|MAGGIE (MARIA MAGDALENA) LAUBSER
|Born in 1886 in Malmesbury district,
(Deceased 1973 in Strand, Cape Province)
1903: Briefly under Edward Roworth.
She grew up in a sprawling gable farmhouse, where from an early age she carried out her share of household chores and assisted with the simpler farming tasks of attending to the ducks and geese. She was nine years old when her father presented her with her first horse and, thereafter, during solitary dawn canters through the veld to watch the sun rise, she would immerse herself in the peaceful beauty all around her.
The family’s limited resources permitted her four years at boarding-school; at the age of 15 she returned to make way for the younger members. Restless longings and unsatisfied ambitions made her moody. Her greatest pleasure came from daydreams and the hours spent in the company of children of the coloured farm-labourers – idling in the pasture-lands; setting rings of stones around the stumps of the ‘Maartblomme’ which would erupt in autumn into brilliant and unusual blooms; scaling trees and chasing geese; escaping into an idyllic, urchin world, half real – half make-believe.
Participation in the wedding of a young aunt in Cape Town brought her into contact with an entirely different ethos. The company of cultured writers, artists and musicians intensified her yearnings for some form of self-expression. She persuaded her parents o allow her to take singing lessons in Cape Town, but encouraged by a friend to paint, she switched her classes to the studio of Edward Roworth. These lessons were disappointing and only lasted a few months, copying picture-postcards and resuming her earlier unsophisticated pastimes.
However, a certain restlessness had begun to erode her former tranquillity. Seeking a change of surroundings, she visited relations in Pretoria and as new independent phase began with her decision to remain in the Transvaal.
The most significant developments in her career resulted from a subsequent holiday taken with an old school-friend in Durban. There she made acquaintance with JHA Balwé, the cultured, influential Consul for the Netherlands, who was to foster her career and expose the unsophisticated farm-girl to a stimulating, metropolitan environment.
Her mentor persuaded her parents to allow her to study in Europe and she departed shortly before the outbreak of WW1. During the next few years her horizons were considerably expanded. Some of the period was spent in formal classes at the Slade, but although McEvoy was encouraging and wished to see her concentrate on portraiture, she found the academic atmosphere constricting, the outlook of her fellow students uniform and dull, and she preferred to escape into the freedom of the countryside to paint. On the rare occasions when she turned up for classes at the School, she confined herself to drawing.
When the war ended she lived for some time in Antwerp. In 1919, following a visit to Germany, she left behind the active social environment with which she had become familiar, to work alongside Lake Garda in N Italy. Here she painted prolifically; but very little of her earlier work was brought back to SA and it is uncertain whether the sombre scenes with cypresses and the studies of sailing boats that exist in several private SA collections stem from this or from her later stay in Italy.
When she returned to the Cape in 1920, Maggie Laubser had, in fact, had very little formal training. Her personal artistic inclinations had made it necessary for her to unlearn the lessons taught by Roworth, but the teaching at the Slade had not been any more attractive. Her unorthodox ideas on colour and the almost brutal vigour of her forms were qualities which stemmed from inner emotional requirements. They were anything but acceptable among the tame academic standards of the Cape.
After another period of work in Italy, she chose to make a visit to Berlin. There for the first time she found herself among painters who saw nothing odd about the way she worked. Through Irma Stern she met several of the leading Expressionists, but she enjoyed closest sympathy with Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, who, of all of them, was the one who felt the strongest bonds with nature's brooding forces.
In Berlin she blossomed into a painter of authority and commitment. There are, in SA collections, several paintings from the period which demonstrate her close emotional accord with Expressionist idioms and her particular skill at adapting those idioms to serve the subjects she portrayed. Ambrose McEvoy had undoubtedly been correct in trying to encourage her talent as a portraitist, for among the best of her German works are some striking portrait-studies, which exemplify her ability to recreate the individual personality and mood of each sitter in a powerful and positive co-ordination of brushwork, form and colour.
The course of Maggie Laubser's life following her return from Germany in 1924 was not marked by dramatic milestones or specific formative events. She endured the poverty and hardship which overwhelmed farming communities during the depression years and suffered the added hurt of ridicule and critical rejection of her painting. Inevitably she withdrew into an introspective world in which she recreated the idyllic serenity of her pastoral childhood. With a combination of passion and engaging simplicity she projected images of farmyard animals and scenes of shepherding and harvest - and for the sincere exposure of her emotional accord with nature she earned reviews such as the following from Bernard Lewis, in 1932: "…atrociously unattractive landscapes, in which not one colour, not one shape … has any similitude with nature!"
Slowly the pattern changed. As time wore on, it became apparent to the public - at it had been conspicuous to her small circle of admirers - that Maggie Laubser, for all her so-called 'foreign modernism', was more South African than any other painter in the country; that she alone had crystallised her people's identification with the soil and their simple, holistic view of nature; that behind the apparent naiveté of her forms there was a devout appreciation of the spiritual unity which binds all living things. But she was 60 years old before her contribution was formally acknowledged and she was not unscarred by long years of rejection.
Analysis of Maggie Laubser's oeuvre reveals a sequence of stylistic developments, which fall into phases of roughly ten years' duration, bounded by the mid-points of the calendar decades. The relatively extensive account of her life provided above offers a key to the nature of the changes.
During and following her study period in Europe her works were almost defiantly expressionistic. Her affinity with Schmidt Rotluff and his German colleagues is clearly evident in the vigour of her landscapes and the powerful, unconventional forms of her figures and still-life. Her style during the 20s incorporated strong contrasts of dark and light, with flat slabs of intense colour creating areas of vibrancy along the lines at which they met. However, although often blatantly untempered, her colours were never inharmonious. She simplified her images by stripping them of details, retaining only the essential symbolic form - rather in the way of a sculptor blocking out his subject in a cube of wood. Her pictures were composed of irregular shapes, briskly painted and animated by subjective distortion. She would also create a kind of visual shock by juxtaposing unrelated forms, such as a cat beside a vase of flowers.
She completed many portraits during the late 20s and early 30s - strong, positive portrayals - in all of which her sympathetic awareness of the human being behind the features is a conspicuous aspect of the work. A certain melancholy haunts these faces and suggests that they are as much a portrait of the artist as of the individual sitter. Though Maggie Laubser served her subjects well, portraiture conflicted with her working method. She preferred to paint without the model in view, drawing on her memory and insight in order to interpret more than mere physical appearance.
The 30s witnessed the crystallisation of the poetic folk-lore imagery for which she is renowned: paintings in which the shepherds and their flocks are one with the landscape, and those in which ducks and geese are related to the growing arum lilies and the daisies as elemental symbols of her appreciation of even the very simple and often amusing creations of nature.
Her palette underwent a subtle change as the deep rich tones of former work gave way to glowing, golden colours which reflect the influence of SA sunlight. Oestyd - or Harvest - is an often-painted theme which epitomises Maggie Laubser's pastoral conceptions.
A series of paintings of fishing life in the village of Gansbaai followed. These works possess a fairytale romance: colourful, lopsided cottages, gallant little boats flaunting brilliant sails, busy fisher-folk surrounded always by the emblems of their livelihood - the fish, the gulls and the sea.
By the mid-40s Maggie Laubser had staked out her artistic territory: a world of simple images, in which the harmony of her unsophisticated and untroubled youth survived. She no longer ventured beyond this territory. Favourite themes and scenes are tackled time and again; but, with repetition, the integration of shapes becomes less forceful, smooth curves replace the animated irregularity of outline and the previously vibrant colour dissolves into sweetened pastel tints.
Maggie Laubser was now over 60 years of age, but she was not satisfied that she had conclusively communicated her concept of the spiritual unity of all creation. The late 50s, therefore, saw a return to the simplified bird and flower-forms of earlier work. Now, however, the images are overlaid with fantasy and formalised into decorative motifs. Perhaps this development was a concession to the growing incidence of abstract styles in local art and an attempt to project her personal viewpoint in more contemporary terms. Nevertheless, it shocked followers adjusted to her familiar style. Surrealistic grouping, slick curves and psychedelic colours seemed to conflict with the very essence of her singular achievement. Uncertain herself of the efficacy of the style, and under constant pressure from admirers to reproduce their favourite paintings, she desisted from attempts at innovation, retaining only some of the more abstract surface-rhythms in subsequent compositions. In her old age she wedded these to her well-known personal symbols, using the abstract relationships of curve and line to emphasise her life-long theme of the harmony and mutual dependency of living things.
Maggie Laubser was 82 years old when the above lines were written. She still spent every morning working in her studio - a room unchanged in atmosphere for many years. There was the familiar smell of linseed oil; a half-completed picture on the easel. Against the walls were propped a range of the typical, small white boards on which she chose to paint; along one side a wooden working-counter, crowned by the friend Wolf Kibel; and, jutting from the open shelves below, the last few isolated items which she still retained from the prodigious output of a life-time.
A visit to Maggie Laubser in February 1973 found her, at the age of almost
87, absorbed - as always - in a painting of a favoured theme. In an obituary
tribute to the gentle artist, broadcast on 23 May and published in 'Artlook'
Vol 6 No 6, June 1973, the author recalled that last encounter: "…She
was awaiting us with open arms when we arrived a little later at her cottage,
named so aptly 'Altyd Lig' - 'Always Bright'. We sipped the usual glass
of apple juice and spent an hour or so in animated conversation. She reported
on the continuing horde of visitors and correspondents still begging her
to paint just one more Oestyd for their collections. Then she took us
into the studio to see her latest work and she expressed her scorn for
those poor souls who asked her in amazement, 'Are you still painting at
your age?' 'If I were not painting, I'd be dead!' she stated…"
Reference: Esmé Berman, Art and Artists of South Africa, An
Illustrated biographical dictionary and historical survey of painters,
sculptors and graphic artists since 1875; 1983 (260:261)
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