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Willem Strydom

Willem Strydom at The Rupert Museum

By Marilyn Martin
28 September - 01 September. 3 Comment(s)
Exhibition view, Rupert Museum

Willem Strydom
Exhibition view, Rupert Museum, . sculpture and drawing .

 

At the opening of Willem Strydom’s exhibition, literary scholar Ampie Coetzee asked me what an art critic would make of a Renaissance artist in South Africa in the 21st century. It is a difficult question, and one for which I have no answer. Yet it is a train of thought worth pursuing by considering Strydom’s position in South African art today – the nature and meaning of his oeuvre.

As far as I know there has been only one review of his current exhibition – a perceptive and penetrating piece by Cobus van Bosch in Die Burger. Van Bosch clearly has no problem with the idea of a Renaissance artist working in this country in the 21st Century. Others may, however, and I fear that Strydom, arguably one of South Africa’s most important artists, has in recent years become something of an absent figure in our art history. One looks in vain for reference to his work in major publications. He is, of course, not alone in this – anyone studying contemporary South African aesthetic production, who relied only on reviews, current books and general exhibition catalogues, would have huge gaps in their understanding of what is happening here. Many have fallen prey to the exclusionary practices in contemporary publications and curatorship that characterise the visual art sector. 

 

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There are always shifts in the artistic climate that lead to certain practices and artists becoming less visible, popular or fashionable, and the past two decades have seen the ascendancy of time-based arts such as video, sound, performance and installations of ephemera. Developments in new media and altered methods of production and perception have significantly altered the way in which art is produced, appreciated and distributed; critical curated shows, biennales and publically-funded institutions have increasingly begun to favour less traditional media for their shows or collections, making the slice of the pie available to painters and sculptors significantly smaller. 

Stuart Bird has summed it up neatly in a recent text carved out of wood: ‘For those artists who feel the urge to creative work the position today is hazardous and beset with difficulties’ (The Position of the Artist Now, and Sculptors of Today, 2011). But back to Strydom. He is instinctively opposed to the notion of the artwork as commodity that is made for the market, bought, speculated upon and sold, for a profit, of course. Strydom refuses to court the 'mainstream', both politically and aesthetically (whatever that may mean today). His vision, approach and creative methods may be out of sync with what is happening, but he is hardly a reactionary traditionalist who refuses to engage with the distinctive qualities of contemporary life and experience. As Tim Maggs puts it in the excellent catalogue accompanying Strydom’s exhibition:

'He has a deep empathy for the life forms that inhabit the arid landscapes of the South African hinterland – that can survive in the desiccating heat of the lean times and yet flourish, in some cases quite spectacularly, when the seasons turn over and rains return to the thirstlands. This rich imagery includes not only the animals and plant forms but also the people of this austere environment.'

Strydom’s current exclusion may be also be ascribed to his seclusion on a farm near Nieuwoudtville and the fact that his last solo show was held in 1991 (he has participated in group shows in South Africa and abroad, including the Venice Biennale in 1993); instead of exhibiting regularly, he chose to work quietly and to hone and refine his carving skills in Italy. This is where the Renaissance enters the life of the reclusive artist working in the Karoo.

Strydom first came to prominence in the mid-1970s and 1980s when he received a number of prestigious art awards and commissions, and held his first one-person exhibition (1977). He worked as a photographer and pursued an academic career as lecturer in sculpture and photography at the Universities of Natal and the Witwatersrand. His early sculptures were constructed from steel, cast iron, wood and stone and while they appeared to be abstract, with the emphasis on the intrinsic qualities of the materials, they were in fact concerned with urban and industrial fragments, as well as landscape.

Strydom went to Pietrasanta, an ancient centre for carving in marble, in the late 1980s and stayed for 14 months; he has returned many times, working in the Italian Renaissance tradition of the bottega, the sculpture workshop system. On his journey of mastering the art of sculpture in marble and bronze, Strydom studied the work of artists such as Benvenuto Cellini, Alberto Giacometti, Marino Marini and Giacomo Manzu. The bronze Lioness Dancing for Lotar was inspired by Giacometti’s last work, Portrait of Lotar III, but his is no superficial emulation of another artist’s work, or the art of Classical Greece and the Italian Renaissance. 

At a time when poor and hasty effort is often rewarded and content outweighs execution and intellect, Strydom remains akin to artists known for their relentless formal probing of subject, technique and process – of craft and poetry. He works obsessively and one sculpture can take three years to complete. Of the poetry and Enso Pasquini, Strydom once wrote:

'Maybe, one day, I shall be able to make a truly poetic sculpture, and if I do achieve this, it would largely be due to experience here [in the Karoo] and the humble sincerity and profound ability of a tiny, wiry, secco man, with his crisp aquiline nose and eyes which bubble with humour and scepticism, and which are so extraordinarily keen, perceptive.'

These words also point to one of the most distinguishing features of Strydom’s art – the connection he creates between European techniques and materials and his experiences of living in Africa, in the Karoo in particular. San mythology is integral to his iconography and has for many years been explored in his sculpture, as well as his drawings and graphic work. For Oggendster se Vrou he chooses the Renaissance tondo format to tell the story of the morning star’s wife who was turned into a wild beast. Gariep depicts a San man he met in the Little Karoo and who now emerges from a bronze headrest. The Woman from Ghanzi is another powerful portrait, but often Strydom’s personages are archetypal, mythological and metaphorical, androgynous and ageless.

The mystical integration of human beings, animals and landscape in Strydom’s sculpture, the contorted forms and uncanny juxtapositions, are far removed from the classical traditions of the past; they tend towards an expressionist mode through which he conveys a great deal of anguish. The artist reveals inner conflicts and those of South African society, while at the same time transcending them. The viewer is compelled to look beyond the technical virtuosity, to find the complex meaning, to be moved and disturbed, to be touched by the intangible; his is a poetics of beauty and pain.

Strydom, who is also known for his drawings and prints, is exhibiting – for the first time – what he describes as ‘drawings with colour’. At first glance they could not be further removed from his work in three dimensions, yet there are seamless connections: the materials are European – water colour on paper and vellum, a medium that has been used for centuries and that is translucent and luminous like the light contained in and reflected by white marble; the extraordinarily detailed articulation of surfaces; the subject matter which is the Karoo landscape and the indigenous flora and fauna. 

There is a particularly fine relationship between the surface textures and lines of the terracotta and wax models and the drawings with colour. The latter are, however, not preliminary studies for sculpture, but independent explorations of his themes and concerns. They comprise a myriad of marks and layers (at times as many as 20 or 30) that contradict the immediacy and fluidity of watercolour yet sacrificing none of the luminosity of the medium. They appear close to reality, but are neither familiar nor immediately comprehensible, as Strydom plumbs the relationship between form and content, technique and execution, reality and imagination.

He painstakingly records the botanically significant plant forms, the thorns, roots and twigs in the area, a landscape which is beautiful when the rains come, but otherwise dry and hostile. Every detail of an animal’s fur or an exquisite Bee Eater’s plumage is rendered, yet there is a surrealist impulse at work: the background is sometimes left unpainted, for instance in Rebunie, in which the Ludwig Bustard is suspended over the landscape, neither flying nor perched; the artist found the Roggeveld fox in Draaikrans and the fruitbat in Agusberg and brought them back to life, but the viewer is not sure whether they are dead or alive. This imbues Strydom’s drawings with colour with an eerie stillness and otherworldliness.  

I have been familiar with Strydom’s work since the early 1980s, but I am repeatedly overwhelmed by his prodigious technique and the indefatigable industry demanded by his approach, both in two and three dimensions. We should, however, not be misled by this or by the strong formal properties of the work, for they, combined with his philosophical bent, allow for the actualisation of his vision through the vehicle of aesthetically challenging form. Strydom’s art is located in his physical environment but also in his psyche, in a place in his mind, imagination and emotions.

The Rupert Museum must be commended for organising this comprehensive exhibition – one which no South African museum could have afforded and no commercial gallery would have undertaken. It is not to be missed.

References: 

*Tim Maggs, ‘Some Impressions of Willem Strydom and his Work’ in Willem Strydom (Stellenbosch: Rupert Art Museum, 2011) p. 24.

*Karin Skawran, ‘Integritas, Consonanta e Claritas Reflections on selected sculptures and ‘drawings with colour’’, Ibid. p. 3 which includes a description of the Italian bottega tradition.  According to Skawran, “Strydom must be the only sculptor in this country working in marble and using techniques which date back to ancient Greece and Egypt”, p. 9, note 12. I am indebted to Skawran for her profound understanding of Strydom’s oeuvre and analyses of individual works.