Modernism is not easy to define, but refers roughly to a period dating from the 1860s through to the 1970s, and is used to describe the styles and ideologies of art produced during that era.
Born of great cosmopolitan centres, it flourished in Germany and Holland, as well as in Moscow, Paris, London and New York.
Broadly speaking, Modernists had a utopian desire to create a better world: they believed in technology as the key means to achieve social improvement and in the machine as a symbol of this aspiration.
All of these principles were frequently combined with social and political beliefs (largely left-leaning) which held that design and art could, and should, transform society.
Modernism assumes local characters in different countries and, in South Africa, often reflects shifts in socio-political concerns. It is demonstrated in a great diversity of style and technique, ranging from landscapes to abstract art, engagement with the current trends that were burgeoning in Europe, to an intensely local sense of what it meant to be an artist in this country during the 20th Century.
The Modern Painting and Sculpture Collection contains excellent examples of many leading South African artists of the early and mid-20th Century, such as Gerard Sekoto, Alexis Preller, Irma Stern and Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, all of whose artworks are very much in demand today.
Well-known and familiar works include The Kraal (1949) by Preller, the Golden Shawl (1945) by Stern, Street Scene (1939) by Sekoto and N’tabeni (1930) by Pieneef.
Works by the following ‘Modern’ artists are also represented in the South African National Gallery’s Permanent Collection: Bill Ainslie, Walter Battiss, Kenneth Bakker, May Hillhouse, Bertha Everard, Maggie Laubser, Cecil Higgs, Florence Zerffi, Wolf Kibel, Edward Roworth, Paul du Toit, John Dronsfield, Christo Coetzee, Trevor Coleman, Nel Erasmus, Sydney Goldblatt, Sydney Kumalo, Erik Laubscher, Louis Maqhubela, Ephraim Ngatane, Cecil Skotnes, Herman van Nazareth, Edoardo Villa, Helmut Starcke, Lionel Abrams, Walter Battiss, Carl Buchner, Nils Burwitz, Bettie Cilliers-Barnard, Gregoire Boonzaier, Stanley Pinker, Douglas Portway, Fred Schimmel, Larry Scully, Cecily Sash, George Pemba, Moses Kottler, Solly Disner, Lippy Lipshitz and many others.