Press Office

Anton Van Wouw - Bad News

  8 February 2010     Archived

The impact of the South African war, or more specifically, the second Anglo-Boer war (1899 – 1902) was deeply felt amongst South Africans when Van Wouw produced this bronze in 1907.

A protracted war with the Boer fighters resorting to guerrilla tactics was counteracted by the British with a ‘scorched earth’ policy, concentration camps, strategic blockhouses and drives that decimated the countryside and demoralised the Boers, forcing them to surrender and negotiate a peace treaty that would incorporate the former South African Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State into the British Empire as Crown Colonies.

Van Wouw’s sculpture captures the moment when two Boer fighters, worn out from the battle against insurmountable odds, hear the ‘bad news’ of the loss of independence of their Republics. Van Wouw articulated this loss in very personal terms: “Vir die een man is alles verlore en hy soek instinkmatig steun by sy sterker wapenbroeder; die ander een voel dat alles eers verlore is as die moed verlore is”. [For one man everything is lost and he instinctively searches for support from his stronger brother-in-arms; the other one feels that everything is lost when courage is lost.]

The two exhausted men lean on one another for physical and emotional support, in a complex elliptical composition that leads the eye around and over the sculpture, encouraging closer observation. Their faces reveal expressions haunted by grief and dejection, making the sculpture both a tribute to extraordinary courage and a powerful evocation of terrible loss.

Attention to the minutest detail both attests to the sculptor’s virtuosity and enhances the meanings of the work. The lizard, on the rock behind the two fighters, indicates how long they have been sitting there, immobilised by despondency. The wearied expressions, the worn-out shoes and the bandolier with only two bullets remaining are evidence of Van Wouw’s ability to put naturalism in the service of emotional expression. According to Hans Fransen “he was a naturalist through and through, achieving in his sculptures an authenticity and feeling for texture and surface detail which is unequalled”.

Van Wouw is acknowledged as one of South Africa’s foremost sculptors. Born near Utrecht in Holland in 1862, he received a thorough training in academic sculpture during evening classes at the Rotterdam Academy under the guidance of Flemish architect and artist, Vieillevoye, and later in the studio of Belgian sculptor, Joseph Graven. Through visits to galleries in Brussels and Paris he familiarised himself with the European masters.

The sculptor immigrated to South Africa and settled in Pretoria in 1890. His first commission came in 1896, from South African industrialist and financier, Sammy Marks, for the bronze sculpture of Paul Kruger that now stands in Pretoria’s Church Square.

This edition of Bad News was cast in Italy at the foundry of Giovanni Massa by founders and patineurs whose extraordinary skills captured to perfection the fine detail and finish of Van Wouw’s original model. Works of this calibre rarely come onto the market. This is only the third example of an Italian cast of Bad News to be sold at auction over the last forty years. The last example, sold in May 1988, was formerly in the collection of Sir Lionel Philips.

Having been acquired directly from the artist and remained within that family, this edition has an exceptional provenance and is in excellent condition. It has a rich brown patina and honey-toned highlights. Seldom do such well-preserved bronzes become available.

According to Professor Dr Alexander Duffey, Bad News was exhibited during Van Wouw’s first review exhibitions in Johannesburg and Pretoria in July 1908 and also in 1909 during a review exhibition at the Fine Art Society Galleries in London. The earliest illustration of it appears in the periodical Hollandisch Zuid-Afrika of 15 July 1910, where it is called Slechte tijding (Bad tidings). Duffey considered the sculpture of such significance that he placed it on the jacket cover of his book, Van Wouw: The Small Sculptures (2008), which remains the seminal text on the artist.

This major work, expected to draw keen interest from collectors and the public alike, is offered on auction at Strauss & Co’s second Cape Town sale scheduled to take place at the Vineyard Hotel, Newlands on 15 March, 2010.