Inspired by the vine

Artist Cecil Skotnes, who died a little over two years ago, had what Michael Fridjhon called an “extra-ordinary appetite for enjoyment”. Vital to this was his profound love of wine. There’s a large visual legacy of this involvement – including woodcuts for the earliest labels of Delaire estate (owned then by his friends John and Erica Platter, whose little son Cameron, later to become a successful artist, he taught how to make a print).

The artistic legacy also includes the grander fruits of some commissions in the years around 1980 from the KWV – now a mere big wine company, but then at the height of its quasi-statal power over the Cape wine industry. That the government-oriented KWV had the sense to allow Skotnes (a founding member of the Liberal Party) to produce for them some of his finest work is surprising. I knew nothing about it until the current exhibition of the KWV Skotnes collection, now on a round-the-country tour.

The announced centrepiece of the show is a large assemblage of 18 wood-carved and painted panels. It’s called The Origin of Wine and takes inspiration from the ancient epic of Gilgamesh – though the scenes mostly depict moments and moods in the story of Cape wine, from the storm-tossed little Dutch boats arrriving in Table Bay to the aeroplane and ship in the final panel, exporting South African wine.

The sense of design is superb, the craftsmanship assured, the pictures replete with charm. Not all are entirely successful: human figures in Skotnes’s incising technique can appear to be wrapped in bandages, and the uneasily positioned and awkwardly posturing man treading grapes in a large vat looks to me more like Lazarus rising from a tomb. A preparatory sketch for this panel (some of these lively drawings are included in the exhibition) is much more appealing.

More exciting and compelling to me than the wood-carving are the twelve landscape paintings featuring different Wine of Origin areas that Skotnes produced for a KWV 1982 calendar. They are of similar size and format, all mixed media on paper (tempera, gouache, pastel, perhaps), all badly served by the old-fashioned dull frames, but there any uniformity ends. Each is a magnificently original response to the varied landscapes Skotnes encountered. If your idea of South African painted landscape is purple-mountained kitsch by Tinus de Jongh or the pallid, formulaic structures of Pierneef – well, prepare to discover another country, where mountains, rocks, deserts, water and scattered vineyards live and breathe.

Blood-red mountains writhe in the Klein Karoo, sheltering a strip of green; a bend in the Olifants River is grossly swollen to nearly fill the paper; the Constantia mountains are vast, intricate and abstract; the patterned ochres of the winter Swartland are cut by life-giving water. Rocks, water, sand and vegetation are celebrated, with always a narrow or broad band of blue sky above.

Skotnes does not seem to me a great colourist, but he is a bold, creative and successful one, as well as a master of filling the two dimensions of a sheet of paper and charging the design with power and intensity.

These are surely amongst the finest South African landscapes, and it must be hoped that, once this welcome touring exhibition is over, they can (reframed!) find a permanent public space.

Details of the exhibition’s progress around the country, as well as images of all the artworks, are available on the exhibition website.

First published in the Mail & Guardian 19-26 May 2011

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