Sean O’Toole considers the life and struggles of artist Erik Laubscher as his work Women Arranging Flowers goes under the hammer at Strauss & Co on 12 October.
Rejection can be a motivating force in an artist’s life. Take the definitive ‘no’ that prefaced the start of much-loved painter Erik Laubscher’s prodigious career. In 1946, Tulbagh-born Laubscher, whose work is now highly sought after, knocked on a door at the Michaelis School of Fine Art and enquired from a secretary about his application to study at this prestigious Cape Town art school. The secretary relayed the prof’s withering verdict: Laubscher couldn’t draw to save his life. ‘Well, I’m here now, I’ve got to study,’ insisted Laubscher, who had travelled from Port Elizabeth.
Sensing desperation, the kindly secretary referred him to a fledgling art school on Bree Street run by Maurice van Essche, a Belgian painter who had moved to Cape Town from Congo in 1940. Laubscher hightailed it down Orange Street into the CBD. A few years later, at an exhibition of Laubscher’s work in Cape Town, Van Essche recalled a teary young man arriving and pleading with him to be accepted. Laubscher later only denied the tears.
Laubscher’s story is one of overcoming early setbacks and finding greatness. This is no hyperbole. In 2009, six decades after Michaelis rejected him, a repatriated Laubscher still life from the early 1950s was sold at auction in Cape Town for R1.2 million. Laubscher was personally ‘thunderstruck’ by the result, which at the time was the highest amount yet paid for a work by a living South African artist in South Africa.
Laubscher’s early wilderness years are once again the subject of focus, this after Strauss & Co, South Africa’s leading auction house, secured an outstanding work representative of Laubscher’s youthful Parisian period. Titled Women Arranging Flowers, this large oil painting from 1951 will go under the hammer at the company’s spring auction in Cape Town (on 12 October). Painted shortly before he returned to South Africa with his future wife, French painter Claude Bouscharain, this domestic scene is exemplary of Laubscher’s newfound optimism and confidence as a painter following a protracted period of wandering.
It was Van Essche who urged his young protégé to study in London, Laubscher arriving in war-ravaged London in 1948. He briefly studied portrait drawing under Frank Slater, a student of Walter Sickert, but then enrolled at the Anglo-French Art Centre, a newly opened institution based in the old St John’s Wood Art School. His teachers included John Berger, now a celebrated art critic. Laubscher, who at the time painted in a mannered style that reflected his youthful interest in prewar Parisian modernism, made numerous worldly connections. His flatmate, for instance, was artist Breon O’Casey, son of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and later a member of the celebrated St Ives School.
‘In 1949 my parents told me I should come back, get some decent home-cooking, and see how I would do as an artist,’ Laubscher recalled in a 2008 interview with Cape Town dealer Baylon Sandri. A riotous farewell party prefaced his return to Port Elizabeth on a small freighter. Laubscher did not stay long in Port Elizabeth. On the advice of friends, Laubscher in 1950 moved to Paris to further his tuition at the Académie Montmartre. Cubist painter Fernand Léger was the school’s best-known faculty member, although Laubscher initially favoured the expressionist Bernard Buffet, a key figure in the voguish ‘miserabilist’ school of French postwar painting.
Laubscher’s infatuation with Buffet, who was a year his junior, was however short-lived. ‘In the last few paintings I did in Paris there was a big shift towards more colour, away from the subdued, Buffet-type greys and greens of the New Realists,’ said Laubscher. The painting offered by Strauss & Co. suggests just how quickly Laubscher synthesised the various influences of his French education to produce a confident if mannered painting that is nonetheless a marvel of colour and mood.
Upon returning to South Africa, Laubscher’s talents were immediately recognised by Walter Battiss, then an influential critic and member of the New Group of painters. Writing in London-based art magazine The Studio, Battiss stated: ‘Cape Town is still the home of Impressionism, but the new and compelling work of Erik Laubscher… at a recent Art Club exhibition is a challenge to stale ideas in the Cape.’ He also praised Laubscher’s ability to ‘paint big canvases with satisfying assurance.’
The jouissance and vigour that marked Laubscher’s early work was no flash in the pan. After a ‘period of adjustment’, in which he continued to paint in a Parisian style, Laubscher discovered his true and abiding subject: the South African landscape. It was a trip to the Bushman’s River near Kenton-on-Sea that set him off on his decades-spanning trajectory describing the land in geometrical bands of colour. Laubscher once described the challenge he set himself as creating ‘the illusion of the landscape having continuing vastness and the painting being part of the whole, instead of something complete and contained.’
The success with which he met the challenge is evidenced by his selection to represent South Africa at the São Paulo and Venice biennials. Early on recognised as a ‘promising young experimental’ artist, by the early 1960s Laubscher was hailed, by the literary magazine Contrast, as one of South Africa’s ‘leading abstract painters’. It is an assessment that still holds true, insists Sandri. ‘He found his own voice in that period and combined European influences to the South African landscape, with astonishing results,’ says Sandri, who sponsored a 2008 monograph on the artist. ‘He was a great friend of Stanley Pinker, and together with Peter Clarke they were possibly the most important Cape Town artists of their era.’
This potted history tends to make Laubscher’s journey from art school reject to toast of the town sound easy. It was anything but. Laubscher supported his family by working as a colour consultant and paint salesman for Plascon for 15 years. In 1970, he switched from salesman to educator when he founded the Ruth Prowse Art Centre in a dilapidated building in Woodstock. Laubscher was the school’s first principal. Around this time his celebrated hard-edge style softened, but never his commitment to making work, to being what he was very nearly denied early on, an artist.
The auction takes place on 12 October in Cape Town. Visit www.straussart.co.za.
Image: Erik (Frederik Bester Howard) Laubscher, Landscape, signed and dated 64. Oil on canvas, 85 by 101cm. Estimate: R350 000 – 500 000