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Masterpiece of the Month: Wolf Kibel, Still Life (1934-5)


Anna Tietze unpacks Wolf Kibel’s Still Life (1934-5) in the July edition of Masterpiece of the Month

In the build-up to the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collections, which will open on 24 September 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).

Wolf Kibel, Still Life (1934-5), watercolour on paper, 465x600mm

Wolf Kibel, Still Life (1934-5)


Dying of tuberculosis when only in his mid-30s, Wolf Kibel (1903-1938) could hardly have anticipated his fine posthumous reputation.

Born in Poland, and with an early adulthood in Vienna and Tel Aviv, Kibel came out to join his brother in Cape Town in 1929. Once in Cape Town, he began to work prolifically and in a range of media, producing drawings, paintings and prints in which quiet, almost mundane subjects were rendered with an emotional charge. His work was initially greeted with bafflement by a Cape Town public accustomed to a less complicated art: Kibel’s first three Cape Town exhibitions of the 1930s received a largely negative press.

By 1935, he was sharing a studio with his new friend, artist Lippy Lipshitz, who had returned to South Africa from France the previous year. It was a productive creative period for both artists and Kibel’s fourth exhibition, in 1937, was received more favourably. 1He still struggled to achieve widespread recognition, however, and he was by this time gravely ill. Ten months after his 1937 exhibition, Kibel died. In his lifetime, then, he was under-appreciated. His reputation been largely posthumous, growing steadily from the 1950s, to the point where he has become recognised as one of South Africa’s major twentieth-century artists.

Analysis of the work

The title of this work, Still Life, is the term for a broad category of art. From the Dutch term stilleven (motionless nature), still life refers to massed objects – organic and inorganic – arranged on a surface within an interior space. As a subject, it has a long history, flourishing particularly from the seventeenth century onwards when the simple objects depicted on the periphery of dramatic scenes became, for the first time, the central subject of a picture. Then, as now, still life presented an opportunity for a prolonged study of the look of inert things under unchanging light conditions. The genre quite deliberately eschewed human interest and any overt drama. 2It was a form of art designed for quiet contemplation of visual appearances. And yet when modern artist Wolf Kibel turned to still life for his subject, he invested it with mystery and emotional weight.

This work dates from 1934 or 1935 and is painted in watercolour on paper. It is a fairly large work for its medium and is a fine example of a Kibel work in which the plainness of the subject-matter is belied by the emotive undercurrents of the style.

The work features a simple cross-legged table draped with a striped cloth which spills off the table to the right. On the table is a bottle, some fruit, and some vegetables. These objects fill most of the picture space but just beyond, in the upper left-hand section of the image, there is an indication of some stacked picture frames, some furniture. The viewpoint is a high one; we see the objects from above, a device common to Kibel’s work and one that has the effect of making each object seem more isolated from its neighbours, more adrift. All elements of the scene are indicated with light, summary markings, mere dabs of the thin watercolour paint, through which the light paper shows through here and there.

What is the purpose of this image? It certainly does not serve the conventional ‘still-life’ purpose of dwelling on the minutiae of appearances. Instead the mundane subject matter becomes a pretext for an imaginative play with a certain way of seeing and representing, one that is ‘painterly’3 rather than linear, marked by blurred boundaries rather than clear definition. It is an effect heightened by the medium of watercolour whose lightness and translucency is at a premium here. The image is made up of watery dabs of colour, loosely applied. And this draws our attention to the artist; we feel his presence in the act of marking the picture surface.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, painterliness was a representational mode favoured by northern European Expressionists who used it to signal their strong emotional involvement in their work, but it was characteristic, too, of emotionally more remote artists such as the Frenchmen Monet and Bonnard. Kibel tends to combine the qualities of these different tendencies, conveying something of the gestural spontaneity of the Expressionists and at the same time the dreamy melancholy of a Monet or Bonnard. In this work, particularly because it is in watercolour, the quiet melancholy is in the ascendant: the translucent dabs of colour make the work feel airy and delicate. They act as a visual metaphor for a state of contemplativeness, and the preponderance of watery pale browns and pinks further serves to mute the emotional tone.

In a mid-twentieth century essay on Monet’s work, the art critic Adrian Stokes noted that many of the French artist’s works described a ‘frangible, crumbling world’,4 characterised by a sense of objects fragmenting, losing their solidity. The same is true of Kibel’s way of seeing, which typically dissolves forms and makes them seem to evade capture. But where Monet sought out subjects that encouraged this painterly style – reflections in water, melting snow, feathery leaves on trees – Kibel frequently recorded a very solid world of domestic interiors. in his handling of them, however, he turned them into something insubstantial.

One way of doing this – a classic Kibel device – was by de-stabilising objects, making them tilt, as the table and bottle do in this work. The high viewpoint aids this effect: the light falls onto the table-top from the left but, with little by way of shadow, fruit and vegetables seem only lightly grounded while the diaphanous bottle tips rightwards towards the falling drapery of the tablecloth. Kibel hides the near edge of the table completely under the fall of this cloth. It spills into our space and encourages a feeling of mergence with the pictured scene. All is indefinite, open, liable to change. Still life has become animate. The simple objects that make up the scene have been transformed by a mood; they have become the embodiment of a state of mind. 

Acquisition of the work

The work was bought by the gallery in 1991, from the Cape Town art dealer Joe (Joseph) Wolpe (1922-2020). Joe Wolpe’s father had established a picture-framing business in the city in the early twentieth century. Joe took over the business in the 1940s, and soon diversified into art dealing, promoting the work of South African artists as well as buying and selling major international names. In the 1960s, he staged some important exhibitions of his most admired South African artists. One of the earliest was an exhibition of prints by Kibel, an artist whom Wolpe rated very highly.

Wolpe was a practising painter as well as an art collector and dealer. He kept his own work relatively private in the early years, but in the 1990s he decided to close his business, sell off his stock and dedicate himself to his own painting practice. This Kibel work was bought by the National Gallery from Wolpe at this time. With new Director Marilyn Martin at the helm, the gallery was looking to enrich the existing collection with a wealth of southern African art that had previously been under-represented. It nevertheless recognised the importance of adding to the holdings of the early twentieth-century ‘greats’. Kibel, under-appreciated in his lifetime, was now incontestably one of this group.

1. A small group admired his work from the outset and a portrait of his wife Frieda was bought from this exhibition by the National Gallery.

2. Some forms of still life, especially those of 17th century Dutch artists, often contain much symbolic detail, but this is typically hidden within the apparently mundane realism of the scene.

3. Painterliness (in German ‘malerisch’) was a term popularised by the early 20th century German-Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin to refer to a kind of imagery built up of loose, open mark-making. He contrasted this with linearism and argued that these two opposing tendencies form basic stylistic modes into which art across the ages can be categorised.

4. A. Stokes, ‘Monet’ (1958), reprinted in The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, volume 11, Thames and Hudson, 1978, 292.

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