Portraits and the Landscape: 1886 – 1973
1 April 2023 – 30 November 2023
Maggie Laubser. Self-portrait, 1924. Oil on board. 42.5 x 34 cm.
Courtesy of the Sanlam Art Collection
Cape Town, South Africa – Norval Foundation is pleased to present, Maggie Laubser: Portraits and the Landscape 1886 – 1973, an exhibition focusing primarily on Laubser as a portrait painter, and her lifelong interest in painting expressive landscapes. Opening on the 1st April 2023 and running until the 30th November 2023, the exhibition commemorates her artistic output fifty years after her death. Laubser’s remarkable portraits, completed over a lifetime, is curated as a companion to Norval’s recent Irma Stern exhibition which also focused mainly portraits done on the island of Zanzibar between 1938 and 1945. These two remarkable women were pioneers in introducing expressionism to a conservative South African art public, and both were received with hostility. In comparison to Stern, Laubser’s work has – in recent years – received relatively little attention.
The portraits, hung chronologically, enable the viewer to reflect on shifts in her style, different influences and varied concerns. The changes in Laubser’s portraits correspond with her sojourns in various countries in Europe – Britain, Belgium, Italy and Germany – from 1914 to 1924. During this period, she came home to South Africa a number of times, before her permanent return.
Both Laubser and Stern spent time in Berlin after World War I, and moved in the circles of the major German Expressionist artists, including Max Pechstein, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Franz Marc. Laubser’s brusque portraits from this period form a pivotal grouping on this exhibition. Due to personal and financial circumstances, Laubser returned to Cape Town, and then to the rural environment and farming community of her childhood, which then became the subject matter for the later part of her career. A number of significant landscapes serve as a vertical counterpoint to the horizontal time-line of portraits, and serve to identify shifts between the countries and cities in which she lived and painted. In this exhibition, some of the most telling of Laubser’s portraits and landscapes highlight the parallel investigations that she undertook throughout her artistic life. Not ever having the means to return to Europe, Laubser nevertheless retained her commitment as a painter in a cultural environment that ascribed no particular significance to being an artist. Her subject matter – of people engaged in lives of herding, harvesting, and fishing – resonates with works produced by earlier artists such as Millais, Van Gogh and Gaugin, all of whom had turned away from urban life to rural contexts in search of reconnection with simpler forms of being. With her return to her familial context, her work engages – unlike that of Stern – with the specialness of the ordinary.