Christo Coetzee

(1929 - 2001)

About

“The unreasonable, the ridiculous and the absurd in everyday life became its most interesting ingredient, like the currants in a bun.” Christo Coetzee.

Christo Coetzee’s success in the international art world was a far cry from his humble origins in South Africa. He was born in Johannesburg in 1929 during the Depression into a very traditional Afrikaans family. Despite his Afrikaner background and the fact that he was exposed to the conservative values of the Protestant Reformed church, he chose to study art at the liberal University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 1947. It was here that Coetzee became an integral part of the so-called Wits group, which included fellow students, amongst which were, Cecil Skotnes, Larry Scully and Gordon Vorster. From these early days of his professional career, Coetzee displayed a non-conformist approach to painting. While his progressive contemporaries were engrossed in intensive experiment with abstract idioms and were telescoping the time-lag between South African and international artistic orientation, the young graduate launched himself into public view in 1951 with a parade of retrospective nostalgia.

After being awarded a post-graduate scholarship from Wits in 1951, Coetzee left South Africa to enrol at the Slade School of Art in London.  In the following year, Coetzee married Marjorie Long and together they embarked on a tour of Spain. It was here that he came into contact with the baroque architecture of Gaudi, which became a lasting point of inspiration throughout his career. Coetzee returned to South Africa in 1953, but left for Europe again in the same year due to the monotony of the positions he filled whilst in South Africa. He settled in London for a few years and in 1956 received a four-month travelling-scholarship from the Italian Government. Coetzee’s encounters with the Italians, Fontana and Burri, and the Gutai artists extended his exploration of spatial concepts. Coetzee then moved to Paris where he lived for the next decade and participated in several avant-garde international exhibitions. In this time, he also received a travelling-scholarship from the Japanese government, where he exhibited in Tokyo and Osaka.  In 1968, Coetzee and his new wife Ferrie Binge settled in Alicante, Spain for a more rural and meditative lifestyle.

Coetzee frequently travelled back to South Africa during his time spent in Europe and in the 1970’s, followed his individualistic path in South Africa, and continued to challenge the preconceived notions of art. His outlandish style swept through the South African art world like a whirlwind. The fascination of the Afrikaans community with Coetzee is reflected in the Afrikaans press from the early 1960’s when each move and development in his career was reported and celebrated. Coetzee’s work was however criticized during the apartheid era for being too concerned with the formal aspects of painting rather than with the socio-political issues of the country. The artistic integrity of many artists, both black and white, was questioned due to this preoccupation with international trends. The isolation of South Africa during apartheid led to a decline in interest in his work in London, Paris and other international centres.

Coetzee’s extraordinarily varied and rich works, spanning over fifty years and three continents, stands out for its commitment to the painted object and inventiveness. Through his search for magical and transcendental moments, Coetzee has become one of South Africa’s leading figures in Modernism.

  • Chronology

    1929

    Born in Johannesburg

    1947

    Studied at the University of the Witwatersrand

    Member of the Witwatersrand Group

    1951

    Scholarship to study in London

    1952

    Visited Spain, influenced by baroque architecture

    1956

    Moved to Paris

    1959-60

    Visited Japan

    Member of the Gutai Group, Osaka, Japan

    1961

    Visited South Africa

    1964-67

    Several visits to South Africa

    1968

    Settled in Finestrat, near Alicante, Spain

    Working visits to South Africa

    Married Ferrie Binge-Brecher

    Divided his time between South Africa and Spain

    Set up permanent residence in Tulbagh, Western Cape

    1975

    Became sensational when he slashed his own canvases on exhibition in Cape Town

    2001

    Died of Cancer in Tulbagh

  • Studies

    1947 - 1950

    University of the Witwatersrand BA (Fine Arts)

    1951 - 1952

    Slade School of Art, London, under William Coldstream

    1956

    In Italy on Travelling Scholarship from Italian Government

    1950

    In Japan on Travelling Scholarship to the University of Kyoto from Japanese Government

  • Exhibitions

    1951

    First Solo exhibition, ID Booksellers, Cape Town (January)

    1955

    First London Solo exhibition, Hanover Gallery, London (March-April)

    1958

    Group exhibition, Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA (December-February)

    1959

    Solo exhibition, Christo Coetzee, Galerie Stadler, Paris (March)

    Solo exhibition, Minami Gallery, Tokyo (October)

    1960

    Solo exhibition, Coetzee, Exhibition presented by the Gutai Art Association, Takashimaya Gallery, Osaka (January)

    1961

    Solo exhibition, Coetzee, Gallery Stadler, Paris (January)
    Group exhibition, The Art of Assemblage, Museum of Modern Art, New York

    1962

    Group exhibition, l’Objet, Louvre Museum, Paris

    1963

    Solo exhibition, Peintures de Coetzee, Galerie Stadler, Paris (October)

    1965

    Prestige Retrospective Exhibition, Christo Coetzee, Pretoria Art Museum (December)

    1969

    Solo exhibition, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg (February)

    1971

    Solo exhibition, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg (April)

    1973

    Solo exhibition, Galerie Connoisseur, Northcliff, Johannesburg (February)

    Prestige exhibition, Potchefstroom University for CHE

    1975

    Solo exhibition, South African Association of Arts (Western Cape), Cape Town (January)

    Prestige exhibition, Rand Afrikaans University, Johannesburg

    1978

    Solo exhibition, South African Association of Arts (Northern Transvaal), Pretoria

    Prestige exhibition, University of Stellenbosch

    1981

    Republic Festival exhibition

    1983

    Commemorative Exhibition, Potchefstroom University for CHE

    Retrospective Exhibition, Pretoria Art Museum

    1985

    Solo exhibition, Exhibition of Post-Modern paintings by Christo Coetzee, Taipei Fine Art Museum, Taiwan (October)

    1987

    Prestige Exhibition, Rand Afrikaans University, Johannesburg

    1988

    Group exhibition, Vita Art Now, Johannesburg Art Gallery

    1999

    Solo exhibition, Christo Coetzee, Sasol Kunsmuseum, Stellenbosch (April-June)

  • Collections

    Public Collections - International

    • The Peter Stuyvesant Art Foundation, Amsterdam
    • Beaverbrook Art Gallery, New Brunswick, Canada
    • Musee d'Art Moderne, Toulouse, France
    • International Centre for Aesthetic Research, Turin, Italy
    • Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan
    • Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, Japan
    • Turmac Collection, Zeevenaar, Netherlands
    • Schlesinger Art Collection, Italy

    Notable Private Collections - International

    • Mme Schiaparelli, Paris
    • Phillip Johnson, New York
    • Michel Tapie, Paris
    • Collection of Anthony Denney

    Public Collections - South Africa

    • Sandton Municipal Collection
    • State Theatre, Pretoria
    • OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg
    • CSIR, Pretoria
    • ABSAArt Collection, Pretoria
    • SasolCorporate Art Collection, Johannesburg
    • SanlamArt Collection, Cape Town
    • Rembrandt van Rijn Art Foundation
    • Polokwane Art Gallery,Polokwane
    • Schlesinger Art Collection, Johannesburg

    Galleries & Museums - South Africa

    • Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town
    • Pretoria Art Museum
    • William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley
    • Hester Rupert Art Museum, Graaff-Reniet
    • Johannesburg Art Gallery
    • Polokwane Art Gallery
    • Potchefstroom Museum
    • Roodepoort Museum
    • Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Bloemfontein

    Universities - South Africa

    • University of the Witwatersrand Galleries, Johannesburg
    • University of Johannesburg
    • North-West University (Potchefstroom Campus)
    • Stellenbosch University
    • University of Pretoria
    • University of South Africa, Pretoria
    • University of Cape Town
  • Public Commissions

    1971

    Tapestry for OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg

    1980

    Fire curtain, Drama Theatre, The State Theatre Opera House, Pretoria

  • Awards

    1961

    Award Winner, Art of Assemblage Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

    1983

    Awarded Medal of Honour by the South African Academy for Science and Art

  • Bibliography

    Berman, E. 1983. Art & Artists in South Africa. Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers

    Ogilvie, G. 1988. The Dictionary of South African Painter and Sculptors. Johannesburg: Everard Read