In Florence he saw M.Angelo’s David
naked in the square and more or less
decided then and there
to follow this precarious career.
Scarce twenty then – look now!
Full forty summers fled away
have brought him this one dreaded day.
Three score and still he’s in full spate.
Some fear he’s heading now
For eighty-eight. Or more.
Then bended o’er his panels with his knife
he may look heavenward and pray:
I’ve had good friends, good wine, good wife.
Indeed, I’ve naught but thanks to offer
for my life.
These are the closing stanzas from a poem by James Ambrose Brown, in the form of a parody of Pope parodying Horace, on the occasion of Cecil Skotnes’ sixtieth birthday in 1986.1
Ten years on they continue to resonate. At seventy Skotnes is still in full creative spate. The ‘precarious career’ – that of a professional artist – which he elected to follow has brought him the kind of acclaim that has been given to few South African artists in their lifetime. His influence on the development of an indigenous black art in this country has been widely recognised and is detailed elsewhere in this publication. Other specialised areas of his prodigious contribution are similarly dealt with.
My purpose in this essay is not to write an academic study with its associated intellectual fretwork and historical scrimshaw. My vantage point is of a more personal kind – of one who has enjoyed a friendship with Skotnes extending over thirty years; who has talked with him about art, and other matters; and who has listened with admiration to Skotnes as master raconteur.
What I would like to do here is to offer some thoughts on some of the conceptual and formal strands that bind the artist’s work over a wide range of media.
In July 1995 I recorded a conversation with Skotnes, with his willing participation. I had originally thought to use it only as a point of reference, but after reading a transcript it seemed to me worthwhile to retain it in its original form, in the hope that the reader might get something of the sense of Skotnes in his own words, responding very directly to statements and questions. It is reproduced below, with minimal editing.
Talking to Skotnes
Neville Dubow: There seems to be a synchronicity in our talking together at this point, an appropriate turn of the wheel. Going through your books of press cuttings I found a review I wrote of your exhibition at the University of Stellenbosch Art Gallery, in 1970 (Cape Times, 3 October 1970). In that review I pointed to the need for the South African National Gallery to have a full scale retrospective of your work. So, here we are, 25 years on, and the exhibition is finally about to happen.
Let me remind you of a few of the points I made. I would be interested to see how you respond to them now. After discussing the evolution of your carved wood panels from printing blocks into low relief carvings in their own right, I suggested that your work at that stage adhered closely to a basic anthropomorphism; that while its character was linear, graphic rather than painterly, its plasticity was ‘of the order of the cut and thrust’.
I then made what, at that time, was a mildly heretical observation about the Skotnes image. Let me remind you:
The other component establishing the Skotnes image is its African associations. This is almost too much of a truism to be worth mentioning but, as it is liable to mis-statements and misunderstanding, there is some purpose in making a basic point about it. Obviously Skotnes has been influenced by African precedent. As a person he is extremely aware of the artistic resources of the indigenous peoples of the subcontinent. His past work as the director of the Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg, when a generation of urban Africans were given their first opportunity for serious tuition, is proof enough of that. And there can be little doubt that the teacher-pupil relationship has some reciprocity about it. But it would be wrong to over-stress the ‘African’ content of all of his work. Obviously it is there in his more literal work like the colour portfolio done for the Egon Guenther Gallery [Images, 1969]. But in his more intellectually astringent studies (and here I refer to certain black and white series and particularly the carved blocks dealing with the landscape) there are design principles evident which are almost universally applicable to any linear system of so-called ‘primitive’ expression. In other words there is as much of the aboriginal Australian bark painting about them as any African example. They are in fact the product of a very skilful designer who is heir to a wide spectrum of precedent. What makes them succeed or fail has to do with their purely formal relationship with open to closed form, positive to negative spaces, solid blacks to ribbed striations. And almost invariably they succeed. Their author’s design intuition is very powerful indeed.
That was written 25 years ago. Would you agree that the observation about the supposedly ‘African influence’ holds true?
Cecil Skotnes: Yes, I think it does. In fact I never concocted the idea of the African mask at all. It was very simply fortuitous in the very early woodcuts to be on show here where I met Guenther.2 He was a very interesting man to have met at that stage. I met him in Johannesburg and walked up to his little workshop in a building nearby and on the walls was a big Willi Baumeister.3 I had never heard of Willi Baumeister before and I think most people hadn’t before the Nazi regime, because he was one of the banned artists. And then he (Guenther) made a statement which came out of the blue after seeing some of my paintings and I cancelled an exhibition on his suggestion. ‘Suggestion’ may be a slight word because he is very Germanic in his abruptness, but it seemed right to me to cancel it. And then I saw a series of woodcuts by a young German artist by the name of Rudolph Scharpf4 who used to exhibit in Guenther’s little gallery – and they were astonishing things, small black and white things. I think he only worked in black and white and just thinking forward as I recall this, I swallowed up his technique almost wholesale and the very early work looked very Scharpf. I passed those on to the lino-cut makers in this country … The old man, Scharpf, is now in his eighties, I should imagine. He is still alive, I know, and I must somehow find him to tell him what he let loose in the country. Because every time I go to one of these exhibitions I say to myself, ‘Rudi Scharpf, you are very well represented here’. But that is the process. I recall that I went down to Swaziland at about that time and I made the first black and white woodcuts of landscapes, and everything became two-dimensional. And, as you referred to those striations, the design elements which were growing within me, took on anthropomorphic shapes and I isolated those shapes and made them bigger.
ND: What year are we speaking about?
CS: 1956-1959. For those few years I did nothing but black and white woodcuts and at the end of those years I actually began to colour the blocks already, after the woodcuts had been taken, but that is another story. The whole mask idea – I don’t even know how that came about, but the similarities were there, obviously. I made one woodcut which I found a copy of, a wicker chair. The chair, which on its own was bent bamboo with the struts holding it together, became a head: so the head rather than the mask. I never used the term mask, until someone put it into my head. But they were heads, and even in a recent series of landscapes you will find that sort of thing. But now of course they are built into it. So you are right …
ND: On the theme of the landscapes – let me take you back to 1979. As you will recall, we organized a big art conference at the University of Cape Town on the theme of ‘The State of Art in South Africa’ which at the time was a watershed event in that it was the first time that artists across a broad range of disciplines discussed artmaking in the context of socio-political realities.5 You were one of the key speakers. You gave a paper called The Problem of Ethnicity, I think it would be interesting to look back to 1979 from the vantage point of 1995 and see where we stand now. You made some pertinent points, inter alia, this:
Our art, having grown up in a political system that is founded on standards incompatible with democratic morality, is mainly concerned with extending the influence of European and American styles and maintaining an interest in the South African landscape, both rural and urban. The political and human environment which plays so important a role in our lives is scarcely touched on, and even when important influences are employed – influences which have the origins in similar social situations, they tend to be used as a style without reference to the spirit behind the style, or they merely become a sort of universal extension and the result is likely to be a diluted rendering.
Later in your paper you referred to the landscape in these terms:
The great human drama being enacted now is almost entirely ignored. White contribution, which is the major force in South African art, remains without local roots. Only the landscape can be seen as a symbol of South African visual expression, and that is hardly sufficient as a commendation as we enter the ‘White Tribe’ era. What of the black man? We should logically concede that the weight of our artistic future will rest on his broad shoulders particularly as he is destined to dominate politically and socially. His vast numerical superiority and rapidly gathering strength in every field, and the fact that he has an indigenous heritage, would seem to fit admirably into the role of the future artistic force.
Events have proved your prescience in that respect. But I want to follow up on your reference to the landscape. We know that there has been a renewed interest in the question of the approach to the landscape. Much of this has centred round the reading of the landscape. In the current discourse this has assumed an ideological dimension which often sheds more light on those who are doing the reading than the motives of the artists who originally recorded the landscape. That’s a debate that would be inappropriate to pursue here. But as far as your handling of the landscape is concerned, it seems to me that you are not an artist who is ruled by ideology.
ND: Would it be fair to say that you are a pragmatist, that you find elements of the landscape that you can use and by this process you are led on to other things; and they, in turn, reveal other directions that you are able to enter and use?
ND: But having said this, it is still true to say that the concept of landscape can have many meanings. Let me mention some of these. One may think of inner landscapes and of outer landscapes, of landscapes of the senses and of landscapes of the mind – that which you see and remember, and that which you recollect and reconstruct. There are physical landscapes and metaphysical ones. Now, though this applies to artists generally, I think that in a very special way it applies to you in the sense that you have always been painting a kind of metaphysical landscape. A landscape where certain things connect and where different orders of forces come together. If I may put it in these terms, what you are involved with are poetic restructurings of mental landscapes that you have drawn upon from your own memory and from your own experience. To an extent you are a searcher, but more importantly, you are also a finder. You are not an agoniser.
ND: You seem to have a very sure sense of what there is out there that you can use. By seizing this, you are able to command a view that leads to other forms of landscapes. What I would like to suggest is that the ways in which you use the landscape are part of a process which connects experience with memory; one can regard them as planes of intersection between the landscape seen, the landscape remembered, and the landscape reconstructed. The physical world and the metaphysical are able to meet. Would you say that this makes sense?
CS: Yes, absolutely. In fact it applies to the last series of landscapes in homage to Harald Pager6 – the landscape exhibition where I did the Brandberg series. I had only had a brief experience of the Brandberg back in 1968. But the point you made fits exactly. And those images that worked well, combined all those things. The others at a certain stage, say 50% of them, became technical exercises, and one was expected to be able to pull off a technical exercise readily so they wouldn’t fail as pictures. But the more intense ones, where they fitted that thought process you referred to, were the most successful. That was for me quite a successful exhibition as such.
ND: In making the points I did, it was the Brandberg landscapes that I specifically had in mind. There are further themes that I would like to pursue. The major theme is the special quality of your role as an artist in the South African context. For many reasons this has been a unique one and I don’t want to have to go over material which I know that other contributors to the catalogue are going to handle. But I want to explore something which perhaps has not been touched on and that is the notion of artist as professional maker, the notion of artist as craftsman. In your work you have covered an enormously wide spectrum. You started off by training as a painter. You then went into woodcuts; out of the woodcuts came your carved wooden panels, a process which has been well documented. You have worked on a large scale, you have worked on a small scale. You’ve done book illustrations, you’ve worked with writers such as Stephen Gray [The Assasination of Shaka, The White Monday disaster, Baudelaire’s voyage, Ten landscapes and Man’s gold]. You conceived the whole idea of the ‘Shaka’ series where words and images came together and reinforced each other.7 You have rediscovered yourself as a painter in your Cape Town years. But you’ve also designed utilitarian objects from postage stamps to wine labels. You have recently done the striking cover illustration for Alistair Sparks’ book on our negotiated revolution, Tomorrow is Another Country. Obviously some of these projects are more significant than others. But there seems to be no hierarchy in the sense that certain things are seen as grander projects and other projects are seen to be of less value, and therefore to be turned down. This, to me, is bound up with the sense – I have felt this strongly over all the years that I have known you – that you are the supreme pragmatist; that you practise the art of what is possible, what is feasible, what is artistically viable; and in doing so you have a very sure sense of what you are drawing from, and where you are looking to. We talked earlier of how the act of finding becomes self-generating: how the act of finding one series of things leads you on to further areas of experience which you then employ in other media.
Perhaps we could explore the role that you have played in South Africa as one of the few artists who has been able to exist entirely as a professional outside of academia. We know that, even after your Polly Street days, from time to time you have taught. But the over-riding fact is that you are one of the very few artists who have been able to make a notably successful career for yourself as a professional maker of objects. Could I have your thoughts on that?
CS: Yes. I have done nothing else but make art seriously. My education was such that prior to going to university, and even at university in the years that I was there, the direction was changing. There was a flexibility in allowing ex-servicemen to get away with murder – I am talking academic murder. Some of the papers I dished up were horrific in terms of spelling. Under normal circumstances I don’t think I would have made second year on the preliminary education I had leading up to going to university. Pragmatism was already there. I had been a young soldier. I had decided very early in life that being an artist was what I wanted to do. So, everything was pointed in that direction. So when they offered me money to go to university, I took it. They (the authorities) felt that with ex-servicemen students, particularly Fine Art students, the standard of the university wouldn’t have to be entailed in what they did. The art school was there, as part of the architectural department. Earlier, – to appease my parents – I had tried other things. At one stage I actually went into a drawing office in a machine shop. I suppose I got something out of it. I learnt how to read a plan; I learnt about millimetres and stuff like that long before it got out of the machine shop stage in this country. Beyond that I was pretty hopeless at it, and in fact couldn’t wait to get out and go to war. Which I did.
Once it became clear that it would be possible to be a professional artist I never doubted that that was what I would be. And I did pursue, to use a corny phrase, ‘excellence’ in a technical handling of both my thoughts and how to draw, for want of a better term. And of course the five months after the war in Florence was a good starting point because one was looking at the High Renaissance. So I had a good dosing of that, and I came back with that at the back of my mind and realised that if I was going to do anything in the field I would simply have to be a ‘technical maestro’. I never worried about how this would come about, I just pursued it from day to day. If I couldn’t get on top of something I abandoned it, in other words it seemed a waste of time to me to attempt to do things that were beyond my reach. I was lucky to have had gods like Braque very early on. There was Cezanne of course, and the black pictures of Goya. None of those things are far away from meeting Guenther and starting to make woodcuts. I already had a skill for that, I understood that too. So I exploited those things – something like that is the basis.
ND: Let us change tack slightly. You came to live in the Cape around 1978. I can recall something that you said to me quite soon after your move down here which went along the lines of– ‘Look, Cape Town is where you live. Jo’burg is where you sell your work’. Which in itself is not a bad example of your pragmatism.
I want to explore what living in Cape Town has meant to you. In Cape Town you have, to a great extent, rediscovered, some might say, reinvented yourself as painter. Much of what what was perceived as mannerism in your wooden panels you seem to have freed yourself from. Yet there is a clear link in the structure, the architecture, of your carved panels with that of your recent paintings. The work has matured yet there are still signs of an earlier self, perhaps even a primal self. Though the themes you tackle are of a serious kind, there is an optimism in the work, a rediscovered certainty of touch. The simple joy – not a term one has call to use all that often – in the act of painting seems to have surfaced. And that is reflected in the way those surfaces glow in their colour and tonal range. Has the quality of the Cape light got something to do with it?
CS: Yes. I think that first of all, on the technical side of things, the light here is a vastly different proposition. There is much more illumination I suppose, it’s like looking at Turner or Constable. In the starkness of a midday in the Transvaal Highveld the colour gets washed out. That’s a good place to make stark things and to cut it all into wood. Down here the first few pictures I made, thirty to forty little pictures which I called Passage through an alien land were shown at the Wolpe Gallery, 6.5. The discovery of colour and painting started there, and there was a justification for it. Somehow or other, once I got on to the woodcut, then the woodblock – that sort of world – I realised that I had to extricate myself from it at a certain point. I didn’t care about being repetitive. I cannot find anything in any artist in the whole history of the world that didn’t become repetitive. But everything such as human relationships, people that one loves dearly but has to get away from, your peers at college or pre-college days who became your patrons (mainly because they went into professions that were more lucrative) have the expectation that one should continue to do what one did. And when I realised this it took me two or three years to come to terms with it and come to the Cape. Here all of a sudden I was freed from all those beautiful people and their thought processes and I could make pictures again, I could paint. And then slowly, once I had made a whole series of pictures, I suppose a hundred, I began to reintroduce the things that built the technique of block-making and I could begin to combine the two. That’s the stage I am at now. So sure, it was a deliberate move, a little tentative, but having sold the house up there, there was no way one could stay. So Thelma8 and I came down. It was much tougher for Thelma, of course, as she had to find, not new friends, because she knew a lot down here, but she had to find a new way. I just had to have a room to start working. In many ways there was a sort of a brutality about it I suppose, but then woodcuts are pretty brutal.
ND: To come back to what we were talking about in terms of that 1979 art conference: A few years earlier, you wrote an article in the Rand Daily Mail (3 November 1976) where you criticised the lack of depth and authenticity in the visual arts in South Africa.
You commented on the ‘singular lack of guts’ in South African art: ‘Since the high days of the little Bushman who set down a complete document of his lifestyle, no school of art or period has ever attempted to come to terms with what we call South African’. You went on to note that
South Africa is at present embroiled in a classical revolutionary situation and that the stimulation arising from the situation should affect all elements of the creative society and in particular the artist… In South Africa there is a small bright light pointing in the direction we must travel. The main artistic contribution of that direction has been made by our writers. They have written without fear and sometimes to great personal discomfort, from Plaatjies, Gordimer and Fugard. From Eglington to Gray, the accent has always been man and his living in our sun-kissed land. Not so in painting and sculpture.
You went on to say that
through limited confrontation between a few artists and the reality of our time some anger has resulted, but here again it is the writer who has led …
The key to a meaningful art that will recall our time lies in the spirit of the artist in his humility and in his intellectual honesty and if the times have little influence on an artist’s work, especially such momentous times, he should seek a new profession.
This was a theme that was echoed in several of the papers given at the ‘State of Art Conference’ three years later in 1979. The gap between what had been achieved by writers, and the comparative failure on the part of visual artists to find a way in which to make social criticism effective, was commented on by more than one speaker.
In the decade of the eighties we did see much more of a coherent articulation of social criticism in the arts. Documentary photographers, by the very nature of the explicitness of their medium, played a significant role here. For painters and sculptors, for artists working in metaphor, rather than in manifestos, the issues – finding a communicable language – were more complex. Nevertheless there were some significant statements made in the so called ‘struggle’ decades.
The situation we find ourselves in now is radically altered. The miracle has happened and we are still experiencing the revolution. Five years ago who could have possibly written, or even envisaged the scenario that we find ourselves faced with now?
The question is: How do artists respond to that change? How do they handle it? The enemy is less clearly defined now. There are no more clear-cut distinctions between the good guys and the bad – no clear distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Now that the so-called protest era is over, how do artists maintain their critical role, which I would characterise as saying ‘No’ where the answer has to be ‘No’, and affirming that which needs to be affirmed?
CS: I believe that the individualism of artists is probably the most important factor now. And I say this because in the last few years prior to what has happened, the great amount, almost glut, of protest art which was filled with marvellous images, had examples where quality took a back seat. In other words the intellectual part of making pictures was ditched because the objectives were so readily seen. So the vast majority of protest that took place, particularly among black artists, saw the numbers swelling enormously and the images were right on the ball. We saw several major exhibitions filled with – I can’t think of a better term – protest against a system, and this reached a high point. And all of a sudden the foundation has been pulled away because what they were protesting against seemed rapidly to disappear. So you had to find a new way, and sometimes the finding of a new way means that you have to revert to the individual operating his own intellect, or his own creative powers, or his own skills to, as you say, make your protest none the less more powerful – or your agreement. In other words it is the job of serious art throughout the ages to spell out its time and place. It is easier to spell out the wrongs. And when someone walks in and changes all that, you are lost for a time. And what we see now in this country is certainly a huge demand for skill to portray, to become an effective force against the things that you need to be against. Am I making myself clear?
ND: I understand what you are saying. One hears the new catch-phrases of the day used quite often, like ‘rainbow nation’ and ‘nation-building’. It seems to me that it is reasonable to argue that artists have a crucial role to play here.
CS: Yes. Agreed.
ND: But as far as the visual arts are concerned it seems to me equally true that there is a danger of artists being somehow conscripted, either by peer group pressure or by other kinds of pressure, to come up with a forced form of South African identity before we have clearly established what that identity actually is. It seems to me that, now more than ever before, it is crucially important for artists to work, not from some vague universal to the particular, but rather in the reverse order. In other words, to explore and to celebrate particularity. And if indeed there is any common strand that binds us – your particularity to my particularity, to somebody else’s particularity – then this is the theme that can be extracted by the artist. And out of this, out of something which is absolutely rooted in a thorough and honest exploration of the particular, something larger might emerge. This would have to be mediated by an art form sufficiently skilful and sufficiently moving to really establish connections. Out of this might possibly come an art statement of which one could say: this is universal.
CS: Yes, I agree. I agree entirely. In fact very few artists in history, certainly in this century, have run a parallel for any length of time. They pursue their objectives, which might be similar in totally different ways. There are instances, I think particularly of the Braque/Picasso/Cubist period, where a picture is so similar it is almost impossible to detect differences over a few hundred pictures. But then separation of identity occurs. I think the individuality of the artist has become more and more important now. The problem of being drawn in, or being asked to, or being forced to become part of a systematic campaign for good or bad, whatever the reason might be, has always been with the artist; and there will be some who go along with it because it is easier. And there are others who just can’t possibly do that.
ND: This question of individualism is, I suppose, bound up with a personal view that constitutes a sort of binding strand that links all of an artist’s diverse activities. It shows up in what we call an artist’s style. I want to recall a little incident that we shared some years ago. We were staying at Alice Goldin’s9 house in Arniston and we went for an early morning walk on the beach. It was low tide and there was a shining expanse of white sand. You found a long piece of driftwood and, using this almost as an extension of your arm, you drew on the beach in the sand. You drew a horse and it was a Skotnes horse. You named it as such. I was particularly reminded of that going through the drawings you made for the Wolraad Woltemade series10 and there was that Arniston horse again. What is it, do you think, that makes an archetypal Skotnes horse? What is it that makes you make marks in a particular kind of way that come out and find their own individual expression in terms of whatever medium you happen to be using?
CS: I think you know the answer to that better than I do. Style, I suppose, whatever that is. It is wrapped up with everything inside, all the little influences that come together to make that term. What else can it be?
ND: There is a virtually untranslatable term for this in German: Gestalt. I suppose that in the end this is what we are talking about. It is a mixture, I guess, of a subconscious will to form and a conscious handling of materials. Whatever it is, I am very happy that there once was a Skotnes horse which was erased by the waves as the tide came in. Because, metaphorically, the horse is still there. And the horse is still running.
This puts me in mind of that celebratory poem by James Ambrose Brown on your sixtieth birthday. Granted it was a parody, but it seems to me that those last lines ‘Indeed I’ve naught but thanks to offer for my life’ remain absolutely true. You do appear to have had an extraordinarily charmed life. But equally, you’ve worked for it and earned it. Looking back on what has been a long and, by any standard, an extraordinarily fruitful career, as a maker of art – is there anything that you would have liked to have been changed? Is there anything that you would have liked to have done in a different way?
CS: I can’t think of a single thing. I think that up to now it’s been everything one would have expected to be able to do. In one’s youth you have certain trepidations when confronted by what you want to do and be, and you look up and you see things by very mature people in your field of art and you wonder. I think the only time I have paused is to just wonder, not so much as to whether I could do that, but how long it would take me to do it, and that I would be given enough years to pursue it. But I could never remember anything, at any time as far back as I can recall, that I wanted to be in any other sort of profession.
Artist as craftsman as maestro
Among the points that emerge from the conversation above is the significant remark by Skotnes to the effect that he realised the need at the start ‘to become a technical maestro’. Consider the word maestro. It is a term which is used easily enough for musicians, conductors and the like. But when we come to the visual arts it seems to roll less easily off the reticent Anglo-Saxon tongue, especially when we are talking of artists still with us. Its English equivalent is master. Characteristically we refer more often to ‘old masters’ than to modern.
What do we understand by this concept of master? In its narrow academic sense it signifies the holder of a specific degree originally conveying authority to teach in the university. In a general sense it conveys control and authority. In a still older sense, going back to medieval usage, it describes a workman who is in business on his own account, as distinct from a journeyman. In its art usage it implies an artist of distinguished skill, one who is regarded as a model of excellence.
All of these senses apply to Skotnes (who in fact holds an honorary master’s degree from the University of Cape Town, and honorary Ph.Ds from Rhodes and Witwatersrand Universities). But it is on the last two concepts that I wish to focus: the concepts of ‘distinguished skill’ and that of ‘a workman’, a craftsman, who is in business on his own account. In the context of how Skotnes has functioned as a practising professional, that is not an inaccurate description. To those who subscribe exclusively to the Romantic concept of visionary genius – ineffable, and therefore, by definition, indescribable – this might sound like faint praise. But in reality this is far from the case; Skotnes’ skill, his thorough and workmanlike professionalism, are among his greatest assets.
Since his pioneering work at Polly Street, he is one of the very few South African artists who has been able to follow the ‘precarious career’ without having to rely on teaching to sustain himself. As an artist Skotnes has his vision, a very strong one, but it is the vision of the possible, the feasible, the attainable, the realisable. He is the supreme pragmatist, a visionary pragmatist, if you like.
One of the contradictions of the post modern discourse, part of Po-Mo doublespeak, is the claim that boundaries between the arts and the crafts are supposed to have finally been broken down. In the South African National Gallery, for instance, one finds items in the Gallery Shop – headwork, wire sculpture, embroidered cloth – that are, to most eyes, virtually indistinguishable from similar items displayed in the Gallery halls. In terms of the powerful forces focussing on objects in the sanctifying space of the Gallery, these are read as art. The others, purchasable in a shop, are perceived as craft. So, even in institutions which seek to demonstrate that boundaries may be permeable, the hierarchies are still in place.
What Skotnes has been able to achieve in his work is a synthesis between art and craft, where each informs the other. One has only to watch him at work making his own hand-crafted frames, hammering in brass pins to the copper plates that he chooses to surround and frame his paintings, to realise that this is an extension of his craftmanship in carving wood panels, or making a print from a woodblock with the aid of an old silver spoon. There is a Latin tag, Homo Faber – Man the Maker. Applied to Skotnes this seems to me to be highly apposite.
Another light, another landscape
Skotnes left Johannesburg, with his wife Thelma, to settle in Cape Town in 1978. Undoubtedly the most significant aspects of this move to another landscape, another kind of light, was Skotnes’ rediscovery or re-invention of himself as painter.
In this, as in other areas of his work, I would suggest that the metaphor of landscape is the unifying theme that links and provides the binding strand. The key here is in the concept of landscape in its broadest sense, of the landscape of the mind, of an artist’s mindscape, and above all, of the link between landscape and memory. Of the many writers who have considered this connection, no one has done so more eloquently than Simon Schama:
For although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible. Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.
Landscape and Memory
All of Skotnes’ work may be seen in these terms, as built from strata of memory, either from real experience or imagined experience; as landscapes of the mind, at a point where the physical and metaphysical intersect. Physically, in material terms, his carved panels are landscapes of a kind, with their own ridges and peaks, valleys and plains. The colour that he once rubbed into the wood blocks has literally resurfaced in his paintings. But if you analyse these you find that they, too, are layered, literally and metaphorically. They have their own archaeology. It is an archaeology of association.
The paintings of the Brandberg Wall series are on one level a homage to a pioneer field recorder, Harald Pager. On another level, a deeper one maybe, they represent the artist excavating his own strata of stored memories, memories of previous images which have worked for him in a particular way. These in their turn have been brought to the surface and handled in various ways. But ultimately the ways meet. There is a continuity here. A process of generation and regeneration. In Skotnes’ work there is a kind of logical progression. The original formal matrix of the prints – the wood blocks – gave rise to the pigmented carved panels. And these in turn gave rise to the richly painted surfaces that mark his mature Cape Town work. Somewhere, in between, are the works of layered plaster for architectural application which he executed in churches in the Free State and the Cape. These works, sgraffiti in the true sense of the term, are literal and figurative exemplars of a process that runs deeply through all his work, a process where superficial layers are scratched through to reveal underlying strata.
One can discern a progression, a process in which figures in a landscape give rise to a refigured landscape; a process where the landscape itself becomes a pictorial trope, a configuration of the anthropomorphic and the geomorphic. From 1993 through to 1995 he worked on a series that he has designated ‘Head and Figure landscapes’.
The visual traces suggested by these encompass a wide range of associations – bleached bones, rib cages, rock markings, boulders split apart. Cleft rockfaces suggest fossil markings, underlying structures. They are about time, about records, about structures that underly structures. There are shifts of nuance. Heads become boulders and boulders become headlands. Morphologically and metaphorically these are meta-landscapes, landscapes of the mind.
Last Supper revisited
Skotnes has always acknowledged his sources of reference. In the early days, there was the graphic influence of Baumeister and Scharpf. But before that there was the canon of Western religious art that he first experienced as a young soldier in Florence. In the end these sources of reference became absorbed and internalised. They have become part of the artist’s language, not necessarily in a calculatedly self-referential way, but subconsciously, part of his mark-making process. One may call it a schema, or a mind set. In Skotnes’ terms he simply calls it style.
It is interesting how the impact of his earlier encounter with Renaissance precedent has resurfaced in his mature work.
Skotnes made a major mural painting in 1990 – the Last Supper for Santa Sophia, the Institute for Catholic Education in Pretoria. A detailed description of this work is given by Frieda Harmsen in the following chapter, 7.18. But I want to refer to it in another context.
1990 was a pivotal year in South African history. It was the year when F W de Klerk’s speech in Parliament marked the end of the old political dispensation and signalled the negotiated revolution that was to follow. It was also the time when the debate in South African art about issues of relevance and direction reached a point of urgency: were artists prepared for the new South Africa? Did activist artists and self-styled cultural workers have a vocabulary beyond the raised fist cliché? Were we ready for freedom? How could a new language be forged that would say something about who we were, and where we had come from? And, dare it be said, where we were going?
Many argued for Africanisation as opposed to Eurocentrism; few could agree on what Africanisation actually meant. While this debate was going on, art, of course, was still being made. It is significant, and something of an irony, that one of the most impressive works produced in the country in that dramatic year of political change, 1990, was located in an area seemingly beyond the immediate passions raised by the Great Debate. It was, in fact, the contribution by Skotnes to one of the enduring themes in the Christian tradition – that of the Last Supper.
Skotnes’ handling of it relates directly to the iconographic tradition established in the Middle Ages and refined in the Renaissance. It sits comfortably within this mainstream tradition. Yet at the same time it is a fresh and direct statement in its own right, and testament to the artist’s own painterly regeneration.
It is a large work, horizontally disposed across three wooden panels, giving it a length of nearly 6 metres and a height of 2,3 metres. On either side of the inclined horizontal plane of the table the protagonists are arranged in three groupings. The central group consists of Christ flanked by John the Beloved and Judas Iscariot. In characterising his subjects in this Last Supper two things immediately strike one: the relative youthfulness he has accorded them and the way he has combined archetypal attributes with personalised traits. Peter, the rock of the Church, is just that – obdurate and unmoving, closed in on himself. Thomas the Doubter is full of suspicion. His slit-eyed speculativeness seems to transfer to the face of Judas Iscariot. Skotnes suggests that Judas, too, went through his doubting phase, debating the end result of the actions that had been set in train, and his role in them. The very human intensity of Judas – intelligence mixed with guilt – is the necessary foil to the other-worldly fixed gaze of Christ, who removed from the drama, while yet part of it, prefigures existence on another plane.
Inevitably it is the tension that exists between the members of this central group and the others that determines the emotional pitch of the work. But before addressing this let us consider other structural devices that Skotnes has employed.
Notable here is the inclined plane of the table which allows for the painting of a number of beautifully observed still lifes, most of them related to the placing of the hands of the disciples. Consider for example the treatment of the bowl of figs to the right of the hands of John, and below the calmly counterpoised hands of Christ, which appear to be in the act of unfolding in benediction. There is a sacramental quality to this which seems to me to attest to at least two things: Skotnes’ skill as a painter and the enjoyment he took in painting these iconographically marginal but pictorially esssential details. In a sense the still life elements are part of a stylised domestic landscape disposed on a horizontal plane. They constitute a high moment in Skotnes’ maturity which is at once hushed, filled with a painterly quietude, and absolutely controlled. (These elements have been developed and incorporated in recent work, such as Left-overs from Herod’s table).
Of equal importance is the way in which he has handled the architectural background to the Last Supper. This has been rendered in cool broken greys and chalky whites which allow the painting to breathe. The forms derive from the crystalline architecture of fourteenth-century Italian precedent. They speak strongly of the intense scrutiny that Skotnes has given to early Renaissance precedent over the years; they point back to the young soldier in Florence fixing his gaze on the copy of ‘M.Angelo’s David/naked in the square.’
I asked Skotnes, when he showed me the work in progress in his studio, whether he felt any need to ‘Africanise’ his depiction. Was there any temptation to recast his characters in a contemporary African setting? The answer was clear – No. He had long rejected the idea of an ‘African’ mode in church decoration. His past experience of working for the Roman Catholic Church had convinced him of the long established unity of its imagery. He had felt no desire here to impose iconographic departures.
On the evidence of this mural his decision was the correct one. There is a unity to this work that is entirely convincing. It is located within a tradition, but it is not cramped by it. It moves easily between the universal and the particular. It accepts the conventions of the theme, but expands a cool painterly space within it. It is of the spirit as well as of the world. What is significant is the quality of that spirit, and the extent of that world. In Skotnes’ work the association with Africa is patent. What was latent, and what has emerged so clearly in his mature painting, is the degree to which his work also belongs and refers to an established Western tradition. This is no small thing for us to remember at this point in our history when we, at the southern tip of Africa, have begun to engage not only with our continent but with the rest of the world beyond.
Dubow, Neville. 1996. Landscapes of the mind. In Harmsen, F. (ed.). Cecil Skotnes. Cape Town: South African Breweries. 111–128.
- James Ambrose Brown is a well known South African writer. His poem appears in typewritten form in Skotnes’ press cutting book. [↩]
- Egon Guenther was a German-born goldsmith who emigrated to South Africa in 1954. He was a collector of modern art and ran a small gallery in Johannesburg which specialised in modern art. Skotnes met him in 1955 and acknowledges him as the most important influence on his early career. ‘He greatly assisted and directed my attention towards ideas that helped me to understand and utilise negative forms – to see that these forms interchange and take the place of positive shapes.’ (Note from the artist). [↩]
- Willi Baumeister (1889-1955) was a German abstract painter who began as a constructivist and was influenced by the mechanical forms of Leger. He was a friend of Egon Guenther, through whom Skotnes was introduced to his work. Baumeister was one of the early victims of the Nazi campaign against abstract art which was termed entartete, ‘degenerate.’ He was dismissed from his teaching post by the Nazis in 1933 for ‘degeneracy’, but remained in Germany through the war. He was subsequently reinstated. [↩]
- Rudolf Scharpf (1919- ), graphic artist known for his abstract woodcuts. He studied in Germany, France and Spain and exhibited widely in Germany after the war. There are strong formal elements that link his work to that of Skotnes. [↩]
- The State of Art in South Africa conference was held at the University of Cape Town in July 1979. It was organised by the Michaelis School of Art, and convened by the present writer. Among those who delivered papers were the writers Nadine Gordimer, Jan Rabie, Sipho Sepamla, Adam Small; architects Revel Fox, Pancho Guedes, Jack Barnett; artists Cecil Skotnes, Andrew Verster, Bill Ainslie, Mick Goldberg; academics Alan Crump, Terence King , Gavin Younge, Neville Dubow. The conference resolved that artists should not co-operate with or be used as a shop window for the apartheid regime. [↩]
- Harald Pager was a leading figure in the preservation of San rock paintings. He spent seven years in the Brandberg recording paintings there. [↩]
- Skotnes provided the woodcut illustrations accompanying an epic poem by Stephen Gray on the theme of Shaka. It was published in 1974 as a large format ‘block book’ (each block was approximately 20 cm square) consisting of 43 woodcuts based on carvings Skotnes had made for door panels for the main entrance to the Meneghelli house in Johannesburg. The publication was one of the first of its kind according equal status to image and text. [↩]
- Skotnes married Thelma Helen Carter on 3 February 1951. Thelma has given him unwavering support and commitment to his career. She is preeminently the ‘good wife’ of James Ambrose Brown’s poem referred to at the beginning of this essay. [↩]
- Alice Goldin is an Austrian-born, Cape Town based landscape painter and graphic artist. In her holiday house in Arniston (Waenhuiskrans) she has extended hospitality to a wide circle of artists and friends. [↩]
- The Wolraad Woltemade series consists of thirteen woodcuts celebrating the heroic exploits of the folk hero who on horseback rescued shipwrecked seamen off Woodstock beach in 1773. The series was brought out in book form with a text by Stephen Gray in 1975, based on the account of the incident by the visiting Swedish botanist Charles Peter Thunberg. [↩]