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Masterpiece of the Month: Ernest Mancoba, Untitled (1965)

Ernest Mancoba, Untitled (1965), oil on canvas, 92.3 x. 60.3cm

About Masterpiece of the Month

Reflecting on the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collection 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).

Ernest Mancoba, Untitled (1965)


This work by Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002) was purchased by the gallery in 2005, shortly after the artist’s death.1 Although Mancoba was born in Johannesburg, he left South Africa in 1938 and spent the rest of his life in Europe, largely in France.  He returned to visit South Africa only once, in 1994, on the occasion of a retrospective of his work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. This Johannesburg exhibition was curated by Elza Miles whose catalogue and biography of the artist was also published in this year. Both the publication and the exhibition were long overdue, offering a belated recognition of one of South Africa’s most interesting artists. Before the 1990s, Mancoba had often been overlooked in histories of black South African art since his work did not conform to recognised stereotypes: although he had begun his artistic career as a figurative wood-carver, with the move to Europe he quickly turned to abstract painting instead. It marked him out as an anomaly in a world of black African artists largely committed to figurative work that was passionate in mood and committed to socio-political comment.

Analysis of the work

Mancoba’s early adult education had been at the Grace Dieu Diocesan Training College near Pietersburg (now Polokwane), in Limpopo province. His initial aim was to become an English teacher, and he briefly pursued this career, but a rival interest in art was kindled by the presence at the school of Edward Paterson, graduate of London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts, who built up a lively department of wood-carving at Grace Dieu. Mancoba’s works from the early 1930s are all in this medium, and though some of them experiment with some abstraction of form, ultimately they are clearly descriptive of the human figure and of human emotions. A number of them are of religious themes, revealing the influence of the mission-school ethos.

By contrast, this work, from 1965, was produced when Mancoba had been settled for some time in Paris. On arriving there in 1938, he had almost immediately begun to move towards experimenting  with abstraction. His friend and fellow Grace Dieu graduate, Gerard Sekoto, who was to follow him to Paris a few years later, remained a figurative artist and continued to look back to South Africa for his subject-matter. But Mancoba was quite different. Looking to escape the stereotypical expectations of the African artist, he had sought inspiration instead from early modernists such as Vassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Moreover in Paris Mancoba met the modernist Danish sculptor Sonja Ferlov, whom he would soon marry, and her influence was formative; the couple moved briefly to Copenhagen in the late 1940s and there became involved in the CoBrA art group which was dedicated to Surrealist ideas of free association, spontaneous mark-making, and the creative influence of child art. These ideas fed into Mancoba’s work and remained with him when he and his wife returned to live in Paris. From the 1940s and beyond, he was experimenting with what later came to be dubbed painterly abstraction, made particularly famous in the post-war years by the American Abstract Expressionists.

Radical abstraction aimed to free painting of the narrative, descriptive functions that it had traditionally fulfilled. As American art critic Clement Greenberg put it, picturing and commenting on the world were ‘expendable conventions’,2 conventions which should be discarded in order to allow painting to find its true essence. For Greenberg, painting was only truly itself when it aspired to the condition of music, that is, instrumental music or pure sound. A major part of artistic modernism was the quest for this assimilation of visual art to sound, for something untranslatable into thoughts, ideas and narrative.

In accordance with this aim, Mancoba’s work has no descriptive title; like the vast majority of his abstract works it is simply branded ‘Untitled’. We are deliberately discouraged from seeking for any narrative associations and asked simply to look. However, despite this, figuration is not completely absent: the core of the image offers a vestigial trace of a figure, something like a child’s hieroglyph, with head, torso and outwardly-bent legs describing a rudimentary diamond shape. Mancoba’s first foray into painting, Composition of 1940, was a heavily abstracted image based upon a Congolese mask and thereafter, his paintings, watercolours and drawings frequently took the human figure as a core motif. Although Mancoba had left Africa, and abandoned wood-carving, the simplified form, energetic lines and striations of traditional African sculpture lurked below the surface.

In Untitled of 1965, the vestigial figure serves as the central scaffolding of the work, establishing its dominantly vertical format. The head has split laterally to become two flag-like wedges. The torso is minimally indicated in the centre of the work and below are the bent legs. Although by now highly abstracted, this work of 1965 is a progression from many earlier works which play on the same ‘image’, and this image, though highly schematised, nevertheless gives the work vital structure. Much of the white surface of the canvas is visible behind the ‘figure’, making it luminous and throwing its dark lines into relief. To the left and right of it are denser areas of brushwork, linear though softly-applied marks, which frame and contain the central image. We are given an impression of movement; and yet the colours are delicate – bleached reds, yellows, soft blues – and the overall impression is of something gentle and wistful. The textured canvas is everywhere apparent too and the tactile is a large part of the work’s effect: there are some small areas of dense pigment but generally the paint is laid on the surface drily, with the canvas is evident through it, like markings on a veil. Like so many of Mancoba’s paintings, it exudes delicacy and offers a visually abstract embodiment of playful thought. In later years, Mancoba replaced the vertical, ‘portrait’ format of his works for horizontal ones. He also largely abandoned the central figure. The focus on a visual ‘music’ remained in these later works – they were still untitled and made up of a tracery of lines. But now, highly calligraphic lines, generously spaced, led the eye across the surface rather than from top to bottom. These works continued the experiment with ‘pure form’ that Mancoba had pursued since leaving his native South Africa, an experiment that had taken him far away from his early training and his roots in local culture.     

1. It was purchased from his son, Wonga Mancoba (1946-2015).

2. C. Greenberg, ‘American-Type’ Painting’, originally published in Partisan Review, vol xxii, spring 1955.

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