by Sue Williamson (July, 2006)
No foreign curator would dream of asking Cecil Skotnes that tiresome interview question, 'So, where is the 'African' in your work?'� The themes, colours and techniques of the veteran artist are quintessentially of this continent. Earth colours of� ochre, burnt sienna and Indian red are set off with stark blacks and whites, or brilliant cerulean.� His paintings, many of them on engraved wood panels, glow on the walls.� But while the influence of Africa may be paramount, a European modernist tradition is a strong underpinning.�
Celebrating his 80th birthday last month, Skotnes still works every day in his studio, currently contemplating a series of wood panels which will soon be energetically incised.
Skotnes knew from boyhood that he wanted to be an artist, and as a gunner in the South African forces in WW2, was present in Florence when the classic renaissance art treasures like Michelangelo's David, bricked up for protection, were once again uncovered. 'There it stood in its primeval greatness, and if I had any doubt 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,' says Skotnes.
A period of study at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, followed Skotnes� return to his homeland, where Skotnes worked with fellow artists Larry Scully and Christo Coetzee. In 1952, he became Cultural Recreation Officer for the city of Johannesburg. For the next ten years, the Polly Street Art Centre would become a hive of activity, a rare facility where a number of black artists like Sidney Kumalo, Lucky Sibiya and Ezrom Legae were able to experiment and make work, developing and honing their skills to the point where they were recognized as professional career artists.
Skotnes has continued to encourage younger and disadvantaged artists all his life, setting up the ceramics section of the Nyanga Art Centre in the 80's, and teaching at the legendary Community Arts Project.
His lifetime of service to the arts community earned him the Goodman Gallery Award in 2005, given to a professional artist who has not only excelled in his own career, but also given generously of his talents to others. Virtually every Cape Town charity auction for the last 30 years has had a Cecil Skotnes as its top drawcard.
Skotnes has also had a profound influence on younger artists. William Kentridge told the tale recently of being given a small Skotnes black and white woodcut of
a little cat one Christmas, and how that cat has pranced its way through his work ever since. His own children, Pippa and John, are both artists in their own right. And his example as an arts activist is a continuing model for the artists of younger generations.
'My work is grounded in an African idiom - when I was a boy at school a friend in the church ran a Salvation Army.school in Soweto, so I visited there often, and since then I have traversed the entire country. It's been a fortuitous trek, this journey.
'There are two elements here - a great depth of understanding of the art of southern africa before the white man even put his foot in the country�and secondly, my experience in teaching and working with a serious small group of township people who became professional artists.'
Skotnes started his art career as a painter, but names several influences in the broadening of his techniques - art collector Egon Guenther encouraged him to try woodcutting, and Willi Baumeister taught him to engrave wood. �Fortunately, I had good hands,' he comments. Learning to work with wood led Skotnes to start using the block not to print from but as an art object in itself. Adding paint was the next step, and became his signature technique, although Skotnes is also known for his masterly watercolours and drawings, his sculptures, and his large scale murals and other commissions, many in churches.
His themes were often aspects of neglected histories,� like The Assassination of Shaka 1974, and a series of large scale panels for the 1820 Settlers Monument in Grahamstown, looking back at the colonial period of our history, with all its tensions.
The graphic clarity of Skotnes's work, the controlled richness of his palette
were qualities which translated superbly into tapestries, and a number of these finely woven hangings� have come from the hands of weaver Margueurite Stephens.
Marking the master's 80th birthday, a retrospective of Skotnes' work is currently on show at the Goodman Gallery, where he has exhibited his work ever since Linda Givon first opened her doors in the 60's.
In 2004, Skotnes and� sculptor Eduardo Villa had a major show at the Art Museum of Stellenbosch and at Lanzerac.
In 2001, Skotnes was able to investigate his Norwegian forbears when he was invited by the Norwegian government to be a guest in their country for a period of� several weeks, during which time he presented� exhibitions at Tromsoe and Bergen.
More work in the studio.
Born in East London in 1926, Cecil Skotnes lives and works in Cape Town.
1944-45�Served in South African Forces in Italian Campaign
1946�Studied painting under Henrich Steiner, Florence. Attended drawing classes at Witwatersrand Technical College.
1947-50�BA Fine Arts degree, University of the Witwatersrand
1948�Exhibited at South African Academy
1952�Appointed Cultural Officer, Johannesburg Non-European Affairs Department at the Polly Street Adult Centre.
1954�First professional exhibition of paintings with Larry Scully at Whippman's Gallery, Johannesburg
1957�First one-man exhibition at Pretoria Art Centre. Represented South Africa at Sao Paulo Biennale
1958�Participated in South African exhibition, Rhodes National Gallery, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale
1959�Solo exhibition of woodcuts at Wittenborn Gallery, New York
Represented SA Touring exhibition, South and North America
Painting and Sculpture, National Arts Club, New York
Represented South Africa at Sao Paulo Biennale
Represented on The National Arts Club International Exhibition of�painting and sculpture, New York
1960�Represented South Africa at Ljubljana, Yugoslavia International graphic�exhibition
Exhibition of incised woodblock paintings at the Egon Guenther Gallery, Johannesburg
1961�Large mural, the Apocalypse, in Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic Church Motsethabong, Welkom, Orange Free State
Represented South Africa at Sao Paulo Biennale
Made Stations of the Cross for Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic�Church, Rivonia, Sandton
1962�Guest Artist of the year at the Transvaal Academy
Exhibition of Rock Faces, Egon Guenther Gallery, Johannesburg
Designed tapestry St. Anne, woven by Marguerite Stephens, and carved the Stations of the Cross for St. Anne's Anglican Church, Piggs Peak, Swaziland
1963�Appointed President of South African Council of Artists in succession to Walter Battiss
Principal witness against State at the Harold Ruben blasphemy trial
Represented South Africa at International Conference of Plastic Arts at UNESCO, New York
Became founder member of the Amadlozi Group consisting of Eduardo Villa, Sydney Kumalo, Cecily Sash and Guiseppo Cattaneo.
1965�Awarded Chamber of Mines Gold Medal on 12th Transvaal Academy for Icon, a 2-metre high incised painting
Carried out major mural, �The Redemption of Man� (25m x 4m) for St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Kroonstad
Appointed Head of Damelin College of Art.
First one-man exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, London
Together with Eleanor Esmonde-White won competition to design tapestries, 'Diamonds and Gold', for the Ernest Oppenheimer theatre in Welkom, Orange Free State.
Represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale
Represented South Africa at the Sao Paulo Biennale
Carved and painted triptych wood panels for Roman Catholic mission church at Viljoenskroon, Orange Free State
1968�Awarded SA Breweries gold medal for art.
Represented South Africa in Lisbon at the Gulbenkian Foundation
Represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale
1969�Work reproduced under the category �World Painting� in Encyclopaedia Britannica
1971�Represented South Africa at Sao Paulo Biennale, Brazil
Invited to International exhibition Xilografia Contemporanea Bologna, Italy - Galeria Chalet Della Rose
Exhibition of 'Icons' at Totem-Meneghelli Gallery, Johannesburg
1972�Retrospective exhibition at Pretoria Art Museum
Exhibition at William Humphrey's Art Gallery, Kimberley
Exhibited at National Museum, Bloemfontein
1973 Created the Assassination of Shaka/i> portfolio of 43 original three colour woodcuts with Stephen Gray's poetry
1974 Represented South Africa at the National Art Museum in Athens
Exhibition at Royal Belgian, Congo Museum, Tervuren, Belgium
Exhibition of �The Assassination of Shaka� at the Kunshistoriches Museum, Vienna
Exhibition of paintings at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1976�Awarded Medal of Honour for painting by the Suid Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns
Presented with set of commemorative medallions - 1820 Settlers National Monument Foundation for contribution to art in South Africa
Exhibition of wood panels and ten landscapes, a portfolio of original woodcuts with poetry by Stephen Gray at Goodman Gallery,
1977�Exhibition of panels, totems, woodcuts, drawings and jewellery Art Gallery�of the University of Stellenbosch
1978�Relocated from Johannesburg to Cape Town
1980�Tapestries at South African National Gallery Tapestry Exhibition, Cape Town
1981�First Cape Town one-man exhibition 'Passage through an Alien Land', at Wolpe Gallery, Cape Town
Taught painting, drawing, print-making and sculpture in Nyanga and District 6, Cape Town
1983 Exhibition 'Judean Walls'. Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
Retrospective exhibition at UCT Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town
1985 Johannesburg and New York exhibitions with Eduardo Villa
Ezrom� Legae and Sydney Kumalo
Participated in BMW exhibition 'Tributaries' at the
Johannesburg Market Gallery and in Germany
1986 Completed 1820 Settlers' panels (commenced in 1984).� Installed in Fountain Foyer of the Monument building, Grahamstown
1989�Joint exhibition with John and Pippa Skotnes at the Kunstkabinett Gallery, Windhoek, Namibia
Cecil Skotnes and Eduardo Villa exhibition at Pretoria Art Museum to celebrate 25th anniversary of the museum
1993�Exhibition 'Still Life and Ancestry', Goodman Gallery
Two month's stay at Cite Internationale des Arts, Paris
Awarded honorary Masters Degree of Fine Art by the University of Cape Town
1994 Exhibition at the South African Association of Arts, Cape Town
1996 Awarded Honorary Masters Degree of Fine Art, Rhodes University, Grahamstown
Awarded Honorary Doctorate Degree of Fine Art, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
Retrospective exhibition at the South African National Gallery,
Cape Town to celebrate artist's 70th birthday
2003�Awarded the 'Order of Ikhamanga' in Gold for his contribution to the development of young black artists during apartheid.
2004�Exhibition with Eduardo Villa at Lanzerac, Stellenbosch
2005 Awarded Professional `Artist Award by the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg
2006 'Contemplation', Solo show at the Goodman Gallery celebrating Cecil's 80th Birthday