top of page

Discussion One: Cubism

Discussion One: Cubism

In this episode, Frank & Lizelle Kilbourn discuss Nel's early days of Cubism, exploring its philosophies and learning to see 'beyond the object'.


Tell us about cubism. Cubism, how and when and why? This is something that grabbed you, inspired you. That marks the start of a wonderful journey. Tell us about your journey with cubism and beyond.


What I am doing today is so linked to what I found in cubism. I could not have gone on without understanding what had happened there. When I left (my studies) Wits. 1950. I left with more questions than I could imagine, just wanting to find answers. We had learned about cubism and abstract art there. It existed, but what of it? And abstract art? People did not know about abstract art at the time, only a few people like Erik Laubser did. He had been to Paris for a year or two.

I went there to find out for myself. I loved the enquiring French mind. I felt really happy there. It suited me. I went to the Academy Ranson, related to the Nabis painters. I knew Maurice, who was one of them. Nabis means prophet. They thought of themselves as such. They came out of Gauguin, who had said something like  “a painting, before it becomes a horse or a woman or an object, is a flat surface covered with light and dark and colour areas, in certain proportions.” He was pointing to technique. That stuck with me, and with that in mind I landed at the Academy Paul Ransón where I met the two most wonderful colleagues, Klas Sans and Halwden Lyósne. They were interested in the kind of questions I had.

Together we visited many museums, exhibitions. We made sure we never wasted any time. We spent our days in the studio and going to lectures. At night we were in the library. This made for long days but we never got tired. We had everything there, all the masterpieces of our predecessors, and the book shops. We could just go on and never stop. One put into one day and one year more than I ever thought we could.

Eventually we started to paint for an exhibition and by the end of two or three years we had a show together.

During that time we met Michel Seuphor, a writer associated with Mondrian and Kadinsky, who wrote and edited two important books on the abstraction; A Dictionary of Abstract Painting , Abstract Painting: 50 Years of Accomplishment. 

He was very important to me. He was writing up the history of abstract art from the beginning but also what was happening in Paris at the time, when it was in bloom. The second book appeared by 1962 when I had left Paris and was by then the director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. I helped him to enter a few South African painters into it.

Let me just see my notes, what shall we talk about now? Okay.

What I found there (in Paris) was beautiful things but also confusion. People were doing their own thing because this new abstract notion was so fantastic. They could do whatever they liked. There was nothing definite coming out, though. You could take it or leave it and I felt that I still could not find any answers to my questions.

So I thought the only thing is to go back to where it all started, what was happening then and where can it take me? This meant I had to look very carefully at Cezanne, because he actually started people wanting to understand. He wanted to understand something.

He said: you can reduce nature to the cone, the cylinder and the sphere. He used lines, but his still-lives were never just lines. They were like little shots, sticking into one another and jumping forward. That really caught my attention and I looked more and more carefully at them. Perhaps that is where it started for me.

At the Ranson were the studios with teachers and artists Sangias, Selim and Furini who critiqued our work and lead discussions.

We’d work during the week and then had Friday discussions. We had lovely discussions about the quality of our work.


Maybe Nel, go from Cezanne to the cubists. Picasso and Braque went through that intensely cubistic period and then let it go. They never truly completed that journey and you said you felt inspired by what they did but also inspired to continue that journey, the cubism process.


It seems almost like it was a scientific enquiry.


Like them, I started working with the circle and the square and also the origin. Why did they use the circle and the square? I wanted to know: why did they want to work with the circle and the square? For me it was enough to know that it had something to do with the creation, and with opposites and with duality so I used them because they used them. It landed them somewhere, so it would land me somewhere. So what I then found were answers, but not consciously. All those discoveries just happened. It’s only in retrospect that one sees.

Eventually they used the circle and the square to the extent that they totally destroyed the object, so they were left with an objectless world in their work. A world without an object. That was a wonderful thing for liberation. It was such a new world. Everything was now possible. That freedom is what every painter celebrated, but some of them celebrated too much and, you know, that’s where one starts going wrong - if it is too good. I was not celebrating the discoveries, I was more troubled by the confusion that I found there.

So I continued with the work in South Africa. (I will show you the drawings.) I thoroughly enjoyed my continuing search in my painting. I was so into it in the painting process that I never read anything, I just wanted to find it while working. So there are many things going on.

Frank, we once spoke about post-cubism. I knew it was there but it did not interest me. I just never tried to find out what they were about. I was just trying to find out what I needed to know while I worked.


If you had to put that [which you were trying to find] into one sentence, [one question],what would that question be?


It has to do with the object. We are all objects. Humans are objects. We are the top object. Because we do things consciously. The painters are always involved with objects. I wanted to know more about the essence of the object, what is it, how can I show it. That’s what took me to cubism because that is what they wanted too. They broke it up but they were too attached to the visual appearance of the object, until they got so involved in their process that they destroyed it totally. But they made beautiful things on their journey. We all know them and we enjoyed them so much.

But then they were left with their tools only - the circle and the squares. They had broken down everything, clothes, bodies, everything, to only circles and squares remaining. Then they did not know how to proceed any further.

And that’s why… [because]they had none of their old objects left; their familiars like people and bodies. And what do they do? They go quickly back to their own object.

Picasso managed to paint movement in The mademoiselles of Avignon. An example of that is what Picasso followed with.

And Picasso painted, soon after that - it was in the twenties- those huge beach figures that were running on the beach, lovely things. But they were back at the object. That love of the object as we see it, as we recognize it, stayed with most people all the time. I would even; in my oil paintings of the later 60s, the middle sixties. They were still very object-directed too. You find them in the works at Stellenbosch University. They were still objects, but broken up.

It is only later that they became really abstract; and what is abstraction? It is really what the dictionary says. Removing the material from the immaterial. Then you find abstraction. Now that “immaterial” what is that? That can be anything for anybody else, but for me it was…

I was always fond of movement; seeing people’s legs on the street, how they walk, the feet. In the beginnings in Paris I tried to paint it but I soon gave it up. But having been preoccupied with it and then going to Spain and seeing those boats and their masts at the Torre del Marre, I saw them moving and creating patterns of squares and circle; the boat has curves in the water. It was a fantastic moving experience of movement and it stayed with me and it found its place afterwards.

Robert and I have made a booklet about it and it is ready to be printed with some indicators of what happened there.


The sense of movement in your work was the aspect that attracted me to your work at first. I still don’t know how you created that sense of movement. A number of artists have tried to portray that movement. Not many have achieved what you have done. Even someone who will come to your work with very little knowledge of art will have the experience of movement, for example in your horses. Do you want to talk us through that? How you achieved that?

Nel: Thank you I am grateful for that.

I think it happened because I did not destroy the object completely. I left it, part of it. That part of it became a sign or was hoping for it to become an indication of what it used to be. And that little bit of, let’s say an apple, a certain corner or of a pear, you see the difference, or of a horse and that also linked me to my original subject matter and I liked that because it sort of worked for me. Because it had been broken open, but not completely disappeared, it created almost a catchment area for the space which is now being liberated, because its opening up to space, space is invited in, space flows in, flows around it and away, and there you have movement.

It all centres on not having destroyed the object completely but leaving parts of it as signs and such things, and they are so important.

But now: how to arrive at the sign was another problem. Because where do you find the sign? Okay you work on at. A certain angle gives you an indication of a sign. But then many years later, just about the time I started the horses, I did some Ophelia paintings. That started at the discussion groups of Joyce Leonard, a fantastic teacher.

She posed a model for us one day on her veranda which had an awning made of reeds which cast a shadow of lines. I looked at this model and these shadow lines on this three dimensional body which created a perfect sign on the body, that was just a sign but it showed you the body. I though it showed you the body. There she was with a squiggle, her arm... and there was Ophelia. And from that moment on I focused more on signs and it helped a great deal.

But now I have been jumping around a lot.


Not at all. It is a wonderful flow of conversation. We are very hesitant to interrupt you.


I think sometimes of that reduction that comes with abstraction, and that line that you do. There is something very calligraphic to it. I was interested in how you married it, almost, when you started, with Cezanne; then you had the cubists and in the end I sensed that there was in interest in calligraphy and in the flowing lines and the ability… it is not as rigid as other forms of writing or mark making and I was interested to see how you almost fused these things together.


Yes there is a definite feeling for it. I went to the East in 1982 for the first time and I was so hoping to see something of the royal collection in Taiwan. There was a temporary exhibition and I did not see much.

Those signs, they are like signs but they do still tend to follow the outline so much, whereas I go right through the body. I try to find the energy line in the horse, the tension line that would reach from the front leg to the hind leg of the horse, that tension. With them it is still the border - I was trying to avoid that.

The Chinese painting is absolutely wonderful. I feel very happy when I look at them. I find answers there that agree with what I am looking for.

I was working on a few music pictures and I liked the flow of it. One of them is trying to make the background and foreground to work together to make the flow. I think I managed it. I would like your comments on it. It’s a bit full I would have liked it simpler but I think it works. I have seen that something in the Chinese painting. I admire them. They are so clean and clear and resolved.


You speak of not being interested so much in the lines as in the essence. If I may try put words to it: through the skin of the object right in to its very heart, into its essence.

Nel: …break its tight border which encloses and keeps it isolated. It’s like a person that’s closed. Because you cant help it. You cant separate life and your experience from the thing that you are doing, if you paint it’s there. Then of course the shapes, they cant lie. It tells you what it is You can try. But if it doesn’t work it doesn’t.

Lizelle: Your work speaks of movement, the word essence comes to mind. Your work is about the essence. That is a life quest? The word that springs to mind, as you’ve spoken now, whether its movement of a horse or of another object, or whether it is the sounds of the flow of music: the common denominator for me is “life.” Would it be fair to say that what you are essentially painting is life? You are giving visual effect to the life force.


Yes. It is flow. Flow was the most trying thing to paint. You have flow. I had flow in the fifties. In the still life, the atmosphere, the back ground of the old painting or the atmosphere of life was coming in and out of the object, but how do I paint that flow? That was difficult. It took years, after my object had been broken up and formed a container somehow, for some of the flow. But to actually keep the flow going so that it penetrates the thing and continues out of it -that took years, and on many things here you won’t think that they are related to flow but they were trying to discover how can you paint flow.


Nel, when we had that wonderful show of yours at Welgemeend and we were doing the walkabout, you said [something] about the paintings that you painted when you just were in Paris and just came back from there, [something] about the merging; that the object and the fore and the background make them all interlocking faces, almost. They are not/it is not not an object before [in the foreground] and off [the background]…It’s all related. They are all important. They all form part of the whole. ... It is beautiful how you sort of integrate all those aspects into the painting and create through it obviously abstraction but there…, as Lizelle says, there is a certain energy, there’s an interaction between those aspects that you immediately perceive; where there is nothing static, even in those works there is a strong sense of movement and of dialogue between the various components inside the painting.



You said it so beautifully. I couldn’t say it as clearly. I need people to say it. It is wonderful what you telling me, because that’s how it arose.

The moment you had entered the background, you had created proportions of how much background, to how much of the sign that you left. If there is too much [background], if there is not tension in the distance of the between object or frame, if that tension is not there to fill the space so that it is not just anonymous, then it didn’t work. So you created an inter-relationship the moment you entered the background; you were in inter-relationships. It is flow and interdependence that, in the end, are the two big things that must be in a picture for me otherwise it doesn’t work.

The beauty of it is that it applies on the painting level, on the giving level, and in life.

I think we also spoke about what all these finer qualities [means]. It is basically a matter of respect and care and being alert to inter-dependence to proportions to tensions, and to give and take, because the whole of life is to give and take or to give and receive and so is it in the visual proportions and relationships that your picture has. In that sense it becomes a reflection of life and that makes painting such a vehicle of expression of our daily lives- if that makes sense to you.


You express it very well.


But how do we put it in simple terms, that’s so very simple. I think some people have the gift. Frank has said it beautifully a moment ago. I find it difficult to say it. I find it better when I write. I’m not good at speaking. But here I am today trying to speak.


Very well, I will add.


It’s about life, life force, energy. The structures and forms all are linked together by that inherent energy as Lizelle said. Flow, the flow of life. But for you there has been a very strong spiritual element to your work. That’s the sense that one gets from the beginning [of your painting career] until now. Is it a conscious or a subconscious thing?



I think it was subconscious but it has become very conscious.


Can you share with us some of the spiritual building blocks that is encapsulated in the approach to your work.


I think, I have more or less indicated that there is this awareness of give and take, of proportions, of not too much, not too little, and have a balance, balance is so important. Okay it can be a very stretched balanced which is very interesting and it is strong. Think of your old scale. You can have a very delicate balance or a very daring one. But.. it’s life…its life every time. It’s not just painting, but painting tells you this about life. It is a spiritual thing. It can’t be helped. I mean it can be a spiritual thing, but it all revolves around the object and its closeness and its openness.

Because if it is closed, you are isolated. In human life that translates to being an egoist. In a painting it would present as a recognizable object. One would see it in the work and think; I’ve seen it before, it’s lovely, it’s nice but that’s enough for me. I’m used to it, I like it, I’ve recognized it okay fine. No, that’s not what we need. We need insight.

Mondrian said the surface of things give pleasure, their inwardness give life. He was the only cubist that went on painting these spiritual values. [Robert] Delaunay came back to painting and he painted beautiful circles, and it was in there but it was not pointed enough. For him colour was his means to express these things. Mondrian had squares and the lines and proportions and the tensions, and that was his big spiritual contribution.

You asked me the question and I think the matter here is, the inter-dependence and flow.


These topics are so important and woven into your work. It’s hard to distinguish between you and your work and this deep spiritual connection. The way you describe your work, the background the foreground, the object they are all part of one.

These great insights you have come to, that has effected your work, your success has a painter and also your life and that has had a transformative effect. Would you like to tell us more about that?


Flow. The flow of life is very important. Without flow, you become an isolated object and introverted and well…its no good. Flow is for me in the painting and in life, number one to create unity. Because with it... If there is not balance in your flow, you have no unity. And balance is a part of unity. And unity is very important. Everything has its place and its reason for being and we must allow them … to be. But I am afraid that is not clearly put. It is a difficult thing to do. You are right. The energy flow that connects us all, without that we are disconnected. If we become aware of that energy flow we express life.



I am thinking of the word harmony. There is a harmonious balance between all these things. Some of your works, like the dance, the run, music or the birds flight or music. That sense of what you mentioned earlier, there are things in harmony with one another, a harmonious flow of things.



Yes you mean the background and foreground, if you can paint them then they together create a flow and with the flow they create a harmony. They work together, that is harmony; together they create the flow. If they don’t work together there won’t be flow. It will be separate, just looking at the object, dead, isolated, boring.



Like the series Germination. If you think about life, being born, growth, the seedling coming to life. The first two leaves. It’s still in the fruit, the nut [seed] it grew out of; and that sort of sense of new beginnings and renewal.



Or else decay, slowly going down, ready to go up again – flow.



bottom of page