Professor Bruce Arnott (born 1938), who has just died in Cape Town, was a key figure in the history of the Iziko South African National Gallery and an influential sculptor who made an impression on generations of students at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. After obtaining a Fine Art degree there in 1960, he wrote a Masters dissertation on South African sculpture and joined the staff of the Iziko SA National Gallery in 1962, becoming Assistant Director in 1970. His impressive abilities as a curator and scholar were matched by his artistic prowess. He was a significant pioneer in the promotion and acquisition of traditional African art at the Gallery in those years. In 1969 he published a catalogue of the complete works of his mentor, the sculptor Lippy Lipshitz (1903-1980), followed by books on Claude Bouscharain and John Muafangejo.
In his own sculpture Arnott remained very much a ‘traditional’ modernist, focusing on essential forms, much like his hero Constantin Brancusi, modelling in clay, wax or plaster, and casting in bronze or lead. After a period of farming where he had been born in KwaZulu-Natal, he returned to Cape Town in 1977. It was at this time that he received his first major commission for a public sculpture in bronze, which was the ‘Sphinx’ outside the new Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. In 1978 he returned to lecture at the Michaelis School, where he mentored important young sculptors like Brett Murray and Kevin Brand. At this time he first received a major commission from the Iziko SA National Gallery for ‘Numinous Beast’ (pictured) a large, hieratic bronze sculpture that holds an iconic position on the forecourt of the Gallery to this day. This monumental work, which is rich in metaphor and mystery, was conceived as a melancholy memorial to the passing of the San peoples of the Drakensberg. The Gallery is proud to hold a number of other significant sculptures by him in its collections.
Iziko Museums of South Africa salutes the memory of a great South African sculptor, curator and mentor in the fine arts, and extends its deepest sympathies to his wife and family.
Professor Bruce Arnott, sculptor, mentor and scholar; born Highflats, Southern KwaZulu-Natal, 1938 – died Cape Town, 2018.