Hayden Proud Opening address

My first encounter with the painting of Frank Spears was when I assumed my present position at the South African National Gallery, which has, in its collections, a modest flower piece by him entitled Roses. Semi-abstract and rather sombre in nature, its horiztonal surface is intensively worked with thin scumbles and scrapings of the palette knife, with its veiled glazes here and there serving to unify, not so much the image of the flowers themselves, but the pictorial impression of the whole. The red roses in the painting are the colour of gouts of dark blood. They seem to stand in a glass. For all the ostensible appeal of the subject of roses and their sensual appeal, this is a rendering of them that avoids the cloying prettiness and kitsch sentiment that is the hallmark of so many other renderings of this subject. In short, it is no bedroom picture, or – to extend a pun- no hallmark greeting card. It is a painting that is paralleled by many others on this celebratory exhibition here today, through which Spears  - in his role as painter – sought to communicate to “everyman” what he called the “unfathomable mystery” of the world of which we are all a part. 

Communicating the deeper reality behind all things was important to Frank Spears, and in his multiple roles of singer, actor, designer and broadcaster, he always sought to reach out to the non-initiated, the unlearned in matters of art, and thereby enrich ordinary lives. His own spiritual journey and his discoveries as a painter were aspects of his richly- lived life that he always sought to share with others. A good example of this is his lecture entitled “The Art of Being a Good Looker”, given in 1962 – which is fortunately published in the appendices of Melissa Sutherland’s wonderful biography which we are launching here today. In this lecture, Spears, with his typical inclination towards the mystical, makes an analogy to the holy Trinity when trying to explain the perplexing mysteries of communication through art – there is a trinity, he says, of the artist, the art work and the viewer. He exhorts the viewer to approach the work of art with “humility and honesty, without fear and self-consciousness”. “Go consciously as a partner with the artist” he continues, “as a one-third and essential part of the trinity that makes magic out of mundane materials and glory out of ‘goo’. The ‘goo’ he refers to here is the oily mess and materiality of pigment on canvas which are transformed through the agency of the artist. In this exhortation Spears strikes a concord with the famous statement made in the 12th century by Abbot Suger of St Denis when he wrote of his new church, its vestments and and its shining stained glass window that “the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material. And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion”. This was a manifesto for the creed of “Art for art’s sake” if ever there was one.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Spears gave this lecture, South Africa was rather belatedly catching up with the notion of abstraction in painting, and it is against this background and in this context that the work of Spears must be appreciated. As my own contribution to the book shows, Spears arrived in Cape Town in 1928 to work as a designer of shopfronts, and engaged with a local art scene that was as parochial as it was divided between the radicalized forces of progress and those of conservative tradition. Some might argue, quite rightly, that perhaps very little has indeed changed in this regard even now. But in those days the battle lines were perhaps more clearly defined; in the 1930s and 40s it was open war between the New Group and the traditionalists of the SA Society of Artists, and in the early 1960s it was an endlessly simmering argument between the proponents of abstraction and those who clung to figuration. 

Frank Spears is an interesting figure in South African art, because he never took sides and fraternized with members of these opposing camps, taking, as it were, the best from both worlds. While remaining a member and, indeed once-time President of the SA Society of Artists, he also formed close friendships with members of the New Group, whose artistic endeavours were termed the “new puke” by the Society’s conservative die-hards, for whom Edward Roworth was their presiding genius. I think that one aspect of Spears’ contribution to the South African art scene in those days was his refreshing refusal to take sides, to remain open to all possibilities and to stimulate debate in a provincial backwater. He was more than an artist; he was a lively public personality seen on stage and heard on the radio, and enjoyed the friendship, admiration and respect of both everyman and the intellectual. 

While, in his own words, he often “flirted” with abstraction, he never entirely succumbed to it as a new fashion. Yet he was able to make cogent arguments as to why abstraction should be taken seriously at a time when South African resistance to it was at its most intense, and to even quote the Greek philosopher Plato in support of his belief that this new tendency in art was actually not so ‘modern’ after all.  

At a recent function, Stephan Welz, who needs no introduction to anyone here, I am sure, gave a speech where he bemoaned the fact that our media and newspapers in South Africa no longer see it as their public responsibility to play an educative or informative role on cultural matters in relation to the public. He contrasted earlier times when the SABC and the local press took a much more lively interest in the visual arts. Through documentaries and articles they helped to create a viable and appreciative audience for them. These days, market surveys dictate policy, so that if the visual arts only appeal to 2% of a readership, they are marginalized accordingly. Gone is the sense of public duty and any ideal of contributing to the quality of lives. If reality TV, soap-operas and short-term gratification in our leisure-time sell papers, then that is the future, and the majority rules. There is no space left for anyone to exercise or be informed of the choice of quality in our leisure over anything else.

One is reminded here of the hugely important role that a larger-than-life personality like Frank Spears played creating and maintaining a sense of cultural life while he lived in South Africa, and how, it might be said, we were the poorer when he retired to the UK in 1969. In so many ways, even at this distance of over 40 years, he seems utterly unique and underrated in the history of South African art. Adept in painting, a voracious reader and highly-literate, he was also an accomplished singer with a deep knowledge of music. The paintings which he made in response to specific classical musical compositions mark him out as quite unique in terms of South African art, but well “in tune” – to pardon another pun – with a whole field of enquiry undertaken by the modernist likes of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, to name but a very few. Spears’ paintings in this vein seem to have been the result of deep familiarity with specific musical compositions on one hand, and a process of distillation in terms of painting that took many months. I have made a case for Spears being a ‘synaesthete’; a person whose senses had the potential to fuse and to see colours in response to certain sounds. He claimed in an interview in 1964 to have seen “colours arising from the orchestra”, and that, to him, there was an aspect of “pure white light” about the music of Mozart.  His flower paintings, so obsessed and infused with a sensual delight in an aura of pure colour over the particularities of petals, pistils and stamens, seem, in effect to arouse in our imaginations a perceptible sense of their actual perfumed odour.

Frank Spears left South Africa many years ago, but he also made a number of returns to exhibit his work here. He yet remains a presence on local art auctions. The value of this exhibition and, in particular, this glorious publication, will serve to inscribe his presence more permanently in our cultural consciousness.

While I started this speech with mention of my own first encounter with the work of Frank Spears, I should like to conclude by relating my second encounter, by way of some amusement that I think he would really enjoy if he could hear it now.

About 15 years ago I attended a Stephan Welz auction in Johannesburg, and there was a smallish, semi-abstract flowerpiece by Frank on the sale. The painting had a relatively low estimate on it and bidding commenced. Bids from the floor were soon left far behind by two telephone bidders who began to furiously compete with each other for the painting. The bids began to escalate and escalate – and escalate yet again to the point where jaws began to drop in the room, and whistles of amazement were heard. It seemed no price was too high for this particular Frank Spears. There was obviously a furious competition on to acquire this particular painting in which cost mattered not.

Stephan called a halt to the bidding at a certain point and conferred with his staff around his podium. Everyone in the room was fixated on what was going on. Then with a wry smile, he informed the audience that there was a major marital misunderstanding at play. 

A married couple, each obviously to what the other was up to, were secreted at opposite ends of the same house on separate phone lines, each trying to buy the same painting as a gift for the other, and no price was too high.

The auction erupted into uproarious laughter. To Stephan’s credit, he took the auction back to the point where it had left the floor, and the loving couple got a good deal in the end. Somehow, I think that Frank and his beloved wife Dorothea would have been absolutely tickled and delighted by this story.