Helmut Starcke, Clio, the Muse of History (2001)
Acrylic on canvas, 200 x 145 cm.
Museum press release
Coinciding with our celebration to mark the reinstallation of the Michaelis Collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings in Cape Town’s newly-refurbished Old Town House is The Muse of History, an exhibition of recent paintings by the South African artist Helmut Starcke. The interiors of the newly-restored building, along with the 17th-century originals of the Michaelis Collection, provide an ideal setting and context for Starcke’s series of paintings, which reflect upon the glories of Dutch art of the Golden Age. The artist speculates, in a celebratory as well as a critical spirit, on well-loved images from the period. His wide-ranging sources are elucidated in this special presentation, which is to be seen in combination with the permanent collection. Still-life paintings by artists such as Ambrosius Bosschaert (d.1621) and Willem van Aelst (d.1683), as well as the genre interiors of Gerard Terborch (d.1681) and Johannes Vermeer (d.1675) are some of the works reinterpreted by the artist. The history of the Dutch colonization of Cape in 1652 is primarily brought to bear upon these images in surprising ways.
Starcke’s reworking of Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (c.1666-67, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) forms the centerpiece of the exhibition. He uses it as the basis for his own speculations on the unrecorded histories of the Dutch colonial period. In his rendition, the opulence and rich literary associations of Vermeer’s masterwork is contrasted, by inference, with the scarcity of the Dutch visual record of the original inhabitants of their colony at the Cape. His replacement of Vermeer’s figure of Clio, the Muse of History, with an image of a Khoi woman and child, from a photograph taken by Alfred Duggan-Cronin in 1936, raises issues that have often been seen in his paintings before. These reflect his concern with the interactions and reactions that took place – and continue to take place – at the interface of the African and Western European cultural traditions. There is perhaps no other site in Africa where these have confronted each other more than in South Africa, and specifically at the Cape of Good Hope.