At the cutting edge: Cecil Skotnes as printmaker

Text by Pippa Skotnes

Some of my clearest memories as a child are those of the sounds and smells that were part of my home in Observatory, Johannesburg. For many years, my father’s studio was a room in the back of the house, a room just adjacent to the kitchen. My mother was (and still is) an adventurous and consummate cook and the mingled aromas of cooking foods, the pungent smells of oil, ink and turpentine and the rasping sound of metal cutting through wood, were as much a part of the experience of growing up as were the artists and characters that peopled my parents’ world and frequently visited their dinner table.

My paternal grandparents were Salvation Army officers, and their visits were accompanied by a certain austerity and decorum. When we went away on holidays, and they were left in charge of the house, the African sculptures would be clothed in paper skirts and tops, redeeming them from their nakedness. But at the same time, theirs and the visits of clerics of various denominations (since my father completed many commissions in churches) were alternated with the visits of diviners, who threw the bones on a nineteenth-century Afshar, students from the Polly Street Art Centre, artists, both young (looking for advice and criticism); and peers of my father’s such as Larry Scully, Aileen Lipkin, Sydney Kumalo, Gordon Vorster (with whom Cecil once shared a studio in the Roma Hotel in Johannesburg which was later taken over by Herman Charles Bosman) sharing their ideas. There were also visits by musicians such as Khabi Mngoma, actors such as Anthony Quinn, and political activists who were members of the Liberal Party or the South African Communist Party, or the ANC.

Our home was richly stocked with books and objects. My father’s capacious generosity and my mother’s bountiful hospitality produced many warm and endearing friendships. These, and the barter of art for objects and services with those who liked my father’s work, were the keys to filling the house with interesting people and the rooms with an eclectic mix of artefacts, from Japanese prints and Persian carpets, to West African sculpture and Greek pots; and to filling the cellar with wine.

The image I remember most clearly from my early childhood (he made this for me for my third Christmas) was a large cat, roughly cut in wood and printed by hand with the back of a spoon on fine rice paper, which hung on my bedroom wall. It was apparently a portrait of a friend’s one-eyed cat, which hunted for its dinner and gave its name to my own, more gentle pet, Kotchka.

Part of the pleasure for me of having a father who worked at home, was participating in his daily activities. Watching him make prints was a process which seemed to me to be deeply rooted in some kind of magic. It is a process familiar to generations of printmakers in which an operation performed on one surface such as a block of wood or plate would, through a series of procedures, produce a result quite different, often quite unexpected on another, such as a sheet of paper. It was very much like initiating a relationship with something not quite inanimate that would participate equally in the final product. There is a pleasure in the fact that the medium itself plays a role in determining the result. Every proof contains a surprise element, something comes out subtly different from what was expected. Thus the process of making an image is contingent, and being contingent, open to experiment and serendipity. If it is true that parents encourage their children to enter their own professions, then my choice of a career as a printmaker had little to with coercion and much more to do with the wonder of a process which seemed at once so mysterious, and so rooted in my everyday reality.

But the making of prints was not the first choice of medium for my father, who began his artistic career as a painter. It seemed that there was never any doubt in his mind that art was the vocation he would make his life, but at the time making prints was a relatively obscure choice for a visual artist. His studies at the University of the Witwatersrand never included printmaking, which was not even offered as a subject at the time.

It seems that the significant moment in his early career was in 1954 when he met Egon Guenther, a meticulous, skilled and creative goldsmith. At the time, he was the director of the Polly Street Art Centre, and painting mostly landscapes in oil and watercolour. Guenther was an art collector, and he introduced the young artist to the work of Willi Baumeister and Rudolf Scharpf. At his suggestion, and with the gift of a set of wood engraving tools, Cecil abandoned painting and began to cut an artistic identity for himself in wood.

The early woodcuts were of landscapes. This theme was one of the first that he worked with, and has been an enduring one ever since. In part, the contrast thrown up by a period of time in Europe in the forties, and then the early fifties, gave Cecil an insight into the local environment and its unique and special qualities of light and space and colour. But the roots of his knowledge and love of the landscape go back even further.

As a young teenager Cecil used to visit a friend at a school for the training of Salvation Army Officers in Orlando outside Johannesburg. Just where the main road entered Orlando ran a river and vlei that was pristine and clean and rich with fish. He and his friend would ride donkeys down to the streams and angle. Cecil remembers this as a rough landscape, inscribed and abstracted with traces of the past – an artesian well and stone ruins. And though his engagement with this place would not come to an end until he left Johannesburg in the 1980s, he returned from World War II to find the shape of this landscape had altered forever, and the first 100 000 people had been moved into what became known as Soweto.

The European battlefields, too, were to make an impression. Skotnes recalls the Apennines with their decimated buildings on the top of hills and the ruins of bombardment. He remembers the intense awareness of detail, watching one’s feet, reading the ground, looking out for mines. Again the landscape provided a striking contrast with that of his home. The colour and shape of the land were different, as was its experience of time and the past. In Europe history is, in one sense, permanently on display; in South Africa much, if not most, is hidden beneath the surface and in its form and geography, and natural resources. In Europe there was a closeness and a claustrophobia; here a sense of space, and an endless vista.

The attraction of woodcutting as a medium to explore the peculiar qualities of the South African landscape must, in part, have resided in its extreme formal and technical difference to oil painting, the traditional European technique used to render the landscape. It was not only an iconographical challenge for an artist who wanted to draw a distinction between the products of Europe and the products of Africa, but a formal one as well. Woodcutting offered Cecil the possibility of finding a new form for the symbolism he increasingly began to attach to a particularly local vision, without having to reject the rich European traditions which initially appealed to him in the landscapes of Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, Paul Cezanne and later Scharpf and Baumeister. It was undoubtedly initially through the medium of prints that Cecil was able to produce what later became described as work which had at its core ‘a spirit of Africa’. This is particularly significant if one notes that printmaking, which is now an almost universally accessible and characteristically southern African medium (lino cutting was introduced into Polly Street by Cecil in the early sixties), was with few exceptions unexploited anywhere in the country at the time.

Cecil’s first woodcuts were landscapes which played with spatial conventions. Derived from natural forms, they were at once penetrations and denials of deep space. As shapes and forms horizontally orientated they alluded to land, horizon and sky, and yet as graphic explorations of negative and positive contours, they become abstracted shapes on the surface of a sheet of paper, symbolic rather than narrative. This creative play and spatial tension was to become the hallmark of his later painted and incised panels.

These early prints were exhibited in his first solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Centre in 1957. At around the same time, works of his were also chosen to represent South Africa at the Sao Paolo and Venice Biennales, and over the next few years prints travelled with the Carpi Group to most European countries, as well as to various venues in North and South America.

An obvious source of influence for a printmaker was the period of German Expressionism when wood-cutting was at its most expressive. Though it was the work of Eduard Munch and Frans Masereel that Cecil found most compelling, it was the satirical prints of George Grosz that impressed the most. At one point in 1964 Cecil and Egon were offered a portfolio of 97 of Grosz’s hand-coloured etchings, then going for R1 500.00, but neither could find anyone to loan them the money to buy it, and it slipped through their fingers.

By the 1960s the potential of the block itself as the significant component of the image, rather than as a mere substrate for the print, began to prevail. Cecil slowly turned his attention to producing panels which were no longer intended to produce prints, but which were rather to be incised and painted as images in themselves. His interest in printmaking as a means to symbolic evocations of African form and landscape was replaced by an interest in its potential to reveal narrative through serialised imagery.

Once again, this use of printmaking was something of an innovation in South Africa. With the exception of people such as Walter Battiss and J H Pierneef, who made linocuts and the occasional woodcut, and Katrine Harries who was making lithographs, printmaking was an under-explored medium. No one was really exploring the potential of woodcutting and there was no tradition of making portfolios of prints. Cecil’s relationship with Egon Guenther must, in some sense, be seen as contributing to the technical expansion of his printmaking skills, and in many later projects Egon printed his blocks with the extraordinary skill of the master craftsperson that he was.

The first of Cecil’s narrative portfolios was The Assassination of Shaka, a collection of 43 colour woodblock prints, with an epic poem by Stephen Gray. As a print portfolio the production was an epic in itself. With an edition of 75 and multi-block and reduction woodcuts, the practical and technical considerations were considerable. The portfolio has its origins in a door, 1.25, made up of many small panels that Cecil made for his friends, Vittorino and Paolina Meneghelli. The Meneghellis hosted what can only be described as a banquet, held each Sunday lunch-time. A core of twelve or so friends came each week, but inevitably others arrived so that numbers swelled far beyond that. These Sundays were lively affairs. Vittorino is a great art lover, wonderfully generous, with a marvellous collection of African and European art, and his home was sumptuously crowded with objects. Three or four pointer dogs, who had often hunted for the Sunday venison, would lounge around on Persian camel bags, and debate was animated and heated. It was in this atmosphere that Cecil would bring, each week, a new panel or two to add to the door, and the story of Shaka, as it was being visualised, was revealed and discussed. Later Cecil met Stephen Gray, a poet, writer and academic, and invited him to work on the portfolio with him.

The idea of the portfolio was twofold. In the first place both Cecil and Stephen Gray were interested in repressed or neglected histories, and the book, Shaka Zulu by E A Ritter, offered the first popular interpretation of a history which had only been generally available as caricatured propaganda for the benefit of South African schoolchildren. In the second, the idea was to produce a portfolio in which the images and the text would be related, but independent. As such, the portfolio was a serious challenge to the traditional understanding (at least within South Africa) of the serialised print as illustration. Other portfolios were to follow. In many cases, these were technically and iconographically complex involving many blocks and the layering of multiple transparent colours. Cecil also made editions of single prints, one of which was to win the gold medal at the Third International Exhibition in Florence in 1972 and another was to be included in an international portfolio to honour Nobel prize winners.

He also made various series of engravings on boxwood end-grained blocks. These were typically landscapes or figure compositions usually printed in small editions and intended for more intimate publications such as Pilgrimage to Dias Cross (published 1988) with Guy Butler or Die Rooinek (published 1981).

In the eighties and nineties with the move to Cape Town and a focus on painting, Cecil has made fewer prints, but concentrated his narrative explorations in drawings and mixed media works on paper. These drawings have been generally concerned with aspects of South Africa’s political history and, more particularly, with a personal encounter with that history. They play with ideas of control and captivity in a satirical way, foregrounding a variety of local characters, both those held captive by the hand of barbarism, and those who struggled to free themselves from that grasp. In one sense they recall the spirit of the medieval carnival where folly and its bed-partner madness were employed to undermine power structures and poke fun at the evil in society.

One such exploration was titled The Island and comprised a series of drawings with watercoloured components. These probed some of the many stories of Robben Island and its history, which included such details as the visit of Baudelaire, the story of Makana, and its identity as a place of exclusion and punishment which has placed it at the symbolic heart of our new South Africa.

In these drawings the threads that make up the complex weave of Cecil’s creative production can be traced back to their multiple origins and the symbols that have become personally significant. They contain scenes of crucifixion which, apart from their obvious associations, are resonant of other things, for example, the paranoia of the State which instigated the famous Blasphemy Trial of 1963 when Cecil, as an expert witness, defended the artist Harold Rubin against a charge of blasphemy after his exhibition of drawings called My Jesus opened in Johannesburg. They also contain landscape components, often bleak and ravaged, like the landscapes of war-torn Europe, but made omnipresent as symbols of exploitation and violation. And they contain references to the feast – an allusion to a community of friends and of shared good fortune, but which in these works become the feast of sacrifice – an inversion of the generous bounty that characterised both the Meneghelli’s, and my mother’s dinner tables.

Skotnes, Pippa. 1996. At the Cutting Edge: Cecil Skotnes as Printmaker. In Harmsen, F. (ed.). Cecil Skotnes. Cape Town: South African Breweries. 83–90.