Willem Strydom

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From 28 September 2011 to 1 September 2012 South African art lovers had the rare opportunity to view an extensive selection from the work of well-known sculptor Willem Strydom, at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch.

In this exhibition the artist explored the central values wholeness, proportion and luminosity in his sculptures and unique drawings with colour. Reality was the point of departure for resolute investigation beyond the surface. A comprehensive catalogue has been specially compiled for the exhibition.

Some impressions of Willem Strydom and his work  By Tim Maggs

Words don’t adequately describe a first viewing of works by Willem Strydom. I first made acquaintance with it by surprise – the occasion being a visit to the farm where he lives at the start of a project to record the old farm buildings in the area, with the Vernacular Architecture Society of South Africa – a project initiated by Willem and Julia’s concern for this fast disappearing heritage.

My first reaction to his art, through the surprise, was twofold – on the one hand delight and on the other bewilderment. Delight from the great technical skills of the artist, applied to the highest quality fine art materials, which provides immediate appeal, both visual and tactile. Bewilderment from the subsequent realization that there are complex depths of meaning in each work, which are elusive to the viewer to a greater or lesser extent.

The environment of the Bokkeveld, where he lives, is important so I will start with a sketch of it. The village of Nieuwoudtville dominates the Bokkeveld plateau (not to be confused with the Warm and Koue Bokkeveld around Ceres which is much further south). The plateau is defined to the west by sheer, cliff-topped escarpments which drop down to the semi-desert Knersvlakte of Namaqualand. To the east it grades more gently into the endless landscapes of the Tanqua and Hantam Karoo. Raised high above the coastal plain, the plateau has higher rainfall than its neighbours, though it is hot and dry in summer. Geology and climate combine to make this one of the botanical hotspots of the world; Nieuwoudtville calls itself ‘the Bulb Capital of the World’.

A number of remarkable plants have significant places in Willem’s works. One feature that attracted Willem to the area was the marble from a local quarry. This turned out to be unsuitable for his sculpture but meanwhile he had found an old farmhouse with its rundown farm buildings on the plateau. His lifestyle is both aesthetic and ascetic, working long and physically demanding hours in this beautiful but austere setting. That other wise man of South Africa’s interior thirstlands, Athol Fugard said in a recent interview – ‘When they open me up, they’ll find my heart is old Karoo stone … and birds and flowers.’ Applied to Willem, this would be equally appropriate. This then is the world of Willem Strydom, but it is not his universe.

Another world vital to him lies in Europe, its culture from classical to recent times, and particularly in Italy. Of particular importance are the quarries of Carrara and the neighbouring village of Pietrasanta, the source of both the marble he works and the technical skills with which he works it. A turning point in his life as a sculptor came in the 1980s with a need to change direction. While his drawings had remained representational the sculpture had been non-figurative, the ideas being ‘depicted through association and metaphor’.

In this difficult time of transition he found affirmation in words by the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti who had faced a similar dilemma and reached the conclusion that:- … no matter what I did, no matter what I wanted, I would be obliged to sit down on a stool in front of a model and try to copy what I saw. Even if there was no hope of succeeding. I dreaded in a way being obliged to come to that, and I knew that it was inevitable. … I dreaded it, but I hoped for it. Because the non-figurative works I was doing then were finished once and for all. To go on would have been to produce works of the same kind, but all the adventure was finished. 1. Giacometti, a Biography By James Lord. 1985. Page 154, Published by Phoenix Giant.

This change of direction towards more literal and explicit depiction required a search for more sensitive raw materials, which Willem found in clay, bronze and especially marble, the preferred medium of sculptors from classical Greece to Rome, and from the Renaissance down to the early twentieth century. Not content merely to adopt this new material into his normal working life, Willem felt the need to put himself through two years of apprenticeship with the master-craftsmen, marble carvers of Carrara and Pietrasanta.

The complex forms and richly varied surfaces he is able to evoke from this medium are confirmation that he made the right decision. He returns to Pietrasanta periodically, to renew old acquaintances and to choose blocks of marble for new projects. These are then cut and roughed out before shipment to South Africa and the studio. The two continents, Africa and Europe, provide the basic imagery, what one might call the vocabulary of these compositions.

Willem 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. Equally important in many works are the plant forms – sometimes flowers like the gousblom (gazania rigida) and the modest, flat-on-the-ground Massonia depressa or bobbejaanboek, but also the xerophytic elements, the succulent and thorny shrubs, the twisted and entangled roots of the wild olive tree, leaves, twigs, stems even lichens that can survive the cycle of the seasons in this landscape. In similar vein, the human figures are not pampered city folk, nor are they shown in smooth-skinned youth. Instead they are weathered and wrinkled survivors of time and the elements, who have learnt to live with and understand, even become part of, the natural environment.

Such, for example, are the shepherd in ‘Gariep’ and the ‘Plant Collector’s Daughter’, herself with a knowledge of local herbs and their properties. From Europe come not only the materials and techniques but also much of the inspiration. The fine white marble has been the preferred medium of sculptors for millennia. The Drawings With Colour employ watercolour on paper and more recently on vellum. The artists of medieval illuminated manuscripts used watercolour on vellum, as did some later artists, to produce intricately detailed, jewel-like effects. These qualities likewise illuminate works such as ‘Rebunie’, ‘Roggeveldeskarp’, ‘Toorn’ and ‘Karoo Visitor’. Among the subject matter, allusions are made to themes from classical to recent times.

How far to go in attempting to interpret the artist’s intentions, the shades of subtle meaning? As an archaeologist, not an art critic, I am on thin ice here, but would tend to agree with Willem that there are limits to how far a work of art can be turned into words. If so it should rather be a poem or text than a painting or sculpture. Athol Fugard’s comment on critics and academics is relevant here, when he says – as if there’s only one way to understand a work of art, one definitive reading to be imposed.

Yet this tension between artist and viewer represents a challenge and invites some exploration. The contrast between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional works is one point for consideration. Where traditionally the graphic works by sculptors have tended to be sketches in the process of developing ideas for sculptures, this is not the case here. Willem makes the point that – Since 2003, these drawings with colour, by their independence, the lavish amount of time devoted to them and the extent of their exploration of the subject have come to fulfill an almost parallel rather than supportive role to the sculpture.

The subject matter for the drawings with colour has increasingly emphasized landscape, though an animal or human figure is often present. The painstakingly meticulous depictions of these subjects might, at first glance, bring to the viewer’s mind the genre of wildlife paintings, works by a botanical or bird illustrator, the photorealistic technical artist who seeks to capture nature as a frozen reality. It is quickly evident that this is not Willem’s intention.

In works like ‘Rebunie’, ‘Roggeveldeskarp’ and ‘Agusberg’, where the individual components may seem naturalistic, the entire work is very far from a snapshot of nature. The juxtapositioning of the elements starts to create tensions, and ambiguities begin to emerge. Is the animal form floating in the sky dead or alive? The animal is not in natural motion – the bird is not in flight nor perched – nor is it frozen in taxidermist pose. The animal is somewhat crumpled and contorted, yet it is still looking at you with an intent gaze. Is it questioning the viewer’s attitude towards it, in life and in death?

The striking beauty of the feathers or fur seem at odds with the distorted figure. In this metaphysical state, somewhere between life and death, is the beauty in some way mocking or accusing us? Similar questions can be asked of the human figures, especially those in marble with all their venerable marks of maturity. What are the hidden meanings here? Their intimate intertwinings with natural forms implies a harmony with the environment. Perhaps there is also a reminder of the frailty and short duration of a human lifetime as against the continuum of time and the cycles of nature. The ‘Lioness’ is dancing for Lotar. Lotar was an elderly friend of Giacometti, the last model to sit for this sculptor, and neither had long to live. Willem’s lioness, a powerful African predator, is dancing here – floating ethereally above the ground. Giacometti’s Lotar, on the other hand sits immobile, staring straight ahead, his gaze seems to be timeless, extending through and beyond the viewer, to the past or the future. This quality of timelessness is pervasive.

‘That calm in the midst of such complex images and that balance’, are Willem’s words about a much earlier artist’s work but are equally applicable to his own. The demanding techniques and the high standards he sets for himself inevitably mean that an exhibition by Willem Strydom is a rare event. This one merits considered attention. Look up close to the drawings with colour to appreciate the fine detail, then stand back to absorb the whole canvas. The sculpture too should be viewed from different angles and distances. Look for the varied surface treatments and the luminosity in the marble as well as the forms. I hope you will have the opportunity to see these works and get as much intense enjoyment and interest from them as I have.