Lionel Abrams

It seems not much is known about Lionel Abrams (1931-1997), the Joburg teacher and artist, or at least not to the general public. And that’s not surprising. He was a quiet man, with no taste for glamour, who liked to quote the adapted Frank Zappa line (or it could have been Elvis Costello or Miles Davis, it seems no one really knows): “Talking about art is like dancing about architecture”.

Abrams found the art world distasteful and was deeply doubtful about exhibiting. “What for?” he asked in response to familial prodding. “Show biz,” he’d say. According to his nephew, Richard Penn, he got a friend, whom he imagined understood the art business, to compile a list of fashionable titles for his paintings. It was the 1950s, one was One Rock Fell; the rest, are forgotten.

He was a painter at a time, writes Sue Williamson, “when artists were artists, either painters, sculptors or printmakers, bought their materials in the art supply store, and considered Paris to be the centre of the artistic world”. It’s fitting then that he painted a number of Proust paintings. I particularly like Proust in the Bath in which, it seems, he plans to spend some time, hence the tray balancing across the tub where his coffee and notepad and some food awaited him. His works, largely in charcoal and pastel often depict domestic scenes, sometimes still life, and has a sketchy floating quality (Tea with Philip Glass), and the lightness and looseness typical of that broken Impressionist brushstroke.

Between 1957 and 1981, Abrams had, despite himself, 16 one-person shows, and in 1959 and 1965 represented South Africa at the Sao Paulo Biennale. He has work in the South African National Gallery, the Pretoria Art Museum, the Rembrandt Art Foundation, the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Trust Bank Collection and the Sasol Collection.

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