Doyenne of SA art world dies

Esmé Berman (1929-2017)

Esmé Berman, renowned South African art historian and author, died last night (4 June) at her home in Johannesburg. She was 88.

With the publication of her Art and Artists of South Africa (published in 1970 and revised in 1983) she established herself as the doyenne of the South African art world. In a single comprehensive volume she managed to include information about practising South African artists and their practice. This book is still regarded as a reference work of South African fine art up to the early 1980’s.

Berman sourced her information by visiting artists across the country, travelling thousands of kilometres to conduct personal interviews – in a way reminiscent of the Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari’s (1511-1574) approach in his book, translated as Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.

Last year the University of the Witwatersrand presented her with a Doctor of Literature degree (honoris causa) in recognition of her contribution to South African art history, art appreciation and art criticism.

Berman enrolled at Wits in 1946 and completed a degree in Visual Arts and an honours degree in Psychology. Later she studied Drama at the Trinity College in London.

She started writing art reviews for Newscheck, a local magazine with Robert Hodgins as assistant editor, in the 1960s and contributed as reviewer to radio programmes.

Her involvement in the Hillbrow Study Centre where she gave evening classes in culture, architecture, literature and the arts resulted in her writing Art and Artists of South Africa. She presented a selection of these lectures in manuscript form to publisher AA Balkema. He declined to publish the lectures and instead encouraged her to write a comprehensive and well-researched book on South African art.

So her travels began – from documenting the work of her friend Alexis Preller to a visit to Fred Page, living a secluded life in Port Elizabeth.

Berman’s friendship with Preller began in 1972 when she was invited to write an essay for the catalogue for his exhibition in the Pretoria Art Museum. The next year Berman worked with Edgar Bold on a documentary film on Preller and in 2009 she published with Karel Nel a double volume book on Preller: Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows and Collected Images.

She founded the Art Institute in 1972 as a centre focusing on the education, documentation and publication of the visual arts.

She left South Africa in 1987 to settle in Los Angeles but returned to Johannesburg in 2003 following the death of her husband.

In her later years, Berman was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Johan Myburg