Review: Frank Spears at the Irma Stern Museum


Frank SpearsThe UCT Irma Stern Museum is currently home to a retrospective exhibition of selected artworks by the late Frank Spears.  The first solo show of his paintings in over 40 years, it also serves as the platform to launch a book on Spears’ life and work, written by Melissa Sutherland.

Spears’ style can be described as impressionist, veering towards the abstract, particularly after his visit to America in 1947. Displayed in the Upstairs Gallery of the museum, the works range from colourful still lifes, via religious pictures, to landscapes and portraits. It is an impressive collection – much of it privately owned – and gives the onlooker a rare opportunity to thoroughly peruse Spears’ style.

Due to the tie-in with the launch of the book, there is a lot of information on hand about Spears the man, rather than just Spears the painter.  Born in England in 1906, Frank Spears studied art, music, drama and architectural design. Some interesting examples of his architectural drawings are even included in the exhibition, alongside some of his early watercolours. He moved to Cape Town at the age of 22 to work as a designer for a shopfitter company called Brimble & Briggs, of which he later became managing director.  He did not paint to earn a living, but because, as he put it, “I can’t help but paint”.

Spears had an uncanny ability to create an atmosphere around the objects he painted, capturing an aura through his colours and brush work. Of the landscapes, ‘Boulders Beach’ stands out as a beautifully bright, impressionistic painting.  With a palette of fresh, light blue colours it depicts the large granite boulders dwarfing the handful of people on the beach, and captures precisely the transcendent peace of that extraordinarily unique beach.  ‘Magdalen Veiled’, on the other hand, is a beautifully abstract, almost eerie image of a woman’s veiled white face.

In his opening speech for the exhibition, Mr Hayden Proud (Curator of Historical Paintings and Sculpture at Iziko Museums of South Africa) described how Spears was a forward-thinking, well respected member of the artist scene of South Africa. He was also one of the few artists who had the courage of openly exploring abstract art during a time when it was shunned.  A designer, radio broadcaster, playwright and more, Frank Spears nonetheless painted hundreds of works in his free time, paintings which were lauded in over 100 exhibitions.  This exhibition pays fitting tribute to a truly remarkable man.

Marie Stinnes


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