Wolf Kibel was born in Grodzisk, a village near Warsaw, the capital city of Poland in 1903. He was the son of a Jewish Cantor and the ritual slaughterer of the village. As a young boy, he used to carve grotesques from his father’s oil-stones. His father’s death in 1911 drastically altered his life as his family was left without a means of support.
As is customary in the Jewish community, his family had certain benefits which sustained them for a short time until the outbreak of World War 1. The difficulties faced by his family finally increased to the point where the family decided to move to the Polish capital, Warsaw. There, a young Kibel, aged eleven, was apprenticed to a bookbinder - it was while delivering some books that he first noticed paintings in a shop window, dropping the books, and subsequently his apprenticeship came to an end.
The move to Warsaw was not as prosperous as the family had hoped, and they soon moved back to Grodzisk where Kibel now took up an apprenticeship with the maker of shoe uppers. Due to the war, food was very scarce, and the strictly rationed family often went hungry. Kibel’s love for art remained an integral part of his life, and he would often sit for hours drawing and painting with any materials that he could lay his hands on.
The growing pressure from both his family and his employer eventually led Kibel to retreat to the country where he spent a few days with a peasant he knew. Shocked by his sudden disappearance, his family left Kibel in peace to do what he wanted on his return, and he was under no compulsion to return to work again. With the end of the war, circumstances bettered for the family, and for the first time, Kibel was fully able to immerse himself in his painting.
Appelbaum, a professional artist from London, originally from the village of Grodzisk, contacted Kibel whilst he was in Poland to complete a commission for a synagogue in Warsaw. Directed by relatives in London to view Kibel’s work, Appelbaum was impressed by what he saw and took the young prodigy to Warsaw where he was introduced to the artistic world of the city. This afforded him the opportunity to come into contact with the sphere of activity which he had already decided to adopt.
The young artist flourished in the artistic environment of Warsaw, where he met other artists, visited art galleries and studied reproductions of pictures which could not be seen in Poland. For Kibel, art became a form of communication from soul to soul, being to being, and not an attempt to make propaganda. After his visit to Warsaw, Kibel kept in contact with a number of painters and writers who would pay him regular visits in his village. He received much praise and encouragement from them.
Kibel’s formal education was very limited, and he essentially became a self-educated man, able to imperfectly read and talk several languages. Being a member of a family which had been employed by the community, Kibel was under close surveillance in the village, and could feel that his fellow Jews resented him. The atmosphere became increasingly stifling for him and he longed for escape… and as with many other modern painters, his dream was to go to Paris.
Then in 1923, when Kibel turned 20, he became eligible for military conscription and consequently took refuge in Vienna where he suffered unendurable privation, permanently undermining his health. His aim was then to get to Paris, however he had no funds or passport. Through an antique dealer, Kibel met the fashionable portrait painter Pick-Morino.
Pick-Morino took Kibel under his wing, and found him a patron, a rich banker who gave him a small monthly allowance. Pick-Morino also allowed his young protégé to draw and paint from his own models. Although not where he ideally wanted to be, it was in Vienna that Kibel had the opportunity to study many of the Old Masters. He also saw exhibitions of the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and exhibitions by contemporary painters were constantly being held. He was able to acquire a first-hand experience of a wide cross-section of art, past and present.
Never losing sight of his dream to go to Paris, Kibel took the advice of Pick-Morino to travel on to Palestine, and from there, at a later stage to proceed to Paris. He stayed in Jerusalem for some years, where he lodged in an ancient monastery near the Tower of David. Still struggling, Kibel decided to move to Tel Aviv with the hope of a better future. However, when he arrived in Tel Aviv, he was suffering from Malaria and was penniless. He lived on the beach until a friend took pity and gave him some money to rent a room, and so, for the first time since leaving Poland he had a room to himself.
Tel Aviv hosted a large community of artists, painters, writers, musicians and actors and was the centre of Palestinian cultural life, and the first port of call for visiting Europeans. Kibel spent some years here and this is where he met and married Freda. As a practicing artist he sold few works, and the young couple struggle – but his dream of going to Paris always remained.
With a growing depression and ailing health, the young couple discovered that Freda was expecting a child, and decided it best for her to move to Crakow in Europe and live with her family, and Kibel was given permission to live in South Africa. So in December of 1928 Freda set off for Europe, and a few months later, Kibel set sail for South Africa, arriving in June 1929.
Once settled in Cape Town, Kibel found work decorating the Alhambra Cinema, and later the Plaza Cinema in Pretoria, all the while staying true to himself, and painting whenever he could. He soon started exhibiting, with his first exhibition in 1931 gaining much criticism from the public, although this was also when he met Hugo Naudé, who subsequently invited him to holiday in Worcester, where he learned the art of etching.
His wife, Freda joined up with him again in 1933, her devotion and presence acting as a buffer between the fragile artist and the strange world, and he soon built up the determination to start exhibiting again. It was during this time that he met Lippy Lipshitz who had just returned from Paris, and the two artists immediately struck up a friendship. The pair jointly rented a studio, ‘Palm Studios’, in Roeland Street, and the four most productive years in Kibel’s oeuvre were what transpired.
The artist continued to exhibit whenever possible, despite the abusive public reaction to his work, and his failing health. 1937 saw the last of his exhibitions and him being ejected from the studio, things were looking grim for the young artist, and after a severe deterioration in his health, the young artist, only aged 34 at this time, succumbed to tuberculosis in the hospital after a 10 month struggle.
The essential tragedy of his existence was the irreparable impairment of his health, resulting from the desperate privation of the years spent in Austria. The hardship and poverty which the artist endured did nothing to alleviate his physical condition and the fight for recognition became that much more intolerable in the circumstances. Kibel did not live to realize his full maturity, and thus his contribution to South African art must be assessed from the output of eight short years.
1923 – 1925
Informal art training in Vienna, Austria
First of several solo exhibitions, Martin Melck House, Cape Town (Opened by Lady de Villiers)
Held joint exhibitions with Lippy Lipshitz
Empire Exhibition, Johannesburg
Memorial exhibition, Argus Gallery, Cape Town
Memorial exhibition, Johannesburg
South African Art Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London
Memorial exhibition, South African National Gallery, Cape Town
Rhodes Centenary Exhibition, Bulawayo, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)
Memorial exhibition, Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg
Memorial exhibition, Wolpe Gallery, Cape Town
Memorial exhibition, South African Association of Arts Gallery, Pretoria
Special Commemorative Exhibition, Pretoria Art Museum
Exhibition of monotypes, Cape Town
Prestige Retrospective exhibition, South African National Gallery, Cape Town
Prestige Retrospective exhibition, William Humphreys Gallery, Kimberley
Prestige Retrospective exhibition, Pretoria Art Museum
Prestige Retrospective exhibition, Johannesburg Art Gallery
Galleries & Museums
Decorations of the Alhambra Cinema, Cape Town
Decorations of the Plaza Cinema, Pretoria
Berman, E. Art and Artists of South Africa. 1996. Southern Book Publishers: Johannesburg
Kibel, F & Dubow, N. Wolf Kibel. 1968. Human And Rousseau Publishers: Cape Town
Ogilvie, G. The Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors. 1988. Everard Read: Johannesburg