irma Stern – Ugliness as a Cult”. The article stated in relation to Stern’s work that “where there is deliberate carelessness in form, there is not likely to be much thought … nothing except ugliness”.
Today, Irma Stern’s work is revered precisely for its beauty and is seen as important to South Africa's cultural heritage. Likewise, the work of contemporary painter Georgina Gratrix (b. 1982) has often attracted the same sort of criticism, with opinions firmly divided between beauty and ugliness.
Having just completed a three-month residency at the UCT Irma Stern Museum, during which she worked in a studio on the museum grounds, Gratrix opened her exhibitions of paintings and sculptures on 24 September at the museum.
A day of celebration and audacity
For the opening event, an enthusiastic crowd enjoyed the pristine weather, elegant musical ambience and beautifully arranged picnics in the large grounds of the museum.
“All painting is a conversation with history.”
But this was not just a day of celebration of beauty. On the contrary, Gratrix – tongue firmly in cheek – challenged the whole notion of beauty through her audacious work, in the form of thick paint oozes on and distorted shapes. The ‘High Art’ cultural heritage is juxtaposed with throw-away objects of pop culture.
And yet her paintings are simultaneously objects of attraction – with bright colours, playful humour and endearing characters.
In all these aspects of her work, Gratrix speaks back to the history of art and extends the possibilities that art presents. She playfully explores the cavernous space between desirability and the grotesque, revealing a subjective truth that rejects the notion of the ideal.
Forging new possibilities
Often the impulse to call something ugly comes from the way that we are taught and conditioned to see. The result is a hierarchy of pleasure, with beauty at the top and ugly at the bottom. The case of Irma Stern shows that tastes do change, revealing just how fleeting public opinion can be, and how important the spirit of experimentation is in forging new possibilities of looking, making and understanding. The Cult of Ugliness is Gratrix’s attempt to do just this.
The exhibition is on display at the UCT Irma Stern Museum until 21 January 2023. The project was realised in collaboration with SMAC Galleries.
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