Max Ernst at the Johannesburg Art Gallery
by Kathryn Smith
Opening without any fuss - hell, not even any press - an exhibition on major 20th century artist Max Ernst slipped into Johannesburg relatively unnoticed. Apparently brought here by the Goethe Institute, there was no explanatory signage, no English translations of the German/French labels and no education programme associated with what could have been an event of note for the struggling Johannesburg Art Gallery.
As I received no press release or invitation, word of mouth got the news to me. The show itself consists of graphic works - originals this time, people - and some very famous ones at that. The framing and hanging is terrible, but upon seeing original covers of André Breton's Surrealist Manifesto and other famous texts Ernst collaborated on or illustrated, all was (almost) forgiven.
The exhibition delivers what we would expect of Ernst, despite looking a little bland. What amazed me was how prolific Ernst was - even to the point of providing original lithographic illustrations for The Meaning of Beauty in Exact Natural Science. Through this show, one gets a definite sense of the popular permeation of Surrealism, including illustrations for Lewis Carroll. The exhibition highlight is a series of plates he executed for Antonin Artaud's Galapagos (1955), though it was also great to see the frottage series 'Natural histories'.
But who has seen the show? Other than a lecture for the Decorative Arts Society of South Africa that I happened in on (the interpretive content of which was seriously dodgy), the space has been empty. Didn't the Goethe Institute also bring us that Joseph Beuys show no one knew about? I fear they did, but I also know that the chosen venue in that case (the African Window museum) doesn't have the best reputation for getting information out.
Here are two suggestions: if embassies or cultural institutions are going to go to the trouble to bring us much-needed exhibitions by major international artists, please make sure we all know about it. Especially major national newspapers that actually carry story about arts and culture. You don�t need to rig billboards on the highway. There are some very economical and creative solutions to marketing on small budgets - ask the artists. We know.
And secondly, despite the suffering of the JAG, when opportunities like this do land in their lap, they do nothing with it. So don't use the space. Again, there are a number of alternative solutions. Without the Joubert Park Project to add some life to the area, the JAG would be up the proverbial creative creek sans paddle. What needs to happen before someone does something radical?
If this sounds harsh, it probably has to do with the fact that despite many calls which remained unreturned, I couldn't find anyone to answer these questions.
Until September 1 (I think)
Johannesburg Art Gallery, corner Klein and King George Streets, Joubert Park
Tel: (011) 725 3130
Fax: (011) 720 6000
Hours: Tues - Sun 10a - 5pm