Artwork by Cecil Skotnes
The painter and draughtsman Cecil Skotnes was acclaimed as one of the main pioneers of modern art in South Africa. He was born in 1926 in a poor borough in East London in Southafrica then fought in the second world war with South African troops against the fascists in Italy where, after the end of the war, he studied painting in Florence under Heinrich Steiner. In 1946 he went to South Africa to matriculate in free art at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Skotnes was one of the few artists who managed to combine art and politics. On the one hand, in the course of his career, he produced brilliant works in the field of graphics, and on the other hand opposed apartheid wherever possible and been politically active in the field of culture. In 1952 he was appointed a cultural officer by the colonial government and in this capacity was responsible for establishments like the Polly Street Adult Centre, which was one of the few in Johannesburg open to both whites and blacks. As public funding was lessened, Skotnes focussed on art courses. These led to the establishment of the Centre Polly Street Art Centre, the first public art school open to blacks in Johannesburg. Among its students were the painters Sydney Kumalo and Lucas Sithole, who later became leading figures themselves.
Like many of his generation, Skotnes began by practising lyrical abstraction, which was thought to be a fitting expression of states of the soul. He reduced forms to the essential and sometimes emblematic. Especially his graphic works from the 50s and 60s recall in their vehemence, hard contrasts of black and white and almost monumental simplifications woodcuts from Eduardo Chilida. But unlike the great Basque, who died in 2002, Skotnes´ seemingly abstract compositions always hint at the human figure – in their silhouettes, in the attitudes of their forms or in the whole arrangement.
This tendency to blend abstraction and representation later shifted more towards representation. Interlaced soldiers, as in the series ´The Assassination of Shaka Zulu´ (1974), look almost realistic. Apart from the fact that these drawings show his stylistic change, the ´Assassination´ series is typical of his works in another respect: the theme is decidedly African. Together with Sydney Kumalo, Guiseppe Cattaneo, Cecily Sash and Edoardo Villa, Skotnes co-founded the art-group ´Amadlozi´, which means in effect ´Spirit of the Forefathers´. The full title of the series is ´The assassination of Shaka by Mhlangane Dingane and Mbopa on 22nd September 1828 at Dukuza, by which act the Zulu nation first lost its empire“ and gives a plain idea of the group´s aim. This was to synthesise native traditions, myths and events on the one hand and modern forms of representation on the other, thus blending regional content and international form.
Cecil Skotnes´ works are now to be seen in countless exhibitions all round the world. He has been represented at the São Paulo biennale four times, and four times at the biennale in Venice. He has also won many prizes and awards. In 1970 for instance he won the gold medal at the Graphica Biennale in Florenz and in 1976 several medals at the Grahamstown Festival of Arts. He has made not only drawings and paintings but also frescoes and wood inlays, and has designed carpets and stamps, the latter being for the South African postal service. Since 1979 he has lived and worked in Cape Town.