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Alice Elahi in her prime

This article from Lantern - Journal for Knowledge and Culture Volume XXVI No 3 March - May 1977 is written by JOHAN VAN ROOYEN. It offers an insight into Alice's background and early career.

Undoubtedly Alice Elahi is in her prime: she paints with a conviction born of knowledge and with an eye that may be trusted. ‘Coming into one’s own’ may imply due recognition. For the artist, however, the reward, often after years of labour, is the arrival at an own and unmistakable identity, a wholly responsible point of view. This is the criterion which differentiates between mannerism and true style, between gimmick and authentic expression.

Talent, indispensible as it is, serves only as springboard. As the athlete’s performance depends on the perfect balance of his whole being, so, too, the artist’s exercise of his skills must become a fusion of his senses and mind. When this happens we discern the voice of authority. This is his liberation.

With the sizable exhibition of paintings in Pretoria in October last year, Alice Elahi came into her own. Representing the work of two years, the collection emphasized a considerable progress in her art. It may be said that she not only fulfilled her earlier promise as prize-winner for painting in the 1968 New Signatures competition, but convincingly demonstrated a much greater range than formerly anticipated for her. (Compare the delicate lyricism of Rietvlei with the passion of the tempest in Storm in the Harbour.)

The daughter of Mr and Mrs RS Brooke, Alice grew up in Rondebosch, Cape. Obsessed with art and an urge for self-expression since childhood, she received some lessons at the age of 14 from Florence Zerffi at the Rustenburg Girls’ High School, and, for a period, attended classes at the Frank Joubert Art Centre. Upon matriculation, however, she took a BSc degree in natural sciences at the University of Cape Town to prepare herself for a possible career with the family firm, Brookes-Lemos. But art remained for her the dominant extra-curricular activity. As the enthusiastic secretary of the University Art Society, Alice organized and mounted  exhibitions and was stimulated and enriched by these opportunities of meeting leading South African painters such as Le Roux Smith le Roux, Jean Welz, Alfred Krenz, and Gregoire (Boonzaaier). Only after graduation in 1948 was she free to develop her central interest and enrolled at the Continental School of Art, Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town, for a year’s tuition from Maurice van Essche. Irma Stern spotted the young student’s talent and encouraged her.  

Towards the end of 1949 Alice left for London to study painting at the Anglo-French Art Centre.  ‘I was interested in the craft of painting and to my idealistic eyes the school seemed to be more involved with gimmicks. It was the avant-garde that was stressed. Interesting enough, I suppose, but I wasn’t ready for it.’ Dissatisfied with her progress and the instruction at the centre, she simultaneously attended courses in stained glass techniques at the Central School of Art and subsequently sought further training in painting under Victor Pasmore at the Camberwell.

It was at the Hampstead School of Art that Alice found an atmosphere conducive to work. ‘It was run by the Hampstead Arts Council. Only about ten students. The fees were negligible. But twice a week the Polish expressionist, Zdzis Ruszkowski, would come to criticise his students’ efforts. He guided rather than taught, but he opened my eyes to colour. We shared a respect for the permanent values in painting. My admiration for him as an artist and man is boundless. He is still an inspiration. It was a most concentratedly rewarding and liberating period.’ Her teacher’s sheer love of paint, his bold use of impasto, his preference for simplified form based on sharp observation, still echo in Alice Elahi’s work. But there all correspondences end.

Studio painting from the nude was emphasized as central exercise technique at the school. Painting expeditions in the summer to the artists’ colonies of Cornwall made Alice aware for the first time of the challenge of the landscape. ‘It was so much like the Cape and yet so different. The meeting of land and sea fascinated me.’ With fellow student Mary Allum, Alice stayed on to paint at the Cornish village of Mousehole. During the first visit Ruszkowski was close at hand to criticize. ‘I had discovered so much to paint.’ Back in London Alice took part in the group shows of the Hampstead Art Society and was invited to join the Women’s International Art Club, a group with which she later exhibited regularly. In South Africa Alice Brooke was represented in the Van Riebeeck Tercentenary Exhibition.

In February 1952 a first solo show at I.D. Brooks in Cape Town celebrated a brief return home for her sister Viriginia’s wedding. With this first exhibition the young painter indicated the seriousness with which she approached her work. Dr Joseph Sacks wrote in Trek: ‘In her landscapes Miss Brooke tries to obtain perspective by colour rather than tone; but she rejects the sharply defined colour areas of Cezanne, preferring the more gradual merging of Bonnard. Avoiding backgrounds with the conventional horizon where perspective is almost a foregone conclusion, she trains the eye to look for recession in colour itself, thus making perspective much more exciting.’ He added: ‘She obviously enjoys her work intensely and she communicates some of her zest to the beholder.’

On seeing her most recent work one is struck, despite considerable changes in style, by the relevance this first review still has for her painting. We still find the same delight in colour, now applied with experienced sensitivity. There is still the avoidance of easy compositional solutions, often marked by a veering away from conventional horizons. Her approach to the problems of perspective has remained fresh and often surprising. Above all there is still present a spontaneous quality of marvel and a compelling intensity in the communication of her joy.

The summer of 1952 was again spent in Cornwall and in June 1953 Alice, with Mary Allum, undertook a painting holiday in the South of France. ‘I recall the fantastic dappled light at Cannes and the problems of capturing it. This acute awareness of light has remained with me.’

In May 1954 Alice married her Iranian husband, Mr Nassrollah Elahi, an irrigation engineer. With him she travelled to Greece, Turkey and Iran, finding each place of call a treasurehouse of references for her developing sensibility. With the birth of her daughter Roshana in 1955 Alice embarked on the additional career of motherhood. The challenge of domesticity was met with characteristic verve and thoroughness.

In March 1957 the Elahi family – now with two daughters – settled in Pretoria. About the local art scene of the period Alice recalls: ‘My own ideas were in such sharp contrast with what I found. Abstraction was having a heyday and my own search had taken me in a different direction. I did not belong in this circle and felt isolated. I had barely made friends with the Swedish painter, Nona Klerck, and her husband, Jan, when they, being in the diplomatic service, were sent to South America.’

For a good ten years Alice Elahi withdrew from active participation in matters of art while she attended to the needs of her growing family. But painting did not cease; it merely became a private area of escape. Annual visits with her family (at this time three daughters) to the Cape ensured that her inspiration was constantly refreshed. ‘It is with the sea that I feel the strongest affinity with nature. I need to see the sea regularly.’

Some figure compositions, landscapes, domestic interiors, still-life studies as well as portraits were drawn and painted during the period of apparent lull – ‘mainly for my own pleasure’. A strong linear quality dominates these works. ‘I buoyed my interest in art during these years by reading and studying current trends and I kept in touch with my painter friends in London. A drawn-out period of reflection, I suppose. 1959 saw a brief burst of serious painting, but my concentration became diffused again.’

It was only after the family’s move in 1965 to an old rambling house where Alice could spread, and especially after the birth of her youngest daughter in 1966, that the mould of reticence was broken. ‘In 1967 I felt I was working reasonably well. I also gave art instruction to a friend studying for her degree and briefly taught a bit of life-drawing to Anna Voster’s students. Then I competed in the New Signatures competition of 1968 and won the prize for painting. It gave my self-confidence a tremendous fillip. It was a necessary release.’

Surveying an own career calls for cool detachment. Alice Elahi possesses this rare discipline of self-confrontation. Few early works by her survive. ‘I destroyed a good deal. So much of what I had done I came to consider as inconsequential. In 1970 I learnt that my dear and talented companion, Mary Allum, was fatally ill. I had not seen her since I had left London 13 years previously. The shock of her death in mid-1971 literally brought me to a halt. I became aware of limited time and that it was no good just having dreams of being a painter; this ambition had to be made into a reality. A letter from a friend of Mary’s – a comparative stranger to me – verbalized my anxiety: ‘Let her death teach you one thing: make the most of your talents while you can.’ From the day I received that letter something drove me to put my whole-hearted efforts and enthusiasm into my painting. Technically it was like starting from scratch. I had lost my fluency; my paint application was silted and heavy. But I had matured as a person. This was no easy path I pursued. It meant hard work and determination and dedication. And I worked.’ Early in 1972 Martin Farmer invited Alice to exhibit at his new Village Gallery. His enthusiasm encouraged her and she eagerly accepted the challenge.

About Alice Elahi’s one-man exhibition at the Village Gallery in Pretoria in June 1972 Phyllis Konya wrote in the Pretoria News: (her) intense preoccupation with light and colour often becomes an ability to create a luminous glow at the heart of a landscape: the sun striking water, bathing the fruit trees in blossom, or surrounding a seaside cottage like a halo… Alice Elahi has come a long way since her success on the New Signatures exhibition four years ago.’ Public response confirmed the critics’ views and official recognition came with the purchase of works for the South African embassies’ official residences in Teheran, Tel Aviv, Washington D.C. and Munich. A harbour scene was bought for the Pretoria Art Museum.

In May 1974 Phyllis Konya reviewed Alice’s second exhibition in Pretoria (at the Bank Gallery):  ‘Alice Elahi is an artist whose work spells warmth and enthusiasm.  She responds whole-heartedly to the generous abundance of nature, whether it be at sea, in mountains, or in valleys... There is a considerable ebullience in her painting.’  A new and carefully selected collection was ready for viewing at the Bank Gallery of the Association of Arts in Pretoria in October 1976.  Alice Elahi had become a mature artist, a painter of authority. 

For her 1976 exposition Alice chose to limit her subject-matter to the landscape and the sea. She is engrossed by the problems of capturing the atmosphere of the fleeting moment: snow-covered trees in the gale, mountains in the mist, a lagoon, but above all the sea as embraced by harbour or bay.  Atmosphere is created by the quality of light, and it is the play of light on land and water that poses the central aesthetic problem she endeavours to solve - light as the source of colour. Alice works from reality because she finds the demands of nature the most stimulating. Pretty or easy solutions to the challenge are avoided. In the new works one is struck by a remarkable compositional ability. Angles of observation are chosen to emphasize the central aesthetic issues at stake, and obvious structural props are carefully underplayed. To the uninitiated the middleground of many of the new harbour scenes may appear devoid of interest. The background of the landscape, the harbour buildings, even the yachts themselves serve only as framework for the kaleidoscopic surface of the water. It is in this area that she seeks for the answers of colour balance, of harmony and contrast. Three sources of light are explored: the Sun, the Moon, and artificial illumination. The interaction of light and shadow and the natural effects of weather and atmosphere upon light are investigated. Romanticism is kept well under control. The challenge is made directly to the eye. 

The easy tags of -isms do not apply to Alice Elahi’s work. Her approach, so direct in its visual appeal, would necessarily incorporate elements of impressionism, while the remarkable emotional charge of the paintings would invest the deliberate distortion of the imagery with the quality of expressionism. The mature Elahi style is a personal vehicle for the experiences she wishes to share. 

Her development has led to an increasingly broader and freer application of paint. Brushwork is confident, energetic, and honest. She abhors slickness. She paints in pure oil pigment only, prefers to scrumble for opalescent depth of texture, and disdains the easy effects of turpentine dilution. In her most recent works the brush is less heavily loaded. She continues to favour a moderately large scale. Her sustained investigation of the quality of light has caused her to develop away from the more static and linear compositions of the past towards the subtle dynamics of the recent water studies.  Considering her working methods, one is impressed by the careful preparation and study that goes into the achievement of the apparently spontaneous impact of her oils which retain all the freshness of plein-air painting. Painted in the studio, these oils are the meticulous end-products of translation. A study in watercolour, executed on location, exists for every oil painting. Problems of colour, form, and space are accounted for and resolved before transposition takes place from one medium into the other.

Alice considers her watercolours as the most truly creative part of her work. ‘For me painting in watercolour, as an almost instantaneous medium, is the process of receiving and giving.’ But she discards literally dozens of works before she considers a watercolour of sufficient merit for translation into oil. ‘My watercolours and oils exist side by side, but to me oil is the final challenge. It is a difficult medium at which one has to work.  Sometimes I change my approach in transcription, or a different mood develops in me, and an oil works out in a different direction to that of the watercolour that preceded it or was its inspiration. To see a painting "shape" is an experience of joy.’

Alice is the pivot of the Elahi home in Waterkloof, Pretoria. With two daughters, Roshana and Shirin, at university, Nushin at high school, and 10-year-old Dorrieh to add to the vitality of the household, Alice depends heavily upon the patience and encouragement of a calm and intellectual husband.  Gregarious and committed, she is also deeply involved in the art affairs of the capital. A committee member of the Friends of the Pretoria Art Museum since 1972, she is serving a second term as vice- chairwoman of the association.  Sustaining a hectic social life, painting time, more often than not, means burning the midnight oil in her airy studio.

Alice Elahi has succeeded in creating an individual way of looking at her world. Being acquainted with her work one discovers her influence over one's own vision.  Suddenly one recognizes a typical Elahi scene and unexpectedly a familiar view is transformed: such is the authority of her work. As her first reviewer, Dr Sacks, remarked: ‘She trains the eye to look.’ 


Sacks, Dr Joseph in Trek for March 1952 

Konya, Phyllis in Pretoria News, June 1972 

Konya, Phyllis in Pretoria News, 2 May 1974 

Basson, Jenny in Press Release, 22 April 1974 

Personal interviews with the artist — April, May 1976, October 1976, and February 1977. 

Alice Elahi is represented in private collections throughout South Africa and at the South African Embassies in Teheran, Tel Aviv, Munich, and Washington DC (lMEl. She is represented in the collection of the Pretoria Art Museum and in the Pietersburg municipal collection. Her works are also found in private collections in Austria. Belgium, Japan, Israel, and the Argentine. 


Group shows of the Hampstead Art Society 1951, 1952, 1953 

Group shows of the international Women’s Art Society 1952, 1953.  1954

First solo exhibition March 1952.  l.D. Books, Cape Town

Represented in Van Riebeeck Tercentenary Collection 1952

New Signatures competition 1968, Bank Gallery, S A A A, Pretoria. 

Solo exhibition June 1972, Village Gallery, Pretoria 

Unisa Group Exhibition 1973, 1975 

Solo exhibition May 1974, Bank Gallery, S A A A, Pretoria

Solo exhibition October 1974, Gallery S, Nelspruit 

Solo exhibition October 1976, Bank Gallery, S A A A, Pretoria

Art S A Today, Durban 

Arniston exhibition, 1976, Pretoria 

Pretoria Artists, Cape Town, and Pretoria, 1976.         

© Estate Alice Elahi