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Discussion Two: The 50's & 60's

Discussion Two: The 50's & 60's

In this episode, Frank & Lizelle Kilbourn speak to Nel

about her work during the 1950's and 1960's.

 

Lizelle:

Good morning, Nel

Nel:

Good morning. Can we pick up where we left off last time just to fill in something which I had forgotten? I thought it was important.

 

Lizelle:

That sounds very good.

 

Nel:

We were saying that the technique was now replacing the object of the Cubism. <artist name> was the one who continued with the technique. And he said, “The surface of things give joy, but their inner goodness gives life.” Of course, I like that very much.

And then I forgot to mention the futurists. Remember, I went to find answers for my questions, and to find a role model or something that could be become a role model, and I found nothing. The last option was the futurists. It was Balla, Boccioni and Severini who did the best work. Marinetti wrote their Manifesto, and it was The Declaration of War. It had to be movement and motions. Of course, it was really what I was looking for. Well, they then had this Manifesto, and they were looking for spatial dynamism. And they did some good pictures. There's something that Zephyr wrote in the ‘62 book, which I discovered only after 2018 but I thought it was so interesting. If you don't mind, I'll read it to you quickly.

 

Frank:

Yes, please.

Nel: 

He said, “To say the least, it is hazardous, a hazardous undertaking to try to introduce movement into painting.”
And yet, this is just what they did. Then later on, he said, “It is another case of artistic wisdom arrived at by great daring.”
And this is exactly what it was. But then they also were rather too attached to the model. There are three pictures that I only saw the reproductions of so, I'm really only speaking of reproductions. We're still close to the thing. The thing is such a difficult thing to leave off in painting. That is what the Cubists did to it. So that is just that little bit I wanted to add.

 

Lizelle:

Quite interesting. I think the words (another case of artistic wisdom), “arrived at by great daring”, applies to you. Because as we've said in our previous sessions…

 

Nel:

Oh, yes. The whole thing was just searching, acting, daring, and doing. So it had to continue. But you know, they were the best example in those days. Also, to my colleagues, the scientists: they inspired us because they're good, dedicated people. They showed us how to work and just give your best. That was a wonderful atmosphere to work in. Because we were so close to all those big adventures that they did. And, of course, the fact that I had many writer friends in those days (not so many, but some writer friends), they were into those things,  too. So it just merged together.

Lizelle:

The merging of science, and of art, and of the art of life.

 

Frank:

But if you think about it, Nel, South Africa also needed a futurists. They were trying to break from the legacy of Italy's long tradition of classic painting and everything. Lots were of Italian origin, as you said earlier. But Africa was very much, at that stage, also still trapped in realism, and maybe Impressionism, Cape Impressionism. I remember that story of when <Pienie?>  did his first exhibition where he tried to do these more abstract works, and that he only sold one work on the entire exhibition. There were 30 works, and people just resisted that move away from realism-based art. Even if it's expressionism, there is still a real picture, a real object that is just reinterpreted. So I assume that the work that you've done where you went very abstract must have been quite a strong departure from what people were used to in South Africa.

 

Nel:

Well you see, this morning we talked about coming back to South Africa, into this place where people thought, “What is this really? What is going on?” I mean, it was so foreign. Just the word “abstract” was not generally used. People looked, and they didn't like it, which is understandable. I can show you some things seen on my first exhibition. I still have a few. Let me show you some of the drawings that were on the first exhibition.

I was always interested in light sources. I started with lampoons, still lanterns, and I did quite a few of them. Now after Cubism, when technique started to matter so much, everything, everything in the picture had its place, its meaning, and it was important. You couldn't have a corner that was less important. So the whites, the darks, the directions, the curves, the straights – everything had to be accounted for. So it was just one long search. There are three here, and they're all the same thing, but all pretty different.

 

Lizelle:

Yes. I find it particularly powerful the one that you've showed just before the last one, the middle one of the three that you've just showed, I find it particularly striking.

 

Nel:

This one?

 

Lizelle:

Yes.

 

Frank:

Ja, they're all they're very beautiful.

 

Nel:

And this also was on that exhibition.

 

Lizelle:

Nel, what was the year of the exhibition? Just remind my me.

 

Nel:

It was ’57. I think it was ‘57

 

Frank:

Yes, ’57, in South Africa at the <Lietgie? > gallery

 

Nel:

Oh, ja. You know, it so well!  And this one, too: my Table and Chair. And I later painted this in oil for my <insert person’s name>.

 

Frank:

Yes. In ‘65?

 

Nel:

I think you're right, yes. And this is… well… ja. You can’t blame people who say, “What the heck is that?” Because if you look for a “what”, you have a problem!

 

Lizelle:

What did it do to your morale, if I  may ask? This is perhaps not a direct, art-related question, but it still goes to the heart of the matter. We've just talked about how daring you were to do….

 

Nel:

We just thought, “We’re just doing our thing, and we show it.” And we hoped people would like it, and would look at it, at least. Later on, it became more difficult. Then one really wanted to get some returns. I always had good crits (reviews). The newspapers were always kind and good. But then you have an exhibition, and nothing sells. Now galleries aren't much interested in that because they must also make a living. I have quite interesting lots of press cuttings, thick piles. I was very happy with them, but that's where it stopped.

This is another one that was on that first <Lietcthie?> show. It's from that very nice <Gougar?> painting. I think Elsa also showed a piece of it in her place. And there was another painting. It was called, The Yellow Moon that was in these colours. And it was quite a quite a big painting, about (the size of) this square. And it was a major part of the show. That sold straightaway. That was amazing. For fifty (by the way) Guineas, not even Rands and cents! And we all priced our pictures in Guineas because that was about one pound and one shilling. And that adds to your income. And it was fifty Guineas for that picture.

 

Lizelle:

So that was quite an achievement. That seems like quite a quite a price for the time. Do you know who purchased it?

 

Nel:

Yes, I remember. It was –  I think I can say it now – it was Mrs. <Press?> from one of the big clothing shops. Later on, I got to know her sister-in-law very well, and they were lovely people. Very nice people.

 

Frank:

They are frequent collectors. They built this incredible building near that hospital – that’s where we had the flats – sort of on the border of Hillbrow and Parktown. The Press’s? built an almost New York-style, brownstone, four-storey apartment which was really, really, very, very beautifully designed, and very sophisticated. So that was a good collector to early on, Nel.

 

Nel:

I'm glad to hear that. I didn't know that story.

I want to show you a little something. This picture, I dug it out of the trunk with many other old things. This was done before I went to France. I mean, you couldn't expect me to paint that after I'd looked at <artist name>, this thing. But I only saw it when I dug it out about a year ago. Look at this going into the background. So it's been there, but I didn't know. And I was so surprised when I saw it the other day. Always, I had these things of cutting the corners.

 

Lizelle:

But that is also a lovely, really striking painting. That's powerful.

 

Nel:

You know, I think this is a good one.

 

Lizelle:

How old were you when you did that?

 

Nel:

This I did at the Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe. And this little thing accompanied me. I often painted it because I loved it so much. It was just this small, little thing. And I could never stop drawing it. And then there were the boat sails, the Boats.

Frank:

That reminds me very much of <Mondriaan?>.

 

Nel:

Yes, it is so. But then, he somehow avoided – not avoid, but he didn't use the curves.
I’ll be doing a lot on the fruit. And I needed the curves and of course, the human body.

(To Jessie in the background )You're really making quite an exhibition here today! (back to interview)

This one was on that first show, and this is the picture I had in mind when I spoke to you the other day.
When the object was broken half open so parts of it were more important than other parts, what was then background or space (in real life) could come in. And by the way, this picture my father bought on my first show. So that's nice to have it.

And this one – let me just make it clearer (to see). Just at the beginning of trying to find the remains of the object, they must eventually become proper signs/science. And the struggle one walks to get there!

Lizelle:

You mentioned the word, “flow” in the previous session, and that was the first word that sprung to mind when I saw this painting.

 

Nel:

Quite right. I think it is the beginning of “flow”. But it's an unclear flow.

 

Frank:

The separation of the planes (which, I think, you also you found that Braaf? did often) was to break up the planes in different segments to give it almost a sense of movement and a sense of different perspectives, which is beautifully brought together here, in this work.

 

Nel:

Can I ask you to tell me that again, because I missed something that you said there?

Frank:

Nel, I said that for me, those progression of planes in the background… so you’ve got the objects that, as Lizelle said, are flowing from the right for us to the left. But then they're on different planes, and the planes are stacked against each other, giving a sense of movement and also a sense of different perspectives in the background.

 

Nel:

Yes. While working on this “motion” thing, I found that there are basically two ways that you get it. Many people, like Kupka? (he was also a Cubist) also did that and he stopped there. I also found that I automatically did it in my early still life of Bottles. It is this – what is it called again – repercussion? Just one after the other – quick, quick, quick. Ah, I’ve forgotten now what I've called it myself! A

After that, I was looking for the “flow”, and that took a long time. Because still, to have some sort of definition of flow, not to have a haphazard flow, (that’s challenging)!
So then we started with exhibitions here. We used to usually take them to Pretoria, to the Association of Arts Gallery, mostly. And whatever happened in Johannesburg, I took to Pretoria. That was in the 50s the very early 60s. I showed there once, together with Gunter van der Rhys. Later on, Gunter and I worked together a lot on the Sasol? collection. Ja, mainly the Sasol collection.

Now, let me just see where we were going here… Okay. Then, it was a matter of exhibitions and values. Lietchie? was the one where I had several exhibitions; lots and lots of group shows. Usually, I represented at all of them, until about ‘64. We now had to take over from the Johannesburg Art Gallery, from Dr. Hendrix. I exhibited freely, but after 64 I thought that I must be careful, and I must try not to mix the museum with my private painting. And actually that was to my detriment. But doesn't matter. It's done, and I felt happy with it that way because they were to two sides of being. Each one had something very valuable for me at the time, because the discipline that I learned from Anton Hendrix at the Johannesburg gallery was just beautiful. It was a very intellectual discipline, you know. If you don't know a thing, you say, “I don't know it”, end of story. You don't, “Hmm...” and “Ah…” and all that.

Then, somehow, all my shows were mainly at museums. In those days, I was responsible for the museum. My work was shown at Potchefstroom, De Waal, Driehoek, and all the places like that. Also in Bloemfontein in 1985. (A big thing, that.) I put that exhibition together, then travelled to Cape Town and to Pretoria and later then to Potchefstroom. So it was mainly museums. Also, with Larry Scully, later on, Stellenbosch (University) invited us to the group show and then again for me personally… and so it went on. So mostly it was that.

Then, I really had only two dealers in South Africa. Because when I left the museum, there was this one exhibition at Goedte? Gallery. And I was very keen, it was going to be great. The opening was fantastic. Lots of people came (from the museum also). But Linda left the next morning on a European tour (or American, I don't remember which), and she left me with an assistant, with a guy. But he was not a businessman. And only the Johannesburg Art Gallery bought one thing, and Esme Burgen bought another. And that was it. And then I had nobody. But Wynard Gussera? said to me, “How about coming to me and starting a gallery?” He was having fun and enjoyed it so much. So for 10 years, he had his gallery there, in Rosebank.

There was one exhibition that's one of my best. I haven't got one reproduction of it. It was, I think it was my best show ever. There were marks and colour-shapes, colour-shapes and colour-planes. So it was actually a lovely combination of these black marks and coloured planes. But I have nothing of it. He sold the entire lot. That's the first time it ever happened. For 10 years then, we worked together. Every time – I think we six, seven or eight shows. I don't remember. 
Again, when he stopped, he said to me, “I can no longer go on because you need to be exact if you want to go on with it.”

So then for 15 or 17 years, I was at sea again. And then Dawid came to Johannesburg in 2007. 27 Ja, that was 2007. Then I remained with him. And he didn’t do badly at all, either. He was a bit more varied. I always say that he is a merchant of pictures and people. When he looked at a thing here, I said to him, “Why are you so quiet? Say something!”
Then he would say, “Ag, I'm just thinking., who is going to just love this picture? Who is going to match that one?” and so on. So he was really always matching people and pictures.

 

Frank:

Nel, that’s interesting. You did have two exhibitions. After you were in South Africa, you did have some exhibitions back in France again, back in Paris. In1955 you were in Gallerie Rebrof? and also at the Salon? with a lot of other artists insert artist names. So that must have been quite an experienced as well.

 

Nel:

Oh, that was. That is what insert name is also very interested in. That of course gave me a big morale boost to continue. And yes, when I got to the Johannesburg Art Gallery, I was now also helping in the library. We did everything there. We really worked six days a week. We all worked very hard. There in the library, I was so surprised to discover this little catalogue of the 10th Salon: French words. I saw that Anton had made a cross against my name, so he had seen it. But I must tell you that to obtain that job was very, very difficult. For a year I worked at the SABC. (Yes, in order to make a living.) And then during that year, I had three big interviews with him. Anton wasn’t going to waste his time on anybody that wasn’t dedicated. He asked me various questions. One was, “Why do you want to come here?”
I said, “Because I want to learn something here. Because I think I can.”
Well, I think that made him decide, “Okay, this is all right.” So after a year, I could go and work there. But then, I was so happy when I walked into the 20th century room which he had created, and I saw my teachers from Paris (their art)! It was Sajei, Binyon, they were all showing at the Gallerie de France. We as students thought they were the best ones of the day. And here they were hanging in the Johannesburg Art Gallery! Can you imagine! I was so pleased when I got the job and could then work there. The selection was lovely. In the meantime, he had Artists as well, for Cubism and for Egba. Yes, those were the two major ones. I think there was was something else…. it will come back to me.

 

Frank:

Nel, so you started with the Joburg Art Gallery in 1957, if I remember correctly?

 

Nel:

It was just when Pierre Nief died. And we had all the Pierre Nief – ag, it was a lot that we had to work through. I think it took us two years. Anton had a rubber stamp made. So we stamped the good drawings and there were a few that he thought would damage his name, so he put it aside for May to collect. It was a job of about two years. But it was very interesting, because at the end of the story, I got a very beautiful Oerder drawing (because I had spent so much time extra time on it). And that Oerder drawing I will show you one day

 

Frank:

We'd love to see it.

 

Lizelle:

If I may ask: during that time – let's say 50s, 60s, 70s – which other South African artists, if any, inspired you, or did you have contact with, or that somehow had an influence on your work? I'm speaking specifically of visual artists.

 

Nel:

You know, I’ve forgotten her name. She also appeared in the book that Cecil published. He called it, “Just Abstract Art”.

 

Lizelle:

Sorry, Nel, I missed that. Could you please say that again?

 

Nel:

I forgot the name of the woman. Because somehow, she remained, and I don't know whether she (eventually) left South Africa. I cannot show you a picture of it. It is in the book and I will find it, but it will take a while. Anyway.

 

Lizelle:

Maybe in the next session it would be interesting.

 

Nel:

Ja, because it was very simplified. Oh, you know, I'm trying to think of her name…..

 

Lizelle:

You mentioned Larry Scurry.

 

Nel:

I was busy on other things than what they were working on. You know, Cecil was very fortunate. He found his subject, which he actually continued through his life, and worked at it, and improved on it, and worked on various facets of it. And Larry was into abstract landscape... I think I would call it landscape. So they were happy. They would do those things, but they were not exploring many other things.

 

Lizelle:

Whereas you were continually trying to break the mould (no pun intended). You were never satisfied, as far as I can see. Once you achieved a certain goal, you went deeper, and deeper, and deeper.

 

Nel:

I think so. I used to say (almost always), “Empty the bucket until there's nothing left”. But also, this approach of finding the disorder, the essence of things, it's just the approach. There are so many things. So tackle the human body as the most important one. You see, something like the Pruning Shears reminds you of a bird. You write into that, and a whole series came out. Or you draw the first speeding horse and then you’re into a new field. So you’re busy with one, then another one is knocking, because creation is so varied. And that approach applies to everything in creation. So it became art in me.

 

Frank:

I tried to look, Nel, on the internet, to see what the earliest paintings of yours are that I could see. The earliest ones I could see – well, it's actually on your website – are from 1950. The one is called White Light, and the other one is called Yellow Light. Light and lamps, its seems, you have addressed at many times in your career, but clearly in the beginning. Then I look towards the Chess Pieces, and Glasses and Objects, and the Violin, and the Cello, and things like that. Then in the 70s, you moved into – (that was all, say, very objective things: a glass, a lamp light). Then you did the Crucifixion series and the Human Bodies, and it became much more emotional, more personal, not so much an intellectual exercise as an emotional exercise, in a way.

 

Nel:

It is the emotional times of one's life. It was at that time. And that first time, you know, you land in certain relationships, and experience joy, and you experience pain, and – you know the story. So that first one, all Crucifixions came out of it. Because if you start looking into the shape, you see these corresponding lines. Here we are just vertically into it. And here you have the two nipples of the breast, and there is the cross. I mean, it’s there. You can't help it. So you capture it and you use it. And the Neol (that means “emptiness”), that picture in Stellenbosch was one of my major things because I felt happy with that one. And then from there, it goes on. But I've forgotten the rest of the first pictures.

 

Frank:

So the sort of formalism of Cubism and those sorts of things are – to me, they have a very strong academic undertone to it. And then you move to something from that still had that same academic understanding and discipline of abstraction, but it had a much stronger emotional content to it. And that, to me, was almost a bridge to the works where you started working more with concepts than with objects. So the light that the lamp makes was more important than the lamp or its foreground or its background. And the Figures became much more abstracted, and the Ophelias. There was a new dimension to those works. It was almost like a new phase where you've married the formalism with a much more personal journey, rather than – I’m not putting it that way, but I think you understand what I'm saying. To me, concepts became much more and more important. We'll talk more about that another day, but I was very fascinated by how you went from there, to those sorts of very abstract dynamics. It was a big jump back to abstraction, and then it was very abstracted.

Anyway. Just on those periods in the 60s and in the early 70s, when it went to really abstract things were very interesting. And it was also interesting for me to go through your website and to see that in, say 1970, you painted a violin and a candle again, in a slightly different thing. So it is nice to see that re-examination of the same sort of theme. But then, obviously, all the different periods in between.

 

Nel:

Yes. You know, when you mentioned music a moment ago, I thought straightaway that of course, those instruments were so fantastic. You have, straightaway, straights and curves. And you could just go on with them, particularly when they are being used. You pick them up. You draw the person using them. And then it becomes a game in and of itself.

 

Frank:

But Nel, you referred to Sao Paulo Bien Nau in 1965. Do you remember what works (where there), and have you got one of the works that you actually presented at that Bien Nau?

Nel:

I think Beylon Sandri has got that one. But it wasn't a very important one. It was just a small one like that. That drawing was a drawing for the picture.

Frank:

Was it a drawing for the sellers? I looked at that site of Beylon’s earlier. Let's see if we can find it quickly.

 

Nel:

I think so. I don't know whether he’s got it.

 

Frank:

That show of Beylon’s had that beautiful Secateurs series which we showed at Welgemeend as well. And he had quite a few of the Lamp and the Light series. I’m trying to look at the website here quickly for that show, and I'm trying to see if I can see what drawing you're referring to. Ja, I can't really. Maybe we can do that another time.
But it was interesting, Nel, and we had a chat about that before. When you went back to the Telephone – remember that series? Those beautiful, abstract telephones; and (we talked) about the Secateurs, which were also at the same time a bird. And there was a sort of animal-like quality to the telephone as well. It was abstracted. Whether it be a claw or something moving. Tell us a little bit about that time period.

 

Nel:

You know, I've never been fond of the telephone. I had a German friend who was running the German national tourist office here. And she said to me, “This is my best toy!”
And I said, “Oh, you can have that toy anytime”. Because somehow, I was never comfortable on the telephone. But I had to use it. I had calls that were pleasant and calls that were unpleasant. And I got so tired of the telephone that I thought that I would take it out on it. And that's how those pictures were done. After they were done (after I had finished the telephone), then I became better friends with the telephone.

 

Lizelle:

Well from those days to these, if we just think of the technological shifts that have taken place… It is quite something, quite an achievement, for you to sit in Johannesburg (in Mellville, in your studio), and for us to sit in Cape Town today, and to be able to have this extremely meaningful, valuable conversation. And I must say that you look so comfortable in this medium. So even though it's not a telephone, in a sense, it's the same technology, or there’s that same distance between people – but at least there's a visual connection. And I must say, Nel, that you do this as if it were your medium from the start. You do it very naturally and very well.

Nel:

And I tell you, it all depends on the questions you ask. It's really important.

 

Lizelle:

Well that's a nice compliment. Thank you.

 

Frank:

Nel, maybe back to that time from 1957 to 1966. You worked at the Joburg Gallery, and then in 1966 you became the director. Wilhelm will talk in more detail with you about that period. That must have been a very intense period. But how easy or difficult was it for you to be a performing artist, while at the time also working full-time in an institution, in a very demanding capacity?

 

Nel:

You see, up to ’64, I was assistant, and so all the responsibility was with Dr. Hendricks. So I just followed what he asked and what he needed. I assisted. At night, I didn’t have any duties to go here or to go there, for lunch or for supper or what-have-you. I could just paint every weekend and every evening. And that’s what I did. Public holidays were big gifts. Also, in the later 50s/early 60s, I used a lot of gouache because it dries quickly. So I did a whole lot of things in gouache. Ja, it is true that time was very limited. Then after ’64, it became more difficult. Then, it was only when it was a very emotional need to get some things out on paper or canvas that I painted into the night – of course, worrying about what time I had to be up in the morning because I had to be up for my job. But it was a good discipline. Very good. Difficult, but good.

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