Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Maggie Laubser & Johanna Wicht

Charming Maggie Laubser painting Tells Many a Tale

Strauss & Co’s 2016 auction at the Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town offered many exceptional works by major South African artists. These included JH Pierneef, Hugo Naudé, Walter Battiss, Gerard Sekoto, Gregoire Boonzaier and Erik Laubscher to Robert Hodgins, William Kentridge, Sue Williamson, Athi-Patra Ruga and Ian Grose. 

Amongst these, Birds and Boats (R700 000 – 900 000) by Maggie Laubser is one of the most charming paintings by this much-loved artist to appear at auction in recent years, according to Senior Art Specialist Emma Bedford. 

We know from her correspondence with friends listed by Dalene Marais in her monograph on the artist that by 1929 Maggie Laubser had already visited Langebaan and adjacent coastal areas near her family home at Oortmanspost in the Malmesbury District of the Western Cape. In 1937 she communicated her desire to establish her own studio in Langebaan. Boats and Birds may be a view of Langebaan lagoon. The sails are billowed by the characteristic West Coast breezes while a glorious sunset bathes the scene in a rosy glow, no doubt fuelled by memories of idyllic experiences shared with good friends.

Of Laubser’s paintings from the 1930s onwards celebrated author Johan van Rooyen has said: ‘New vitality and a fresh spirit of exploration buoyed her work. Sketch tours to Arniston, Langebaan, Gansbaai and Elim, broadened her thematic field of reference. The close-knit communities of the fisherfolk of the Cape coast resembled the lifestyle of the familiar farm labourers. Memories of happiness were stirred as boats of joy set their sails. … Often present are gulls as agents of freedom.’

The repetition of billowing sails and the variations in the birds set up a lively rhythmic structure informed by Laubser’s abiding love of music. As Van Rooyen points out, Laubser’s mother shaped her musical tastes and throughout her life she was surrounded by musicians.

Maggie Laubser, Johanna Wicht & Babeta Wicht
This painting has a special provenance. It was acquired directly from Maggie Laubser by her life-long friends, Colonel and Mrs Wicht (née Claasens). Johanna Claasens had come from Victoria West to Stellenbosch to study for her licentiate in piano and singing. Committed to sharing her passion for music, she founded a musical club in Stellenbosch with Professor Hans Endler and organised regular evenings at which celebrated musicians and singers such as Cecilia Wessels performed while staying in the Wicht’s family home. It is during this period that Johanna Wicht made the acquaintance of Maggie Laubser with whom she remained firm friends throughout her life. Maggie had enjoyed weekly singing lessons in Cape Town. Her mother, a talented pianist, was a former pupil of Professor Jannasch of Stellenbosch and music was central to their family life. Professors LW Jannasch and Endler were instrumental in the founding of the Stellenbosch Conservatorium in 1905.

The Wicht family lived on the farm Schoongezicht which had been acquired by Johan Hendrik Wicht in 1887. Sold in 1922 to Mrs Elizabeth English, it was later to be developed into the renowned Lanzerac wine estate, hotel and legendary restaurant under the ownership of the visionary David Rawdon who was also responsible for the phenomenal success of Matjiesfontein.

Many marvelous stories are told of Colonel Wicht’s military achievements, his involvement in assisting business and farmers through the Board of Executors and Boland Bank as well as his political career as United Party member of the Provincial Council in association with Sir De Villiers Graaff. And Johanna Wicht was an adventurous and independent minded woman - the first in the Cape Province to obtain a driver’s licence.

After the war, the Wichts retired to their Gordon’s Bay house, ‘Af-en-toe’, where they regularly entertained their friend, Maggie Laubser who, by this time, was living at her home ‘Altyd Lig’ in the Strand. It is here, probably over a sumptuous shared meal, that Johanna Wicht acquired this painting from her beloved friend, Maggie, and it has remained in this family ever since.

“I want to express joy and give joy and happiness.” So reads an annotation on one of the artist’s sketches found in her studio after her death. It perfectly expresses Maggie Laubser’s approach to life and to art and is encapsulated in this joyful work.

Maggie Laubser [1886-1973]
Boats and Birds
oil on canvas laid down on board
39,5 by 49,5cm
R700 000 – 900 000

Acquired from the artist by Col Wicht, Gordon's Bay, and thence by descent
Exhibited: Carnegie Library, Stellenbosch, 4 to 18 June 1954, catalogue number 17, with the title Bootjies en Voëls
Literature: Elsa Botha, 1964: 102, 106, catalogue number 206. Dalene Marais. (1994) Maggie Laubser: her paintings, drawings and graphics, Johannesburg and Cape Town: Perskor. Illustrated on page 276, catalogue number 1077 and 1079, with the titles Birds on Shore; Seascape with Boats in Background and Birds and Boats.

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