Helmut Starcke   (South African 1935 - )
Caprivi of my mind #2, 1970

acrylic on canvas
150 x 150cm
signed bottom right ‘Helmut Starcke ’70’ and inscribed with title, artist’s name and date on reverse

Helmut Starcke settled in South Africa from Germany in 1958; he worked first in the publicity industry and then lectured at the Michaelis School of Fine Art from 1973 until his retirement. An exhibition of his recent work entitled The muse of history, exploring the themes of the Golden Age of Netherlandish art in relation to the contemporaneous Dutch colonisation of the Cape, was on display at the Old Town House in Cape Town until 3 April 2005.

His training in graphic design, and his strong interest in popular imagery, are evident in his choice of subject matter and compositions which often have decorative qualities. However, the beautifully painted surfaces tend to belie the symbolism of the objects. In this seminal work, Starcke applies the aesthetics of pop art to a sombre subject in South African history. In 1970 the UN declared South Africa to be illegally occupying South West Africa/Namibia, and in later years the Caprivi strip was the focus of a protracted bush war during the struggle for Namibian independence. This territory was used in the 1970s and 1980s as a rear base by the South African army in its war against Swapo (today’s governing South West Africa People’s Organisation), and as a support base for Unita, the Angolan rebel movement then backed by the Western powers in the proxy war against Angola’s Soviet and Cuban-backed government.

In this image a wildebeest is surmounted by a figure that is a composite of man and eagle. The wing of the eagle, perhaps a reference to the earlier German colonisation of Namibia, casts a shadow over the top part of the painting. The marking on the suit of the figure suggests it is a conspicuous target in a camouflaged landscape. Starcke’s treatment of the landscape incorporates op-art devices such as the ‘space frame’, a square within square, image within image, and the scattering of dots and dashes teases the eye; at the same time he recognises his strength as a figurative painter and reintroduces this element into his work. The painting is one of a series; Caprivi Strip #10 is illustrated in Esmé Berman, Art and artists of South Africa, Cape Town, 1983, p438.

© 2005 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.