Archive: Issue No. 139, April 2009

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Cecil Skotnes

Cecil Skotnes at home

Cecil Skotnes

Cecil Skotnes
Icon for my dead Uncle II 1998
painted wood
122 x 122 cm

The Passing of Cecil Skotnes

It was with sadness, that ArtThrob learned last Saturday morning that Cecil Skotnes had died during the night. The celebrated South African artist died in a Cape Town hospital after suffering a fall and contracting pneumonia. He was 82 years old.

Of Norwegian-Canadian descent, Cecil Skotnes was born in 1926 in a poor neighbourhood of East London. He fought in World War II against Italy with South African troops, after which he stayed on to study painting in Florence. On returning to South Africa, Skotnes studied art at the University of the Witwatersrand from 1947 to 1950. He lived in Johannesburg from 1946, relocating to Cape Town in 1978.

A champion of modernism in Africa, Skotnes started his career as a painter. But, influenced by German Expressionism, he turned to printmaking in 1954 when he met Egon Guenther, a goldsmith, art collector and collaborative printmaker who persuaded him to abandon painting and develop a new artistic language through printmaking.

From 1954, when he took up this new medium, many of Skotnes's woodcuts were printed by Guenther. Skotnes has since been recognised as a pioneer of printmaking in South Africa, as very few artists were working in this medium in the 1950s. He is also acknowledged for popularising printmaking in South Africa while teaching at the Polly Street Art Centre from 1952 to 1965.

In 1952 Cecil Skotnes was appointed Cultural Recreation Officer at the Johannesburg City Council's Polly Street premises, where adult education for black people was offered. Skotnes began teaching informal art classes there, and a group of students quickly established themselves at the Centre as dedicated career artists.

By the mid-1950s, as many as eighty students attended the Polly Street Art Centre, as the school became known. It was here that Durant Sihlali (1935-2004) and other strong painters established a 'township art' genre. Sculptures were produced by talents such as Sydney Kumalo (1935-88), who was Skotnes's assistant from 1958. In the early 1960's the locus of this training moved to Eloff Street and the centre became known as the Jubilee Social Centre.

With increasing restrictions on the freedom of black artists under apartheid, Skotnes moved the studio equipment to Soweto, then resigned in 1966, following Kumalo's resignation about a year earlier.

In 1963 Skotnes helped to establish the Amadlozi group. This group, which included Guiseppe Cattaneo, Cecily Sash, Sydney Kumalo and Edoardo Villa, sought to work at the intersection of African and European art. Skotnes exhibited his prints on his first solo show at the Pretoria Art Centre in 1957, and some were chosen to represent South Africa at the São Paolo and Venice Biennales of 1957 and 1958.

In 2006 Skotnes said of his own work, 'My work is grounded in the African idiom. There are two elements here: understanding the art of Southern Africa before the white man put his foot in the country, and my experience of teaching township people." A former President of the now defunct South African Council of Artists, Skotnes was the recipient of many awards in recognition of his contribution to cultural development in South Africa: the Chamber of Mines Gold Medal in 1965, and the South African Breweries Gold Medal in 1968. He was awarded honorary doctorates from the Universities of Rhodes and Witwatersrand, and 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.'