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Guess who's laughing now

16 July 2015 - 02:01 By Ray Hartley

In May 1973 the director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Nel Erasmus, fell in love with a striking work of art. Entitled Tête d'Arlequin II, it was a vividly coloured pastel depiction of a man's face wracked with fear and anguish, by Pablo Picasso.She believed it showed the artist's existential angst on confronting his approaching death.Using money raised by the Friends of the Johannesburg Art Gallery Jubilee Fund, she paid the princely sum of R28000 for the work in October 1973.Believing she had brought an important work to the city, she had no idea she was about to unleash a major controversywhich would play out in the newspapers and in the chambers of the city council. Instead of greeting the hanging of the work at the gallery with delight, the public turned on Erasmus, venting conservative revulsion at the work, at Picasso and the gallery.It was a field day for cartoonists. Bob Connolly drew a row of doctors diagnosing the harlequin's ailments. "Hardening of the arteries", "Cirrhosis of the liver", "Varicose veins", "Hangover", "Blood poisoning" and "Halitosis" they opined one by one.Berry drew a picture of a mother threatening her naughty child with the line: "Behave yourself - or I'll take you to see that Picasso picture!" And he drew another that depicted an NP politician saying "We could call it Rooi Gevaar and use it for an election poster!"Before the picture's unveiling in January 1974, The Star ran what appeared to be a leader on its front page: "Without exception, men and women in the street were agog today when shown The Star's coloured reproduction of the crayon and pastel drawing of a clown, which is due to be unveiled at the gallery this evening."The conservative sensibilities of white South Africans were quoted. "It's something I'd hate to walk into at night," said Mrs Denise Venter of central Johannesburg."Art should be something beautiful that lifts the soul. This is depressingly revolting," said Mrs Lilian Serfontein of Montgomery Park."I am convinced that the Picasso picture was inspired by the sight of a frustrated baboon - this is not intended to be facetious or offensive - the resemblance is unmistakable," said MW Wedepohl of Parkhurst.Among those who did not like the Picasso was Francois "Obie" Oberholzer, chairman of the Johannesburg City Council's management committee in the 1970s and 1980s. A canny populist politician who favoured grey three-piece suits and thick-rimmed glasses, Oberholzer cut the art gallery's subsidy to zero and initiated his own project to illustrate once and for all what the city saw as proper art.The council commissioned Tienie Pritchard to produce a monumental 9m-high sculpture of George Harrison, the man credited with discovering gold on the Reef, in celebration of the city's centenary in 1986.Depicting Harrison as a muscular, shirtless miner holding up a giant nugget, a pickaxe in his other hand, the sculpture dominates the city's eastern entrance, where it stands in Settler's Park near Eastgate shopping centre on the road from OR Tambo International Airport.Harrison, a wandering Australian did discover a rocky outcrop of gold-bearing reef. But he promptly sold his claim for £10 before leaving the area, never to be heard from again. He was no miner and he wasn't even the true discoverer of the Reef. That honour belonged to one Jan Gerritze Bantjes, who made several discoveries before Harrison.Harrison Street in the CBD is named after a different Harrison - John, a prospector.But Oberholzer was making his point about true art. The sculpture cost the council R550000.The country's leading art auctioneer, Stephan Welz of Strauss & Co, recently hosted Erasmus at a discussion of these two works in Johannesburg. Erasmus is the one laughing now.The Picasso is estimated to be worth many millions - exactly how many no one will say - while the Harrison statue could probably recover some of its costs if you melted down the copper.Said Welz: "To the old adage 'never trust a politician' you can add 'particularly when it comes to art collecting'."'Tête d'Arlequin II' is out of the country on loan, but a copy will be on display at the Turbine Art Fair at the Turbine Hall in Johannesburg at the weekend..

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