Albert Adams (1929-2006) – a fractured history

Albert Adams (1929-2006) – a fractured history

9 June – 8 October 2017

Curated by Marilyn Martin and Robyn-Leigh Cedras

This retrospective of Albert Adams’ oeuvre, which spanned more than fifty years and included works on loan from national and international public and private collections, revealed his prodigious talent for drawing from a very young age, and the instinctive expressionism, charged with deep social awareness and commitment, which would characterise his work throughout his life. Unsurprisingly, this led to comparisons with the work of the great Spanish artist Francisco Goya.

At the time when he made the charcoal drawings The Family (1948) and Untitled (Four figures with pitchforks) (c. 1950), Adams was friends with German collectors Siegbert Eick and Rudolph Von Freiling and he saw superb graphics by Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt and the German Expressionists at their home. Käthe Kollwitz’s protest against social injustice and empathy for the poor and oppressed made a lasting impression on him and her influence is clear in these drawings. Landscape and context are absent and they become metaphors for individuals labouring or rebelling in apartheid South Africa or anywhere in the world. The images are iconic and imbued with the power of his early religious drawings, for example the Pietà (1948).

Although Adams did not subscribe to any religious denomination, he was deeply spiritual, and religious subjects feature prominently in his work and on this exhibition. More often than not they are vectors of social and political commentary, for instance the remarkable painting South Africa 1958-59 (Deposition). There is no cross and no support – the Christ figure floats in the centre of the triptych, separated from His mother to whom He turns, while St. John looks on. Their lament is captured in every expression, gesture and brush mark. The dark, wounded body of Christ is enveloped in strong black lines – metaphors for His flagellation and that of the “dark man” in South Africa. His one shoulder is bloody, there is no halo, but the head glows inside.

In a review of a group exhibition in the Cape Argus, 6 October 1959, Neville Dubow wrote of the then untitled triptych (now known as South Africa 1959):

And dominating everything, physically and emotionally, is the huge, allegorical canvas by Albert Adams which (it would be hypocritical to pretend otherwise) inevitably causes visions of Guernica to come flooding into one’s mind…

Suffice it to say that the forces that caused Picasso to paint his famous protest have not yet abated, and Albert Adams’ outburst…has significance over and above all the other pieces on view.

Adams was moved by and responded to the horrors of his own time and experiences and captured them in his work – genocide, natural disasters and atrocities perpetrated across the globe – yet he always returned to South Africa for inspiration, depicting or alluding to, amongst others, the homeless people of Cape Town, the darker side of the Cape Minstrels, and the “baggage” or legacy of apartheid. After 1994 he explored the challenges, dangers and threats that came with political change, compelling the viewer to see and share the disillusionment of the downtrodden and marginalised. He was unforgiving for the wrong done to people, while at the same time searching for the spiritual and metaphysical in and through his art.

The time spent at Oscar Kokoschka’s School of Vision in 1957 had an enduring influence on Adams’ philosophical and technical approach to his own creative expression; throughout his life Adams remained true to Kokoschka’s words to never close his eyes to “the misery we create on earth”. Adams spoke of the tightrope that an artist walks between the emotions which direct creativity and the objectivity required in the development of the work. He managed this walk throughout his creative life in his paintings, drawings and graphic works.

Concurrent to this show the Imibala Gallery hosted a satelite Albert Adams exhibition, 9 June – 29 July 2017 at 16 Bright Street, Somerset West, +27 (0)21 852 2511,

South Africa 1958–59 (Deposition), Oil on canvas, Private Collection – Image Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

South Africa 1959, Oil on board – Image courtesy of Johannesburg Art GalleryAdams_Untitled-Four-Figures-w-Pitchforks
Untitled (Four figures with pitchforks), c 1950, Charcoal and chalk on paper – Rupert Museum Collection