Masterpiece of the Month: Anna Tietze writes about Lippy Lipshitz’s sculpture, Landscape in the Nude (1953), for September’s edition of Masterpiece of the Month
About Masterpiece of the Month
In the build-up to the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collections, which will open in late October this year, distinguished UCT art historian Anna Tietze is presenting an essay each month shining some light on an artwork of her choice from the gallery’s historical collection.
Anna Tietze is the author of A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity (UCT Press, 2017).
Lippy Lipshitz, Landscape in the Nude (1953)
For much of its early history, the gallery struggled with an absurdly low acquisition budget. In 1963, this budget was greatly increased by the government and was linked to a stipulation that the national school of art now had to be a priority. With the increased funds, Director Matthys Bokhorst and the trustees were indeed able to buy much from living South African and South Africa-based artists, including this work and four others by Lippy Lipshitz (1903-80) in 1968.
The purchase of a group of sculptural works was significant. To date, as so often in national collections, painting acquisitions had predominated over sculpture. In the 1960s and early 70s, this changed and the change can be traced to the influence of Lipshitz himself and fellow-sculptor Bruce Arnott: Lipshitz was appointed to the Board of Trustees in 1964 and Arnott joined the staff of the gallery in 1962, rising to become Assistant Director in 1970. A recent graduate of the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Arnott had studied there under Lipshitz. Within three years of joining the gallery, Arnott had instituted a sculpture garden (on its Gallery Lane side) and was urging the collection and exhibition of sculptural work, old and new, from South Africa, Africa and beyond. As well as buying the five Lipshitz works in 1968, at the end of that year the gallery held a major retrospective of his work; it was the first such retrospective it had held of a living artist and testimony to the high reputation of Lipshitz in the South African art world.
Analysis of the work
Landscape in the Nude was completed in 1953. It is a work of modest size, designed to be seen in the round. From all angles, and from both front and back, it offers different views. No doubt some of this experience is hinted at in its poetically suggestive title: it prompts us to come to know it by moving around it, revealing its aspects slowly as we change position, as landscape does. Because this work is not large, it invites a close and intimate encounter with it, a detailed response to its internal variation. And there is plentiful variation, both in the basic form of this female body and in its sculptural treatment.
The body gives the impression of being simultaneously at rest and alert. It lies, full stretched. Within its lower half, a right leg rests over a bent left leg, but at the hips the body is raised from the ground and so the right hip is thrust exaggeratedly upwards, falling towards the legs in one direction, towards the narrow waist in another. In the upper part of the body, a bent left arm and hand supports the head while the right arm and hand, crossed in front of the body, comes to rest on the ground. But only the heel of the hand does so; fingers and palm are lifted to form a curve. They are poised, as if about to move.
The features of the face are not indicated but the face is angled out towards the sweep of the body, as if surveying it and the world beyond. Facial expression can add much to the affective impact of a work but here it is avoided deliberately. The anonymity of the figure focuses our attention very fully on the body instead; asks us to think of this as a generic female form, one which points to some abstract truth about the human body. And the key lies again in the title of the work, Landscape in the Nude. In this image of a female body, we see a visual analogy with landscape, with its rises and falls, hills and valleys, and open and closed spaces. The sculpture alerts us to the aliveness, the complexity and the comforts of the body, all qualities that we see or project into landscape too.
The two broad methods of traditional sculpture have been modelling or carving, that is, bringing a form into being by shaping clay (or its like), or revealing a form by cutting into a block of stone or wood. In the early twentieth century, modernists often extolled the virtues of carving over modelling. They saw in carving an encounter with a particular material – the wood or the stone – that brought out the intrinsic qualities of that material. There was a ‘truth to materials’, in the words of modernist orthodoxy. Moreover, carving a recalcitrant substance like wood or stone was admired for its difficulty, for the determination involved in creating a figure from an inert block. And finally there was a kind of pantheistic belief that this form had been inherent in the block all along and that the sculptor had, god-like, revealed it through the act of carving.
Lipshitz used both modelling and carving as a sculptor, modelling more often for his commissioned portrait busts but tending to return to carving for his personally imagined works. With the latter he worked with both stone and wood, using a variety of types of both materials. A man of his time, he admired carving in the way contemporary European modernists did, but he was drawn to it also because of its traditional importance within southern Africa where men had for generations perfected the art of carving. His work would always be a blend of both Western and African approaches.
This work is carved from teak. The deep rich brown of the wood is a vital part of the work’s significance, lending it an earthiness and calling to mind again the analogy of figure and nature/landscape. Lipshitz has carved from a horizontal block of teak a reclined figure and, having thus ‘brought out’ the shape of the figure, he has further exploited the possibilities of carving by texturing the surface: the top of the chest area is brought to a degree of smoothness, while elsewhere, on the lower legs, a more vigorous faceting is evident. With these variations between rough and smooth there is another appeal to the eye to journey over the form as if it were a thing we might find in nature, or more generally as if it were a piece of landscape laid out before us. Apart from the facets, there are larger traces of the carving process, in the elongated and angled stomach, and behind in the line of the spine that is continued into the neck. Lipshitz the carver enhances the body’s shapes, bringing out its rhythms.
Polishing and smoothing a carved form became particularly important for modernist sculptors who were renouncing lifelike detail and instead drawing attention to the beauty of their chosen materials. Lipshitz resisted the more extreme abstraction of famous contemporaries such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Constantin Brâncuşi but, like them, he was interested in enhancing the beauty of the medium through polishing. It was also a means of generating effects of light and shade. In this work, shade falls on the right thigh, the lower belly and right shoulder. It is countered by pools of light on right lower leg, elbow, left shoulder. Some of the qualities of flesh are evoked, but also the inherent qualities of wood, revealed by the craftsman-artist.
Finally, in tune with carvers of all ages but particularly with fellow-modernists, Lipshitz emphasises the contrasts of solids and spaces in this work. The lift of the body at the hips and of the right hand in the front view, the space created between left forearm and shoulder as seen in the back view, these ‘absences’ are as much part of the work as are its solid forms. Also vital to its effect are the lines of its silhouette, the deep plunging curves of shoulder and hips from both front and back, the contrasts between soft lines (as in the lower legs) and sharp (shoulder and elbow). The body is a landscape of diverse but inter-connected parts. In this work, as so many others, Lipshitz affirms his commitment to a very humanist form of sculpture.