Mary Stainbank, Modernism and the ‘Spirit of Africa’.
This research critically examines, from a post-colonial perspective, the representation of the indigenous personage by the Natal-born sculptor Mary Agnes Stainbank ( 1899-1996). Specific sculptures from the period c1920- 1940 which reflect the artist's concern with the South African indigene as subject matter were selected for scrutiny. Stainbank's representations of indigenous personages from the 1920s are analysed against the background of the then prevailing conservatism in art in Natal, as informed by Victorian and academic norms for art production, and according to historically established canons of art. The development of her work is traced from this initial naturalism, acquired while she was a student in Durban (1917-1921), to a more experimental idiom which she adopted and developed as a student at the Royal College of Art in London (1922-1926). Stainbank's opposition to the notion of "primitivism" in British art of the period is considered seminal to the formulation of her aesthetic aims and is regarded as the incentive for the development of her stylistic concerns. The effects on Stainbank of work by artists involved in the establishing of a British definition of modernism are examined against the general background of an emerging modernism and primitivism in British art and within the context of the academic ethos of the Royal College of Art. The investigation of Stainbank's work proceeds through an examination of selected examples of sculpture which were executed from 1927 to 1938, a period in which her style resolved into an idiosyncratic form of representation combined with modernist form.