Jacques Viljoen in residency at ISANG
by Andrew Lamprecht, Curator of Breaking Down the Walls at the Iziko South African National Gallery
Soon after the opening of Breaking Down the Walls at the Iziko South African National Gallery, artist Jacques Viljoen began working in the gallery as artist-in-residence responding to the works on exhibition. The next phase of his residency will include interactive art demonstrations and classes with the public.
Jacques completed a BA in Fine Art at The University of Cape Town in 2011, before moving to The United Kingdom where he exhibited at The Royal Society of Portrait Painters amongst other group shows. In 2018, he began studying academic drawing and painting at The Florence Academy of Art and lived in Florence until the 2020 pandemic and lockdown reached Italy. He has since relocated to Cape Town, where he now lives and works as a painter.
Known for working exclusively from life and painting “en plein air”, in a representational manner, he began by making “master copies” of selected works on display, including John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Field Marshall Viscount Allenby (undated) and James Jebusa Shannon’s The Purple Stocking (1883). These are particularly difficult paintings to copy and making master copies of existing works is part of a tradition at national galleries all over the world, some of whom even close their doors on specific days so that artists and students may engage in the practice. Many such copies, including Viljoen’s, are made at “sight size”, i.e. the same size as the original but using only the eye to make the relevant marks on the copyist’s canvas. Interestingly, it is known that Sargent himself made copies of works by Diego Velázquez in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Since then, Viljoen has been working on portraits of people standing in front of works on the exhibition, combining his expertise as a naturalistic portraitist with his skill at making exact copies of extant works.
Viljoen notes that “Oil painting is such a vast and deep artform that one cannot possibly hope to tackle it alone. This is why there has been a long tradition of artists copying other painter’s work as part of their practice.”
His presence in the gallery has attracted much attention from visitors to Breaking Down the Walls.
Says Viljoen, “I found it interesting to watch people interact with paintings in the Iziko South African National Gallery while I was working on my copies, and often asked them about how they felt about certain works. Everyone seemed to have a different feeling towards every painting and no two opinions were the same. For me, this was further proof that art encompasses the entire human experience, so there is space in the world for all kinds of work – and this includes contemporary realism, something which most South Africans haven’t been exposed to”.
Though his work is highly realistic it is not what may be called a photographic copy. He states: “Painting has nothing to do with photography. Photography is its own artform and should be respected. Painting and drawing however, are joined at the hip. For me, the act of working directly from life, with no intermediary medium or mechanical assistance, is of utmost importance as the final artwork becomes a culmination of the artist’s entire life experiences up to that point, as well as a documentation of time shared with one’s subject matter. In the age of AI and mass-produced art, the implied humanism and intensely personal nature of this kind of work is what gives it value and why people can connect with it so easily.”