Vorm en Lyn Form and Line

Bettie Cilliers-Barnard

Oil on Canvas
61 x 76.5cm
Signed: "Bettie Cilliers-Barnard" (Lower/Right)
Dated: 1960

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During the 1960’s Bettie Cilliers-Barnard was one of the few female South African artists to have developed a unique and sophisticated understanding of painterly abstraction techniques. As curator at the Pretoria Art Museum, A.J Werth posited in the 1966 joint exhibition of Cilliers-Barnard and Joan Clare’s work, Cilliers-Barnard is “amongst the first South African women artists to work in a truly abstract form.” He argued that Cilliers-Barnard in her concern for the formal structure of a work is:

“…very aware of the steps she takes in the execution of a painting, but through this process of building step by step, by progressive addition and elimination, she arrives at a marvelously ordered universe. It is furthermore, a universe saved from becoming too orderly because it retains a strong mysticism, a deep mystery which lifts outside our man-made world.”

In this statement Werth reflects on the shape and eloquence of Cilliers-Barnard’s oeuvre from the late-fifties up until the mid-sixties, in which the exhibition was curated. Six years prior to his exploration of her work, Cilliers-Barnard created the piece “Vorm en Lyn/Form and Line”. Although not exhibited in this particular show, the work resonates with a number of Werth’s observations. For example, while the painting seems at first a complex disarray of geometric forms, it is in fact coherently structured into three vertical planes— while the first plane is marked by the incipient wash of a champagne-grey, the second ends with the rectangular block of khaki green and the last begins with the curve of evening blue towards the top right of the composition.

Not only does Cilliers-Barnard employ the orderly structure of which Werth spoke, she complicates the composition with both her layering of form as well as a careful blend of pastel colours. In addition, she demonstrates an understanding of artistic techniques besides painting. Indeed, Cilliers-Barnard brings together her studies of tapestry, etching and engraving into the work. In fact, in 1960, the year in which the work was created, the artist undertook a tour to study the art of tapestry. She translates her studies of different mediums into abstracted forms which are angular and definitive— like the markings a carver would etch onto wood. The painting further evokes the idea of the infinite threads from which a tapestry is woven in that it depicts a complex layering and intertwining of line and form.

Moreover, 1960 was one of the years in which Cilliers-Barnard received the most attention and acclaim as an artist. During this time she exhibited in five important exhibitions, four of which were international shows taking place in São Paulo, New York, Munich and Belgium. Therefore the work Cilliers-Barnard created in 1960 marks a definitive period of individual growth for which the artist was recognised internationally. As one of the works coming from this period of exponential development, “Vorm en Lyn / Form and Line” already distinguishes itself as incredibly important in the artist’s ouevre. However, given Cilliers-Barnard’s increasing rise to fame in the years succeeding the creation of this piece, it is also possible to assert that “Vorm en Lyn / Form and Line” is critical to understanding the sophistication and variation that existed within the South African art scene at the time. 

Consequently, the work testifies to the progressive and intelligent position that South African art has managed to maintain in the global art market, despite the long years of isolation enforced upon the country. Indeed, artists such Cilliers-Barnard demonstrate that South Africa was and continues to be host to a modern and flourishing artistic community.

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