10 March 2015 Archived
Born in a shtetl outside Warsaw, Kibel left Poland in 1923 to avoid conscription. He initially settled in Vienna, but in 1925 relocated to Jerusalem, later moving to Tel Aviv, where he met Frieda. Dogged by financial hardship, Kibel immigrated to South Africa in 1929. He arrived alone, his pregnant wife despatched to Warsaw due to visa problems. Kibel's arrival date in Cape Town coincided with the birth of Joseph, who would only come to South Africa three and a half years later with his mother.
Produced toward the end of his itinerant and tragically brief life, this outstanding portrait by Wolf Kibel depicts his son Joseph and is executed in his idiosyncratic expressionist style. While formally significant, especially given Kibel's role in the formation of a local painterly avant-garde during the 1930s, the work is also biographically important. Joseph’s “haughty calmness”, as Kibel’s wife Frieda would later write about this portrait, belies an unseen trauma.1
Kibel held his first one-man show in Cape Town in 1931. His vigorous and gestural style of painting proved too challenging for local audiences and critics panned his work. “Kibel’s exhibitions here were greeted with derision and abuse,” remarked Frieda in 1961, adding that her husband endured a “grim battle for existence”.2 Artists responded more positively to Kibel. He befriended Lippy Lipshitz, with whom he shared studios and also exhibited, and was encouraged by Hugo Naudé, who became a trusted patron and friend. But it was only after his premature death (from tuberculosis) that Kibel’s significance became the subject of active rehabilitation.
In 1946 critic David Lewis singled Kibel out as a “profound experimentalist” in his provocative study of post-union South African art.3 Walter Battiss, who along with Lipshitz was a founding member of the New Group, ranked Kibel alongside Irma Stern and Maggie Laubser as a “pioneering” expressionist and similarly praised his painterly innovations.4 A 1950 survey exhibition at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town played an important role in shifting public perceptions. Commercially, Kibel’s star also began to rise, Jean Welz introducing a selling exhibition of his work at the Lidchi Gallery in 1962. Reporting on the exhibition, News/Check, a current affairs magazine where Robert Hodgins worked as a staffer at the time, remarked on his “exaggerated colour-contrasts and hallucinatory distortions” and described him as an “eloquent talent”.5 Other notable admirers of Kibel’s work included Neville Dubow, who in 1968 co-authored a monograph with Frieda, and Wopko Jensma, who mentions Kibel by name in a 1977 poem.
In a letter written to Lipshitz shortly after Kibel’s death, Naudé, while mournful of the loss, nonetheless expressed doubt whether Kibel “really had a real chance to prove his philosophies about art”.6 This portrait demonstrates Kibel’s remarkable virtuosity with domestic scenes, especially portraits. While the influence of Soutine is clear, particularly in his rich colour palette and thick impasto brushwork, the work claims a more immediate affinity: Kibel’s well-known self-portrait. Like that key work, which appears on the cover of his 1968 monograph, Kibel here has clearly managed to distil his influences and focus his vigorous painterly energies. The result is a powerful portrait of a young boy raffishly posing for his father that also expresses all of Kibel’s philosophies about art.
1. Kibel, Frieda (1961) ‘Wolf Kibel’, in Our Art, Vol. 2, Pretoria: SA Association for the Advancement of Knowledge and Culture. Page 68.
2. Ibid., page 67.
3. Lewis, David (1946) The Naked Eye, Cape Town: Paul Koston. Page 17.
4. Battiss, Walter Battiss (1957) ‘The Last Bushman Artists’, in The Studio, Vol. 153, London: Studio Trust. Page 68.
5. –– (1963) ‘The Lonely Road’, in News/Check, 12 April. Page 37.
6. Naudé, Adèle (1974) Hugo Naudé, Cape Town: S. Struik Publishers. Page 14.
Important South African & International Art, Decorative Arts & Jewellery
Monday 16 March 2015 Evening Sale
Venue: The Vineyard Hotel, Newlands, Cape Town
Preview: Friday 13 to Sunday 15 March 10am to 5pm
Walkabouts conducted by Stephan Welz and Emma Bedford: Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 March at 11:00am
For press enquiries please contact Bina Genovese firstname.lastname@example.org / 021 683 6560 / 083 680 9944