Visiting the home studio of Marlene Countess von Dürckheim in Stellenbosch, Maggie Mouton discovers a dedicated career artist whose layered geometric art is making its mark here and abroad. When we meet for the interview at Marlene von Dürckheim’s home in Paradyskloof, it’s a blustery day and I am grateful to be ushered into the warm, north-facing lounge with its welcoming fire. The red-roofed house, shared with her husband, Max, and the family dog, Ciara, doubles as a home and a studio. In the inclement weather it has the pleasant ambience of a remote mountain chalet, its walls and wooden stairwell lined with art. In the corner, framed canvasses for the next exhibition reveal the amount of work produced in this studio.
Settled at the fireplace, Marlene and I soon ease into a conversation about art and the many artists she finds inspiring; above all her personal masters Braque, Picasso and Matisse. Around the room artworks past and present show her clear progression from representational art to the abstract and geometric form that characterises much of her work today.
At 75, Marlene has reason to exude a quiet confidence. In the 30-plus years since she became a full-time artist, her work has been acquired by private collectors in the USA, England, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. Locally she is represented in such esteemed corporate and public collections as Absa, Old Mutual, Telkom, the universities of Stellenbosch and Pretoria, Sun International, and historic Vergelegen in Somerset West.
Looking back on her journey as an artist, she cites former art dealer Johans Borman as an invaluable ally and agent. Their 30 years of fruitful collaboration brought her valuable exposure and overseas clients. Though trained as an engineer, Borman proved to be a gifted gallerist who specialised in South African Masters but also promoted talented contemporary artists, among them Walter Meyer, Jacobus Kloppers and Joshua Miles, who, like Marlene, achieved wider recognition and significantly higher prices under Johans’s astute dealership. To be represented on his reputable directory was, in fact, tantamount to having made it in the South African art world.
It was at the former Johans Borman Gallery that Marlene’s work was discovered by Smelik Stokking Galleries in The Hague, the Nether- lands, where it is still being exhibited. Since early this year she has been represented in New York, too, by a savvy online art adviser with an extensive network in the USA.
“Now I want to go to America,” she smiles. “New York offers a lot. People are more accessible and prepared to take chances when it comes to investing in art, whereas here making a living from art is not easy, as most will tell you.”
These successes and her status as an established artist notwithstanding, Marlene is quick to point out an artist cannot remain in one place or repeat the same work. “An artist can never be complacent,” she says. “Art is a long journey and artists should never stop looking and developing.” For her this means that she keeps on learning. Her morning sessions in the studio often involve looking at art and returning to her favourites, especially when she’s mulling over a new subject or approach. This is what she calls the Inspiration Station in her monthly newsletter.
Many artists have been sources of inspiration. In America, there’s the Ocean Park series of Richard Diebenkorn, with its colour and atmospheric depth, and the abstract expressionism of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. From England comes the geometric simplification of Ben Nicholson, and Henry Moore, whose drawings Marlene regards as ‘phenomenal’. In South Africa, she’s drawn to Cecil Skotnes and the abstraction of the erstwhile South African artist Douglas Portway.
“I never tire of Skotnes’s compositions and sense of structure. For colour, I revisit Hugo Naudé. Then there’s Pieter Wenning who had marvellous technique. There are so many art- ists one can learn from … I’m fascinated, too, by what a contemporary artist like Jacobus Kloppers does with water, even though I work very differently myself.”
Having made her mark with abstract art – still lifes, figures, some landscapes and seascapes in subtle variations of blue – Marlene values the time she has spent refining her craft. Like good music, a work of art should express harmony, rhythm and melody, she muses. And colour is part of that harmony. Often it takes layer upon layer – and scraping off – to achieve the right effect, whether with warm earthy tones in ochre, raw sienna or Naples yellow, or highlighted with Prussian, cobalt or indigo blue or striking Venetian red.
“It was Matisse who said, ‘I dream of an art of balance and harmony’ and that remains my ideal. There’s always music in our house, most often Bach and Mozart, which I find sooth- ing and calming. I want their harmony and rhythm to be visible in my work. In my view, a completed work of art is to be contemplated and revisited many times, particularly if you live with it.”
Marlene’s most recent exhibition, held at IS Art Gallery in Franschhoek, was called The Stones of Greece and expressed her lifelong passion for classical culture and antiquity, a field in which she attained a master’s degree at Stellenbosch University (SU). Though her career focused on art – she worked at the Johannesburg Art Gallery under director Nel Erasmus before moving on to illustrations and art teaching – it was the honours degree in art at SU, under Paul Emsley and Prof. Charles du Ry, that set her on her future path.
By the time her two children left home, she was well known in art circles. Both offspring chose creative careers: Christian is in advertising and Gabriele is principal flautist in the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. With the dearth of funding in the arts, Marlene recently donated art that Strauss & Co auctioned without charging commission to help fund this worthy music institution. In a similar vein, the prestigious Bloemhof Art Collection was given a large Von Dürckheim still life that today takes pride of place in the foyer.
As the late afternoon sun fades, Max offers us the full-flavoured coffee that, along with homemade mayonnaise and German Stollen cake at Christmas, is his house speciality. With work out of the way, our conversation turns to the farm near Rustenburg where Marlene grew up – a rural idyll where, as an only child, she could safely cycle along farm roads to visit friends in the German village of Kroondal – the home town of Stellenbosch music fundis Professors Reino Ottermann and Richard Behrens, who in later life both became directors of the SU Conservatoire of Music. She recalls an ordered and loving upbringing, with a schoolteacher mother who insisted that she become fluent in English and Afrikaans. When she later married Max, a first-generation German from Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany, the transition to a new home language came naturally. His title of Count von Dürckheim, incidentally, has been in the family for more than 800 years.
In the pipeline for next year is an art residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, which Marlene and Max will attend together. On their list of destinations are churches and galleries, particularly the intriguing Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence on the French Riviera, designed and decorated by Matisse, and an outing to the studio of renowned German sculptor and painter Anselm Kiefer on the outskirts of Paris where, as always, art and cre- ativity will be the happy focus.