In an innovative juxtaposition, the Rupert Museum has created an intriguing conversation between four master sculptors from starkly different backgrounds and eras, writes Willem Pretorius.
The Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch recently lent its imposing space to sculptures, mostly bronzes, created by four diverse sculptors from two continents and different centuries. This led to an animated conversation between the works, which are both monumental and diminutive.
The exhibition Casted comprised mainly bronzes and featured two old masters, Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929) from France, and the father of South African sculpture, Anton van Wouw (1862–1945). Both are known for their monumental sculptures as well as their much smaller maquettes. The current era was represented by the works of Dylan Lewis (born in 1964) and Nandipha Mntambo (1982).
[Although the exhibition has changed since Willem Pretorius visited, art lovers can still enjoy a display of masterful bronzes. The current exhibition of Casted, which runs until 26 March 2023, also features four sculptors. The Van Wouw works have now been joined by sculptures created by Käthe Kollwitz, Wim Botha and Angus Taylor. – Ed.]
The conversations between their sculptures shed light on how the artists investigated and figuratively expressed their society and environment. Van Wouw’s exploration of the African reality was literally continents apart from the oeuvre of Bourdelle, who found inspiration in nature and mythology.
The current discourse about art would probably concentrate on the political correctness of their works. But beyond the debate about what is right and what is wrong, good or evil, exploitation and colonial superiority, there surely should be common ground where we can meet and simply talk about art.
The glimpse this exhibition gave into the works of Van Wouw is important in that it demonstrates the range and diversity of his creations. These days he is often disregarded and his works derided for promoting a narrow nationalism, but every generation views and judges according to its own light. To be judgemental is probably easier than to appreciate art that has stood the test of time.
Bourdelle’s textures and colours are more gritty than Van Wouw’s, especially when his contorted mask of Beethoven (1901) is viewed from up close. However, this is not characteristic of his works in this exhibition; the mythological figures and that of Jeanne at prayer are finely moulded.
In addition to the two masters, the works of two contemporary South African artists were on view: Dylan Lewis (born in 1964) and Nandipha Mntambo (1982). Their monumental works are indeed breathtaking, but their maquettes are equally admirable.
The Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden in Stellenbosch is one of my favourite spots and it was fascinating to look at works that are usually observed in nature, surrounded by mountains, but here were ‘framed’ in a totally different way.
Nandipha Mntambo’s two imposing women warriors dominated the space, not only because they are gigantic, but also because of this young sculptor’s striking use of colour. The one woman, battle-ready with something like an old flintlock in her hand, regarded with arrogance the ‘Afrizon’ with drawn sword next to her – a powerful reversal of the gender roles. Mntambo is known mostly for cowhide sculptures of herself, but here she explored new horizons. These sculptures impressed not by virtue of their scale, but thanks to her ingenious creativity.
This exhibition let Europe talk to Africa and examined political issues and the constant of change. The placement of the monumental works next to maquettes, the various colours and textures and the divergent subject matter all called for repeated visits. The works of Bourdelle and Van Wouw have withstood the test of time. Next to them the younger generation, Lewis and Mntambo, challenge the world by looking at it with new eyes. This in itself made a visit worthwhile.
AGOODJIE I & II (2021)
Nandipha Mntambo reverses the normal gender stereotypes in her striking works depicting the Agoodjie, the almost mythical women warriors of the kingdom of Dahomey (Benin). The fine shells on the back of the one woman are an intriguing addition. Mntambo’s sculptures fascinate and resonate with the earlier works of Lewis depicting the beast in man. Her Zeus (2009), a woman with horns on her head and ears like that of a buffalo, harks back to Greek mythology and fuses it with African reality.
MASK OF BEETHOVEN (1901)
Bourdelle was fascinated by Beethoven since, as a young man, he saw a picture of the composer and was struck by the resemblance to himself. That led to various masks and sculptures of which this one on show is a powerful and raw depiction of the tormented composer.
BACCHANTE WITH CROSSED LEGS (1911)
Antoine Bourdelle’s Bacchante with crossed legs exhibits a charming playfulness. It is not surprising that he is still regarded as one of France’s great masters and is mentioned in the same breath as Rodin, for whom he had great admiration.
SLEGTE NUUS (1907)
Anton van Wouw’s poignant bronze sculpture Slegte Nuus shows two exhausted burgher soldiers of the South African War leaning against each other, staring in despair into nothingness. You could lose yourself in the minutely rendered detail – the laces of their veldskoene, an abandoned bandolier draped over a rock – but the pathos of the entire work has universal appeal.
The same exceptional artistry evident in Slegte Nuus can be observed in Van Wouw’s sculpture of the hunter. He depicted the diverse peoples of South Africa in an utterly realistic way, with an underlying respect for the dignity of his subjects. The attention to detail and the finishing are astounding.
Rupert Museum’s weekly tours and more
Guided tours of the Rupert Museum are run, free of charge, every Wednesday and Friday from 11:00-12:00 and 13:00-14:00. Walkins are welcome, but you can also book your time slot here.
In addition, Museum Saturdays is hosted every last Saturday of the month, when art workshops, talks and the like are held. Check the website or social media for more information.
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