The forthcoming North/South online auction by Strauss & Co (8 to 12 November 2020) will include a session exclusively devoted to the holdings of the Tasso Foundation Collection of important South African art assembled by the late Giulio Bertrand.
Art assembled by Giulio Bertrand
Italian-born Giulio Bertrand (1927–2018) is best known to South Africans for his transformative activities at Morgenster Estate in Somerset West.
Bertrand became involved in this renowned estate in 1992 and went on to reinvigorate its winemaking traditions. The Italian olive trees and Bordeaux vines he introduced at Morgenster prospered and Bertrand acquired the legend as a champion olive-oil maker and discriminating wine producer.
A history of exchange between South Africa and Italy
The 75-lot sale of paintings, sculpture and works on paper consigned by the Tasso Foundation tells the story of South African art and artists from the period of union to liberation but is framed by a far older history of exchange between South Africa and Italy.
Established in 1711 from a section of the farm that originally constituted Vergelegen Estate, Morgenster’s first owner, Jacques Malan, was a French Huguenot whose family traced their ancestry back to the north-western Italian valleys of Piedmont. Bertrand was born in Biella, an important Italian wool processing and textile centre in Piedmont. Much of his discernment and knowhow was formed in the Piedmont region.
Bertrand’s introduction to South Africa predated his activities at Morgenster. Born into a respected family-run textile business supplying yarns and fabrics, its operations included two factories located in the Eastern Cape. Starting in 1975, Bertrand visited South Africa four-times annually from Italy to oversee production at these factories. It started his longstanding love affair with South Africa.
Morgenster was ostensibly a retirement project for Bertrand, but given his unique flair and passion, the last three decades of his life were anything but sedate.
“Building an art collection is about enthusiasm and long-term commitment,” says Bina Genovese, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director, who, along with other colleagues, knew Bertrand personally. “Over time he built up a remarkable collection of historical works, which he later – without hesitation – complemented with works by leading contemporary artists.”
The collection includes various artists whose works reiterate the strong historical links between Italy and South Africa. Irma Stern’s marine landscape of the Grand Canal in Venice (estimate R5 to 7 million), the highest valued lot on offer, is the most explicit. A noted traveller, Stern frequently visited Venice, most consistently throughout the 1950s when she represented South Africa at four editions of the Venice Biennale.
The collection also includes two flower studies from the 1940s, the decade in which Stern painted her most important still lifes. Stern is one among many pioneering moderns in the Tasso Foundation Collection. Other notable artists include Gwelo Goodman, J.H. Pierneef, Maud Sumner and Pieter Wenning.
Although immersed in classical traditions and culture at Morgenster, Bertrand was unafraid of new challenges and aesthetic pursuits. He effortlessly pivoted to acquiring contemporary art. Its holdings include works by leading South African artists Norman Catherine, Robert Hodgins, William Kentridge, Penny Siopis, Simon Stone, Andrew Verster, Diane Victor and Harold Voigt. It also includes a work by renowned Zimbabwean sculptor Tapfuma Gutsa who represented his country at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Siopis and Kentridge have also exhibited at the Venice Biennale.
Kentridge, whose work Tree (estimate R600 000 to 800 000) features an arboreal design in Indian ink on book pages, is a well-known artist in Italy. In 2016 he created Triumphs & Laments: a Project for Rome, a monumental frieze along the banks of the Tiber River. The artist’s connection with Italy is longstanding and was inspired by stories told to him as a child by his father, lawyer and judge Sir Sydney Kentridge.
“He was in the South African Air Force as an intelligence officer, and was with the Allied Forces as they came up from Sicily during the second part of World War Two,” said Kentridge in 2016 of his father. “I think that from that moment he had a love for Italy, so of all the places in Europe, Italy is the most infectious for me.”
Another contemporary artist in the Tasso Foundation Collection with direct links to Italy is Diane Victor. Through one of her Italian relatives, a Papal Swiss Guard in the Vatican City in Rome, she once secured an audience with the Pope in his private chambers. Victor’s three-part etching Trinity Fetish (estimate R150 000 – 200 000) is typical of the artist’s ambitious methods, which challenge the traditional limits of printmaking. The art historian Elizabeth Rankin has likened Victor’s habit of presenting images that spill out of the boundaries of their format, as evidenced in Trinity Fetish, to the eighteenth-century Italian printmaker Giovanni Piranesi.
The collection of South African art will be auctioned on Monday, 9 November.