Trained in England, but also a world traveler, Albert Newall created abstract compositions that drew inspiration from his imagination and from the natural phenomena he explored as a photographer – especially the craggy rock formations and shaded grottoes of the South African Cape. Newall’s painting, which shared ideological and stylistic affiliations with the German movements of Bauhaus and De Stijl, was among the first abstract art to be collected by the South African National Gallery. The works shown here represent two of his experiments with geometric abstraction. In Composition No. 3 (c. 1956) he was concerned exclusively with colors and forms based on a mathematical ordering; in Helmet Head (1956) he used abstract shapes to suggest three-dimensionality.
For Composition No. 3, Newall employed hard-edged geometry, arranging perfect rectangular forms in two rows, each with three bands of color. Each sector contains a smaller dark rectangle. Differing in size, color, proportion, and placement of these rectangles, the composition consists of six variations on a single geometric theme. For Helmet Head, by contrast, Newall painted abstracted shapes resembling a helmet, the dark forms reading visually as the shadowed interior. Less regular and formulaic than Composition No. 3, the image nonetheless maintains the intellectual formalism typical of rationalist art. When Newall’s abstractions drew critical derision, he retorted with a quote from the French fauvist and cubist painter Georges Braque: “In art there is only one thing of value – that which cannot be explained.”
Albert Newall was a British-born painter and photographer who settled in South Africa in 1947. He worked as an aerial photographer before and during World War II, and later commented that his work as an artist was inspired by that mode of viewing the world, as well as by his cave explorations. After early painting experiments with Cubist and Surrealist styles, he turned to hard-edge abstraction in the late 1950s. Newall was included in the exhibition South African Non-figurative Art at the Bienal de São Paulo in 1959. His photographs, like his paintings, reflect his interests in geometry, patterning, and shadow, recalling the compositional strategies of the so-called New Objectivity photographers of the early twentieth century. Newall’s work left a legacy to the people of South Africa: The photography collection at Iziko Museums of South Africa, Cape Town, was established in 1965, based on the gift of 135 prints by Newall from the Cape Tercentenary Foundation. Since Newall’s death, his work has been shown in three historical surveys of South African abstract painting mounted at Stellenbosch Modern and Contemporary (SMAC) Gallery, located in Stellenbosch and Cape Town.