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Cecil Skotnes

Written and researched by Emile Maurice and Jo-Anne Duggan Cecil Skotnes was born in a poor neighbourhood of East London. His father was an ordained Lutheran minister and missionary, and both he and his mother were active members of the Salvation Army. It was from his parents that Skotnes absorbed his concern for the welfare of others. Skotnes fought against fascism in World War II in Italy with South African troops, after which he stayed on to study painting in Florence. On returning to South Africa, he studied art at the University of the Witwatersrand from 1947 to 1950. After completing his BA Fine Arts degree, Skotnes married Thelma Carter in 1951. Their son John is a goldsmith and sculptor and daughter, Pippa, a Professor of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. In 1952 Skotnes was appointed as cultural officer at a recreational centre in Polly Street, Johannesburg, which offered adult education programmes for black people. Un-

Female figure , Carved and incised painted panel

“As chronicler of the South African situation, I could not think in European terms. My approach had to originate here, otherwise my art would be a lie of little importance”
der his guidance the facility came to be identified as an art centre and developed into a significant training ground for a generation of black artists. In the early 1960s the art centre moved to Eloff Street and subsequently, as apartheid policies became entrenched, to Soweto. In 1963 Skotnes helped to establish the Amadlozi group (the name was chosen by him and means “spirit of our ancestors”). This group, which also included Guiseppe Cattaneo, Cecily Sash, Sidney Kumalo, Edoardo Villa and later, Ezrom Legae, sought to work at the intersection of traditional (or classical) African and European art. Having lived in Johannesburg since 1946, Skotnes made Cape Town his home in 1978. Here he resumed painting after decades as a printmaker, and continued to engage with younger and less privileged artists, establishing the ceramics section at the Nyanga Art Centre and teaching at the Community Arts Project in the 1980s.

Cecil Skotnes, fragment of a once larger incised and painted wooden panel on the theme of the death of Shaka. Undated

Analysis of the artist’s work, key stylistic influences
Skotnes’ early woodcuts were abstract landscapes in a horizontal format. In Europe, landscapes were traditionally rendered through painting. What Skotnes sought through making landscapes in print form was, however, not simply to engage local places and spaces, but to distinguish his work as an African artist from that which was produced in Europe. One of Skotnes’ primary concerns was to tell a story through serialised imagery, and the first of his famous narrative print portfolios was The Assassination of Shaka (1973), which was accompanied by an epic poem by poet, writer and academic Stephen Gray. When the portfolio of 43 prints – most of which deal with moments of action, like ‘Shaka kills the mamba’ – and poem were launched as an exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg in 1973, the show was a sell-out. In 1976, a few months after the Soweto uprising, Skotnes wrote an article for the Rand Daily Mail (3 November 1976) in which he commented: “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…and if the times have little influence on the artist’s work, especially such momentous times, he should seek a new profession.” Skotnes took his words seriously, as some of his works from the 1980s allude to the political turbulence of the times, as seen, for example, in Township Martyr (1986) and other prints from this era. Alongside the famous public persona, there was also the more private Skotnes, represented in works that are intimately entangled with his personal life. This was the cornerstone of his last exhibition before death claimed him – CECIL SKOTNES: A PRIVATE VIEW: Images from the archive of Cecil and Thelma Skotnes (2008), at Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, and the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg. What the show reflected, amongst other things, was how Skotnes used art to build family bonds and express his love towards his wife and kin. What links Skotnes’ more private works, his African-inspired landscapes, which draw on everything from thorn bushes to primeval rocks and sun-baked earth, and his more politically orientated works from the 1980s is a strong engagement with life and the environment. Ultimately, though, his place in South African art history rests on his quest for a hybrid art, combining European modernism (he was strongly influenced by German Expressionism and Cubism) with a distinctly African identity, a seed first planted in his days with the Amadlozi group in the 1960s. As he once said when speaking of his search for an African idiom in art, “As chronicler of the South African situation, I could not think in European terms. My approach had to originate here, otherwise my art would be a lie of little importance”.

(Left to Right) Shaka kills the mamba, 1973. Woodcut. According to poet Stephen Gray, such was the demand by collectors when the print portfolio, The Assassination of Shaka, was launched at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, in 1973, that “frenzied buying and reselling occurred on the spot”. Lithograph “Shaka’s Regiment in Horn Formation” Signed & Dated 73. Shaka the king,1973. Woodcut. Famous author Kurt Vonnegut, writing to Stephen Gray, had this to say about the The Assassination of Shaka portfolio: “The Assassination of Shaka is the best present I have received. You and Mr. Skotnes took control of my head and made me feel big things very foreign to me. It is the most successful collaboration between a poet and an artist that has ever come to my attention. It is better than the collaboration between William Blake and William Blake.” Mhlangane Stabs Shaka Woodcut. Pippa Skotnes, the artist’s daughter, has said of her father, “Watching him make prints was a process which seemed to me to be deeply rooted in some kind of magic.”

Skotnes’s trademark style
Skotnes began to develop his trademark incised and painted wood panels, a format that developed from his printmaking, in the 1950s. Although he never forsook painting, the woodblock was to remain his preferred medium for a number of decades. These panels, sometimes adapted to make doors and pelmets, and were also used in public commissions, as in his 1820 Settler panels (1984-86) for the Settler Monument in Grahamstown. Skotnes made works about the landscape – nature was a major inspiration – Christianity, political upheaval, confrontation, history, heroes (Shaka and Wolraad Woltemade, for example), good and evil, anguish and pain, and also focused on still-lifes and portraits – all of which is held together by his trademark abstraction with often spiritual overtones, highly structured composition, powerful design sense and bold archetypal figures. As with all great artists, his art is stamped by a very particular character, or signature, embedded in the fabric of the work, and his work is instantly recognisable.


1820 Settler Panels Commission (1984-86)
In 1984 Skotnes was commissioned by the 1820 Foundation in Grahamstown to make a work to mark the arrival of English settlers in South Africa. His brief was to symbolically convey the Britishspeaking experience in South Africa, from the time of the settlers’ arrival to their involvement in the creation of an equal opportunity society. Skotnes’ work is allegorical and uses the notion of the seasons to convey the idea of decay and regeneration. The theme is played out in the four sections of the work, each comprising six panels in a vertical format. The first section, a reference to autumn and winter, deals with wars prior to 1820, both in Europe and South Africa. This is followed by the next six panels making up The Frontier, where the focus is on new beginnings for all, both black and white – an allusion to spring. The third section, Towards a New Society, a symbolic summer, is concerned with harmony and equal rights. The final section is dedicated to the arts and creativity – the means through which people can attain the ideals of unity and freedom. The panels were nearly destroyed when a fire erupted at the Monument on 13 August 1994. Fortunately they were only damaged by smoke and were restored by Skotnes himself.

Mural for St. Charles Lwanga Church, Mbekweni, Paarl, Western Cape.

From the portfolio, The White Monday Disaster, 1975. Woodcut. Following the print portfolio, The Assassination of Shaka (1973), Skotnes’ next collaboration with poet Stephen Gray, the White Monday Disaster, also took the form of what the artist called a ‘block book’. By this, according to Gray, “he meant a work in which the content was to be conveyed through the prints and words simultaneously”. Comprising 13 prints and 13 stanzas in ballad form, this work commemorates the heroic efforts of Wolraad Woltemade, who, on horseback, rescued some of the shipwrecked from the Jonge Thomas, when it sank in Table Bay in 1773. Like The Assassination of Shaka, this work was also launched at the Goodman Gallery – “to the usual satisfactory sell-out,” says Gray.

Figures in an alien landscape, 1981. Acrylic on board. Landscape was a major theme in Skotnes’ work over the decades.

Cat, 1960. Woodcut. Pippa Skotnes recalls: “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…”

Figures in an alien landscape : Cecil Skotnes, Figures in an alien landscape, 1981. Acrylic on board. Landscape was a major theme in Skotnes’ work over the decades.

Icon for my dead uncle II, 1998. Oil on wood

Untitled, 1980. Woodcut. Some of Skotnes’ work from the 1980s reflects the political turbulence of the times. In this work, made to illustrate one of Nadine Gordimer’s stories, a figure raises a clenched fist, symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle.

For Thelma: For Thelma, Christmas, 1992. Conte on paper. Skotnes’ last exhibition, CECIL SKOTNES: A PRIVATE VIEW: Images from the archive of Cecil and Thelma Skotnes (2008), was a fitting and beautiful tribute to an artist who occupies a central place in South African art history, and something of a capping of a glorious career. Among the works on show was For Thelma, Christmas 1992 – an exquisite drawing, made as a present for the artist’s wife. It carries the inscription, “My darling a very beautiful Christmas and wonderful things in 1993. Love me”.

Cecil Skotnes’s Art life and legacy

Important dates in the life of Cecil Skotnes

The world in 1952

Cecil Skotnes in his studio, 1967. Photograph courtesy Pippa Skotnes

Cecil Skotnes in his studio, 2008. Photograph by Paul Weinberg

March in support of the ANC’s Defiance Campaign, 1952. Times Media Collection, Museum Africa

Early life and inspirations Skotnes knew that he wanted to become an artist while still at Twist Street Primary School in Johannesburg. But it was an experience during World War II that finally convinced him. As a young gunner with South African forces in Italy, adjustment and embellishment, be exhibited as artworks in their own right. Legacy Skotnes was a pioneer of printmaking in South Africa, one of our finest exponents of the medium, and a protagonist of modernism. He is also acknowledged for his contribution to making the medium the popular art form that it is today, particularly through his teaching at the Polly Street Art Centre and the Community Arts Project, Cape Town, where he inspired, and developed the skills of, aspirant black artists. The Skotnes legacy, therefore, is not only about his exceptional works, but also about his outstanding contribution as an educator to the evolution of black art in South Africa. Recognition Skotnes occupies a pivotal place in South African art history and has been honoured for his work and contribution to cultural development. He was the recipient of the Chamber of Mines Gold Medal in 1965 and the South African Breweries Gold Medal in 1968, amongst other awards. In addition, three honorary doctorates were bestowed on him – from the Universities of Cape Town, Rhodes and Witwatersrand – and a National Order, the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold (2003), for “exceptional achievement in, and the deracialisation of, the arts, and for outstanding contribution to the development of black artists”.

1926 1944- 45 1950 1951 1952 1957 1959- 61 1963 1965 1966 1969 1971 1972 1973 1974 1976 1978 1980 + 1996 2003 2009

he was among the troops sent to liberate Florence. “Italy then”, he said, “was a fantastic time for people like me, experts gave lectures to the soldiers, and there were remarkable moments, like the unveiling of the great David, which had been hidden in the war years. There it stood in its primeval greatness, and if I had any doubts as to what career I was going to have it fell aside, and from that point on I lived on the basis of being a professional artist”. Artistic breakthrough Skotnes started his career as a painter but turned to printmaking in 1954, when he met Egon Guenther, a goldsmith and collector of traditional African art who had immigrated to South Africa from Germany. It was Guenther who convinced him to abandon painting and to develop a new artistic path by making prints. It was also Guenther who drew Skotnes’ attention to the beauty and possibilities of the blocks from which he made his prints. These, he suggested, could, after some

Born in East London Serves in South African Forces in the WW II Italian Campaign Graduates with a BA Fine Arts degree from Wits Marries Thelma, nee Carter Appointed as Cultural Officer, and starts work at Polly Street First one-man exhibition, at the Pretoria Art Centre Represents South Africa at the Sao Paulo Bienal, the Venice Biennale, and in the Yugoslavia International Graphic Exhibition; exhibits at galleries in North and South America Succeeds Walter Battiss as President of the South African Council of Artists; founder member of the Amadlozi group, with Cattaneo, Kumalo, Sash and Villa First one-man exhibitions in London Designs Republic Festival Commemorative stamp series Work reproduced under “World Painting”, Encyclopedia Britannica Works included in exhibitions in Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, Spain, Brazil, and Italy Retrospective exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum Creates The Assassination of Shaka portfolio, with poetry by Stephen Gray Creates a woodcut for the Nobel Prize portfolio in honour of Chief Albert Luthuli Awarded Medal of Honour by the Suid-Afriakaanse Akademie vie Wetenskap en Kuns Moves from Johannesburg to Cape Town Works on a number of significant commissions and exhibits widely Celebrates his 70th birthday with a major retrospective at the South African National Gallery; awarded honorary doctorates by Rhodes University and the University of the Witwatersrand Awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold Passes away in Cape Town

South Africa In 1952, the year Skotnes started work at Polly Street: white South Africans celebrate the tercentenary of Jan van Riebeek’s arrival at the Cape, while their black, ‘coloured’ and Indian countrymen prepare for the launch of the Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws – a mass protest against apartheid’s discriminatory acts and regulations; Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country is released on film; Irma Stern and Walter Battiss, amongst others, represent South African at the Venice Biennale; Miriam Makeba tours South Africa with the Manhattan Brothers Africa In Kenya, the Kikuyu rise up against the British – the Mau Mau Rebellion Kwame Nkrume is elected Prime Minister of the Gold Coast and leads his country to independence, achieved in 1957 – the first sub-Saharan country to accomplish this Chief Albert Luthuli is elected President of the African National Congress – and becomes South Africa’s first Nobel Prize winner in 1960 International Dwight Eisenhower is elected President of the USA Queen Elizabeth II begins her reign over the United Kingdom and its colonies, including South Africa; Argentinean First Lady, Eva Peron, dies of cancer Albert Schweitzer wins the Nobel Peace Prize Gary Cooper wins an Oscar for his role in High Noon;

Chief Albert Luthuli by Cecil Skotnes

With friends: In the early 1960s, Skotnes helped to establish the Amadlozi group. Here he is seen with some members of the group: Left to right: Skotnes, Guiseppe Cattaneo, Edoardo Villa and the art dealer Egon Guenther.

Che Guevara chronicles his motor cycle trip around South America in The Motorcycle Diaries; Samuel Becket pens Waiting for Godot Earnest Hemingway’s Old man and the Sea is published; Jackson Pollock paints Blue Poles No 11; A Skotnes record was set by Stefan Weltz in association with Sotherby’s (SWELCO) in Cape Town March 2009 for his wood panel “Birds” (R616 000, est R350 000-R450 000)
References: F. Harmsen (ed.). 1996. Cecil Skotnes. Published privately in conjunction with the 1996 Skotnes retrospective at the South African National Gallery. Unknown. 2003. Recipients of the National Order Awards, 2003. [Online]. Available: [2009, April 30]. Iziko South African National Gallery. 2000. Cecil Skotnes – Curriculum Vitae. [Online]. Available: [2009, April 29]. Artthrob News. 2009. The Passing of Cecil Skotnes. [Online]. Available: [2009, April 30]. Williamson, S. 2006. Artthrob Artbio: Cecil Skotnes. [Online]. Available: [2009, April 30]. Front Page Image: Female figure , Carved and incised painted panel: Christopher Moller Art.

Francis Bacon paints Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope; Henri Matisse makes his great cutout, Blue Nude Written by Emile Maurice and Jo-Anne Duggan Design Gabriel Clark-Brown Commissioned for: The South African Art Times, May 2009 Concept: Global Art Information

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