The Bridge by Leonard French, Melbourne - by Marion Arnold
Extracts from Brenthurst Archives, vol. 1, no. 2,
Johannesburg: The Brenthurst Press, 1994, pp. 47-53.
French was thoroughly conversant with modern materials, working in enamels and tactile surfaces for murals, and mastering traditional processes such as stained glass. An artist for whom controlled design was the vehicle for ideas, he expressed himself primarily through strong colour and shape. By the time he received the commission for The Brenthurst Library, French had established a distinctive relationship between form and content, favouring a stylized schema of representation married to themes where opposing forces were distributed in conceptual and visual tension. Leonard French visited South Africa in 1982. The Bridge was generated by his travels and observations at a time when attempts were being made to restructure rather than dismantle the apartheid edifice.
French travelled widely throughout South Africa but The Bridge is not based on a particular place or event and it offers no direct social comment. 'When I flew to South Africa', he observed, 'I was just ready to relax into the landscape . . . But I was only there for about eight hours before I realized that South Africa was about people. The landscape disappeared'. The Bridge is about people. Simplified into references to land, water and sky, the landscape constitutes the background against which a human drama is represented. The subject is a synthesis of contradictory and complex sense-experiences, encounters with people from all sectors of the community, and information about South Africa. The assimilated sources are transformed into an image that explores the tension between opposing forces and the literal and metaphorical implications of the concept, 'bridge'. A bridge is a physical structure erected to afford safe passage over a barrier and its presence directs human beings along a specific route. It may also be a transitional phase connecting two conditions and in this sense it is a very apt metaphor for the situation in which South Africa found itself as the architects of apartheid attempted to plan new social routes. Since a bridge facilitates movement and manifests human skill at overcoming impediments, its collapse initiates chaos, signifies human fallibility and implies the failure of a system. French depicts a bridge that arches across his entire format and is torn asunder in the centre.
French poses his interpretation of the human condition in South Africa in symbolic terms, avoiding the particularization that is generated by naturalistic detail. The multitudes that crowd the bridge are mechanized forms, people reduced to automata with heads resembling cannon mouths. Accompanied by weapons, wagons and crosses, the crowd cannot be identified ethnically or historically. The imagery itself is universalized; conflict and disaster are posed in general terms and the situation depicted related to South Africa only when a non-formal reading of the imagery admits the relevance of the socio-political South African situation to the interpretation.
French saw South Africa with a sensibility already fascinated by the theme of struggle. He had earlier explored themes which embodied spiritual struggle, such as his series on Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion, and he was interested in the drama of Byzantine icons with their restrained forms and brilliant colour. Whereas he had previously sought subjects from literature, in South Africa he found a contemporary human drama being enacted, something which he accommodated within his art-making practice and personal style. The figures in the mural could as easily be members of a medieval procession, or refugees in war-torn Europe, as representative of an apartheid society. In their frozen stillness they are reminiscent of the early Renaissance armies in Paolo Uccello's series on the battle of San Romano.
The South African connotations of The Bridge are created on two levels; by the metaphorical implications of the formal language and by the fact that the mural was commissioned for an Africana library; a place that conserves documents recording southern African history and accords value to the scholarship that connects past with present. Thus a particular historicism is encoded in the mural through contextualization in The Brenthurst Library.
The dominant visual metaphor in The Bridge is that of containment, established by the bridge as a structural container and by its separate bolted units which frame and contain sections of the human procession. Each portion of the procession is a repetition and variation of its predecessor. In some units, transport vehicles dominate, while others feature cannons and guns. Around the weaponry throng the depersonalized hordes, killing-machines with cannon heads, unrelated to any identifiable faction of ideological position by collectively capable of violence.
Symbolically the bridge structure is also a container. It is formed by wooden units, irregularly shaped crosses which denote the controlling power of church doctrine. Some figures carry crosses, reinforcing the reference to Christianity and its emotive force within society, something which French must have observed in Nationalist government debates about apartheid.
Placed against a gold background, the central, shattered area of the bridge contrasts strongly with the moody dark-blue sky. French, with his past interest in medieval Christian imagery and illuminated manuscripts, uses a convention favoured by pre-Renaissance artists to focus attention on significant narrative. In his narrative the break in the bridge is the key to his meaning. Topped by flames, the bridge is broken by an organic black form that plunges vertically through the format. Quite literally, 'Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold'.2 Tearing the opposing forces apart and breaking the structure, the black form is - in the context of the South African situation - a forceful reminder of black power.
By electing not to depict the oppression of apartheid directly, and by choosing not to divide opposing forces into black and white, French creates an image which explores the phenomenon of brutality. Unlike Goya's The Third of May 1808 or Picasso's Guernica,3 French's image is not motivated by a specific incident and does not pose victim against oppressor. It uses the artifice of image construction and the intentionality of planned design to remove art from life. But, with its central black strip as the focal point, French draws attention to separation and division as the issues defining South African society of the early 1980s.
- Uccello (1397-1475) painted three versions of this battle scene and they are today housed in the Louvre in Paris, The National Gallery in London, and the Uffizi in Florence.
- W.B. Yeats, 'The second coming', in Michael Roberts, ed., The Faber Book of Modern Verse (London, 1965), p.58.
- Goya (1746-1828) painted The Third of May 1808 in 1814 in response to the execution of Spanish guerrillas by French troops during the war against Napoleonic France. Picasso (1881-1973) produced Guernica in 1937 as an indictment of the bombing of the basque town of Guernica by fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War.