Friday, August 25, 2017

Shaping Modernity in the mid-twentieth century South Africa: Ernst de Jong (1934-2016)

The exhibition in the FADA Gallery (lower ground) focuses on the artist and designer Ernst de Jong’s (1938-2016) contribution to design in South Africa in the years 1957-1975. Video recordings of interviews with the designer, as well artwork and artefacts sourced from the de Jong collection, contextualise the display.
This selection provides a link to the accompanying exhibition of Helen de Leeuw’s modernising rhetoric that evinces interesting   parallels of circumstance and purpose with that of de Jong.  Both individuals could be said, as Chris Barron claims for de Leeuw, to have ‘created an alternative way of living for … South Africans suffocating in a stuffy aesthetic inherited from the British colonial past’.
The de Jong exhibition is part of an ongoing project by Lizè Groenewald to document, record and communicate the history of an extraordinary personality in his pursuit to domesticate modernism in twentieth-century South Africa.

Some notes on the work on display

Various items of student work 1951-1956

De Jong was born in 1934 in Pretoria. He spent much of his time during his school years either at the Hillcrest Swimming Pool or painting in his mother’s kitchen. Both these pursuits would serve him well in later life: as a talented diver, he was awarded a sports scholarship to study at the University of Oklahoma (OU)in the USA, where he enrolled for a BA Degree in Fine Art and majored in Painting and Information Design. In 1957, de Jong and his American wife, Gwen Drennan (1935- ), a fellow student at OU, returned to Pretoria where they opened Ernst De Jong Studios (EDJS) in 1958.

Items on display in the vitrines include a watercolour of a landscape with houses, executed when de Jong was sixteen and still at school, a set of hand-drawn roman letters crafted by Gwen as part of a typography project at OU and the University of Oklahoma Year Book for 1956 (in which the newly married couple appears). The delicate patterning and colours of The Successors, a stone lithograph, foreshadows the early style of EDJS, evident in the cover designs for the cultural journal, Lantern, and the Automobile Association Touring Guide of South Africa.

In the time that de Jong was diving for OU, the swimming team achieved unprecedented success and the exhilarating experience of winning in an American sporting arena would inform de Jong’s approach to all things once he returned to South Africa. In 1973 he was instrumental, with his brother Gerrie de Jong, in designing and building the De Jong Diving Centre, which is still maintained by the Tswane City Council. Arguably, de Jong’s use of a vibrant turquoise in several of his early designs, such as the cover design for the October/December 1958 Lantern, was prompted by his life-long attachment to the aesthetics of swimming and swimming pools.

Early work 1956 -1966
The 1956 fantasy landscape in oils, The Colonnade, is typical of de Jong’s painterly style when at OU. Despite the claim that his encounter with American Abstract Expressionism brought about a ‘sea change’ whilst he was studying in the USA, the visual language that he brought back to South Africa was more akin to the whimsical mark-making of American artist / designer Ben Shahn (1898-1969), whose work de Jong admired. De Jong’s commitment to Hard-Edge abstraction appears to have occurred only after he relocated to Pretoria in 1957, a shift which is evident in the other works displayed in this group. De Jong’s Degree Programme at OU included information design, painting and stone lithography. The latter was presented by Emilio Amero (1901-1976) who was an acclaimed muralist who taught an excellent technical course in print making.  De Jong himself became both a prolific muralist and an expert print maker, producing several series of serigraphs, of which a selection are on display.

Books and magazines

In 1960 de Jong designed and built a ‘white house’ in the modern style in Hill Street, Pretoria, where he lived and worked until his death in 2016. De Jong, by his own admission, was not a great reader, but the books in the Hill Street collection, amassed over more than fifty years and of which a small sample is displayed in the exhibition, reveal the influences and obsessions that shaped the designer’s life. A 1963 Vogue magazine features the glamorous de Jong couple in their avant garde home. His father, who was a civil servant (but would have preferred to be a painter), bequeathed his son a modest little book on modern painting. The formal principles of art are explained in an ancient copy of Helen Gardner’s Art through the ages, presumably a prescribed text at OU. The rules of fencing vie with Sam Haskin’s erotic photography, swimming pool design, cowboys, Picasso and yellowing texts on lithography.  Robert Motherwell’s ‘black balls’, Jasper Johns’s Flag and Ben Shahn’s illustrations for an idiosyncratic dictionary of peculiar words attest to the importance of American modernism in de Jong’s approach to art making. In 1983, Esme Berman’s encyclopaedic Art and artists of South Africa, declares triumphantly, “Ernst De Jong’s career furnishes a story of success”.

Johan Hoekstra (1939 — )
Johan Hoekstra worked as a designer for Ernst De Jong Studios from approximately 1960 to 1963.  Hoekstra met de Jong while studying commercial art at the Pretoria Technical College, where both Gwen and Ernst de Jong had been employed as design lecturers after arriving in Pretoria from the USA. Hoekstra brought to the studio his excellent illustration skills and an amusing quirkiness that was well-aligned with de Jong’s decorative approach and the frivolity of American modernism that was growing in popularity in South Africa.
Hoekstra designed several sun-emblems for de Jong, including the first EDJS logo, which was an illustrative symbol that evokes the robust earthiness of early Renaissance woodblock books. Hoekstra’s work captures the mood of an ebullient and hip Pretoria in the early 1960s. He left EDJS in the mid-1960s.

Colin Bridgeford (1938 — )
Colin Bridgeford was one of the first student designers employed by EDJS. However, his most important contribution emerged in the late 1960s when he re-joined the studio after a period spent in the advertising industry in Johannesburg. Bridgeford introduced the neutral language of the International Style to EDJS. He transformed Hoekstra’s rustic sun-symbol into a signifier of needle-sharp precision and efficiency. In his purity of vision, he echoed the hard-edge imagery and ascetic beauty of de Jong’s serigraphs. Bridgeford’s consistent use of sans serif letterforms and the grid conveys a heightened commitment to the modernist project in South Africa but also the increasingly anxious mood of the 1970s. Bridgeford left EDJS in 1975.


The Society of Designers in South Africa (SDSA) made this award only once, and it was presented to Ernst de Jong for his contribution to South African design. The jury’s decision to honour a producer of ephemeral trademarks (as opposed to the architects of the South African Reserve Bank, who only received a merit prize) attests to the high esteem in which de Jong was held in the South African design community at the time.
The 1970s had seen the emergence of the graphic designer as superstar and in the 1980s this trend probably reached its peak. De Jong himself had promoted the cult of design hero as early as the 1950s when he signed his cover illustrations for Lantern. The legendary American designer Paul Rand (1914-1996) followed the same practice, although de Jong was unaware of Rand’s work until much later in his life.
Before the 1990s, it was relatively common for a creative director to take the credit for the work of junior designers. Thus, the iconic logo of the 1972 Munich Games, although more usually attributed to the designer Otl Aicher (1922-1991), was the inspired idea of a lesser-known colleague, Coordt von Mannstein (1937- ). Similarly, the EDJS design for The Gift Horse trademark featured in the exhibition is attributed to de Jong in the New York Art Director’s Annual, but was in fact designed by his studio manager, Colin Bridgeford. In a field where creative outputs are invariably the result of team work, it is often difficult to determine with certainty the authors of past graphic design experiences, a challenge that contributes to the difficulty of constructing a history in this regard.

The Oklahoma motor hotel corporate identity

The Oklahoma campaign was executed as part of a collaboration with de Jong’s older brother, Gerrie, a property developer who built the iconic Oklahoman Motor Hotel in Pretoria in 1969. Both brothers had studied at OU and The Oklahoman project celebrated their love affair with American modernity, an experience that they re-imagined in the capital city of South Africa.
In addition to styling the visual identity of the hotel, de Jong produced a striking series of serigraphs (not on display) that anticipated the Shield Series (1975), the Night’s Passage Series (1976) and the Western Series (1977). Somewhat like the more recent South African restaurant franchise Spur, The Oklahoman appropriated Native American iconography as part of an emancipatory frontier narrative that sought alternatives to a conservative Christian Nationalist ideology and British imperialist aesthetics.

Everite mural
De Jong executed more than twenty-five mural commissions, thereby shaping the visual rhetoric of architectural spaces as diverse as the Atomic Energy Board, Arcadia Shopping Centre, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the State Theatre in Pretoria. One of his earliest commissions, completed in 1963, was for two glass mosaic murals in the Transvaal Provincial Administration Building. EDJS also designed the programme, on display in the vitrines, for the inauguration of this iconic modernist building in Pretoria. In the case of the undated mural design for Everite — a company that produces building products — de Jong capitalised on the outcome by re-using the design on the company’s corporate calendar.
De Jong, never one to bypass an opportunity to promote himself or his studio, ensured that, on the desk calendar, the designer of the mural received as much attention as the client. Although this strategy may appear conceited, Everite was, in fact, benefitting considerably from its association with a creative practitioner that exemplified modernity and excellence in international design at the time.

Irmin Henkel (1921 — 1977)
Henkel’s portrait of de Jong at the height of his success in 1970 provides an interesting counterpoint to the more recent video recordings of the designer reflecting on his life. Henkel, an orthopaedic surgeon, immigrated to South Africa in 1951. Largely a self-taught painter, he pursued a dual career of medicine and art and painted the portraits of several prominent political figures in the National Party government. In 1969, he completed a large commissioned canvas depicting the South African Cabinet of 1961, the year that South Africa became a Republic. Henkel was a central figure in the Pretoria social scene. He was well-acquainted with the de Jongs — they attended one another’s stylish parties — and he painted the portrait of de Jong as well his father, Gerrit de Jong, the latter, by request, in the style of Paul Gaugin.
Lizè Groenewald can be contacted by email lizeg@uj.ac.za or by phone +11 559 1024.


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