Polly Street II

The Influence of Cecil Skotnes

Uhuru interrogates the art curator’s role in influencing the direction of the artistic expression, which is being marketed as original while at the same time defiled by Western artistic dogma

Cecil Skotnes took over at Polly Street as a teacher in 1952. He was born in 1926 and his father was a priest and missionary. Cecil grew up believing that all people are equal before God and attributes his interest in social upliftment to his early background and his parents’ example. He studied Fine Arts at the university of Witswatersrand between 1947 and 1950, when the department was limited to painting and History of Art. His art history teacher, Maria Stein-Lessing, influenced his thinking greatly. She was dynamic and eccentric, well informed on European art. It was her who first introduced Skotnes to German Expressionism, which later inspired him greatly (Harmsen, 1996: 12). She also had a wide-ranging knowledge of African art and was a dealer thereof. After his degree Skotnes traveled overseas where he gained greater insight into the works of Picasso and the Cubists who had been held up to them in class as important models. He was also exposed to ancient art such as Egyptian, Assyrian and pre-classical Greek. Some of the themes of these works would later be assimilated in his own works. During his early development as an artist, he discovered a large collection of African woodcarvings and Benin bronzes. He joined Polly Street in 1952 as a teacher and one may safely say that it was him who made this the well-known centre that it is. Walter Battiss wrote his a letter during this time that said, “ the art teacher, you, breathes in air and breathes out light which makes his students glow, and the halo of great glory shines around the students, and the art teacher is in the shadow, forgotten (Harmsen, Our Art III: 153). I will explore this metaphor of the teacher breathing light onto the student in relation to Skotnes’ influence on Kumalo and Legae.

Skotnes was introduced to Egon Guenther in 1954 and this meeting proved to be a turning point in Skotnes’ career. Guenther was a former gallery director in Germany and immigrated to South Africa. “He had impeccable taste, was well informed on contemporary art in Europe and also highly knowledgeable about African art. He readily recognized talent in other and encouraged and nurtured this not only by acting as dealer, but by means of animated and dictatorial discussions about art in general that challenged and stimulated his new South African friends and protégés” (1996: 14). He assisted and inspired Skotnes in the woodcuts medium. Skotnes’ iconography changed gradually. He also started seeing universality in African art. He read widely on the subject and started collecting African artefacts from various parts of the continent. “African art became an important influence on his style. He always acknowledged this source and recognized its diversity … he also cites as seminal to his art the influence of Cubism and in particular Picasso’s Cubist paintings” (1996: 20). These two forms influenced him greatly and was quoted saying, “I became acquainted with German Expressionism and the great similarities between it and tribal art…” (1996: 14). He would later point these similarities to his student and assistant Sidney Kumalo.

Egon Guenther, who had opened a commercial art gallery in Johannesburg in 1957, was particularly set on exhibiting work with a local flavour. He also wanted to show such work in Europe. Vittorio Meneghelli indicated his willingness to sponsor the venture. In 1963 Guenther therefore selected five of the regular exhibitors at the Egon Guenther Gallery … to unite in such an undertaking because in their work he saw a vibrant influence of Africa as expressed by individuals who were commitedly South African, but from disparate backgrounds” (1996:21).

He called this group the Amadlozi group, a zulu word for ‘the spirit of the ancestors’, which was an ideal name for what Guenther had in mind. Amongst the five chosen artist was Sydney Kumalo. He began attending classes by Skotnes in 1953. Polly Street offered him many opportunities, including a commission to make imagery for the church. He worked with Skotnes on this commission and also did a series of ceiling paintings in 1957, merging Christian symbols with African motifs (Images of metal). Skotnes arranged for Kumalo to work with Edoardo Villa so that he could develop his sculptural techniques. Villa remarked that Guenther’s discriminating eye and guidance were influential in the development of Kumalo’s sculpting. He would only accept works that met his high standards. He also introduced Kumalo to the traditional African sculpture in his fine and elaborate collection. With this influence Kumalo took “forms that have been evolved by the traditional African sculptors and amalgamated them to those crystallized gestures that have been developed out of medieval European sculpture by the Expressionists … the Expressionists combined Cubist structure with a dramatic manner. They swept strong, vitalizing movements through the rigid Cubist planes and infused them with emotional symbolism …. (Tribal) art had much in common with Expressionism. Both were highly stylized and geometric. In both distortion served to accentuate the conceptual and aesthetic ideas that pervaded the work of art” (Watter, Our Art III: 67). It is very clear that Guenther’s high standard of art and expectations influenced Kumalo’s sculpture and that the Cubist and African style which Guenther passed on to Skotnes also influenced Kumalo’s final products. “And when Egon Guenther gave Kumalo his first solo exhibition at his gallery in 1962, he arranged for some of his terracotta sculptures to be cast in terrazzo and in bronze, and took orders for further bronze casts” (Images of metal: 129). And because Skotnes felt that he should try to preserve what he though of as the ‘African heritage’ of his black students, he could not help but to drive their works in a certain direction. In an interview by David Koloane with Durant Sihlali, Sihlali mentions that Skotnes was encouraging a particular direction among the students (Nettleton Ed., 1989: 218). The circumstances for black artists in South Africa were dire at the point because of the Apartheid regime, so any opportunity to have economic upliftment and recognition as an artist was grabbed with both hands. This asserts Koloane’s belief that black art exist almost exclusively by virtue of white liberals’ benign interest. The teachers, art administrators, gallery directors, critics and buyers were white; which automatically influenced the execution of the art they were dealing in.

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