An extraordinary discovery was made when the owners of a beautiful Maggie Laubser painting decided to reframe it. To their surprise, they found an equally good painting on the back. According to Stephan Welz, South Africa’s top modern art expert and auctioneer, this remarkable double-sided painting, which is to be offered at Strauss & Co’s 21 October auction at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands, also has an impeccable provenance and interesting history.
It was purchased by Francois Petrus (Toon) van den Heever from an exhibition in Bloemfontein, and later given to his only daughter, Leonora, sometime before 1959. Following a brilliant legal career, that included practising at the Bar at Windhoek from 1921, Toon van den Heever was appointed Senior Law Advisor to the Union Government. In 1931 he was Secretary for Justice, Law Advisor for External Affairs and Government Attorney. Thereafter he was appointed to the Bench in Windhoek and transferred to Bloemfontein in the Appeal Court.
He was instrumental in according Afrikaans equal status with English and was the outstanding new poet of the 1920s, whose anti-conformist verse foreshadowed the great upsurge of ‘new’ Afrikaans poetry in the 1930s. Drawing on conflicts in the transition from a rural to an urban society, his poetry implied a natural bond between the farmer and the soil. Included in his circle of close friends were Eugène Marais and JH Pierneef, who produced several portraits of Toon.
Judge Leonora van den Heever is the first and for twenty years was the only woman to have been appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court in South Africa. She was also the first female judge appointed to the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein.
The landscape painting is undoubtedly a key painting in the development of South African modernism, says Emma Bedford, Senior Art Specialist at Strauss & Co. Beneath a shimmering lilac sky, the dazzling ultramarine sea is bracketed by an olive green cypress and the gnarled orange and mauve trunk and teal leaves of what is probably an olive tree. These motifs are typical of her Italian paintings produced while living and painting near Lake Garda in 1920 and on her return to Italy in 1921. While her brilliant treatment of the subject evinces the vividness of observed reality, Laubser may well have worked from her sketches to paint this on her return to South Africa.
The shepherd, who worked on the family farm Oortmanspoort, was a favourite subject. With his hands folded together under his chin, as if leaning on a stick, he is shown surrounded by sheep in the cool fields of an early morning. The brightening sky of on either side of his hat, with jaunty feather proudly inserted into the band, and his crimson scarf reflected in the warm tones of his skin, highlight the artist’s empathetic portrayal of the local farm workers.
Echoing Toon van der Heever’s poetic explorations of the ties binding farmers to the soil, the portrait epitomises the pastoral idylls that have made Laubser such a sought-after artist in South Africa. By contrast, the landscape retains all the vigour of her German Expressionism mentors while hinting at the life of languor evoked in Henri Matisse’s Riviera vacation paintings.
These two paintings, the landscape inspired by her studies and travels in Europe and the shepherd evoking her local agricultural roots, encapsulate the multifaceted nature of Maggie Laubser who, despite her humble origins, made one of the most important contributions towards redefining South African art.
In describing the shift that occurred in the artist’s style during her sojourn in Italy between October 1920 and August 1921, art historian, Liz Delmont, says that while Maggie Laubser continued to paint directly from nature:
there is a definite shift from the descriptive picturesque interpretation practised up until this time, to a more abstracted decorative style, in which there is a simplification of form, reduction of detail and intensification of hues …
Laubser’s development while in Belgium, but more particularly in Italy, towards a stronger and more high-keyed palette should be understood within the context of her ideas and beliefs. For her, very clear and recognizable forms were to be found in nature … This mode of perceiving finds its parallel in her painting for, by using stronger, purer colours and greater contrasts of hues in large defined areas, there is an intensification and clarity of shape. By her use of colour, therefore, she expressed her consciousness of structure rather than superficial appearance in nature thus creating a work of clarity and order, paralleling the “perfection of creation”.