Q & A with Cyril Coetzee

Cyril Coetzee

We sat down with Cyril Coetzee, Anthroposophist, Art Historian and Artist, and asked him to share more about himself and his work in the world of Art.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you became interested in painting?

I first became interested in art at the age of 7 when I started to derive great satisfaction from drawing the faces of imaginary people. My father then encouraged me by showing me art books he kept hidden in a cupboard. One was a book about Raphael which had on the cover a reproduction of the Alba Madonna. The painting gave me a magical feeling of reverence I cannot describe: I could not believe that it was humanly possible to paint something like that. The blues, greens and pinks were exquisite, the attitudes of the bodies so delicately rendered. 

At school I won the art prizes and would spend time in the library during break time looking at all the art books. The sculptures of Michelangelo were a revelation. In matric I made a real study of Picasso and loved the diversity of experimentation in his work. 

Later when I studied painting at university in Grahamstown I most enjoyed painting from live models and, simply as a matter of course, all my work was about figures and faces. I spent hours drawing and painting portraits of family members. 

Q: You have worked as both an art historian and a painter. Can you talk about how these two pursuits intersect for you and how they influence each other?

I never really intended to become a professional Art Historian and went into the field largely because of my interest in the ‘philosophy of art’, in the deeper motivations of art-making as a spiritual path of discovery. Art History allowed me to grapple with this and to be in dialogue with others who had similar questions. 

I lectured in Art History at Wits for a few years but fairly quickly realised that I wanted primarily to create art, and academic Art History felt somewhat restrictive for me in this respect. Even after I left the University to paint full time I still did curating projects for the Standard bank gallery putting together large exhibitions of works, writing and editing the exhibition catalogues ; I wrote a   monograph on the work of Harold Voigt and continued to give art history lectures on a freelance basis. Art history gave me visual literacy, a valuable tool for expanding my own experience of painting as well as for teaching painting to others. 

Currently I am again involved with Art History from another side, doing some online lecturing to the International Foundation for applied Jungian studies. On this platform I offer a course entitled: ‘Art as a path of inner schooling’ introducing Anthroposophical ideas about art and meditation to a Jungian audience.

Q: You have painted portraits of many well-known figures, including Nelson Mandela. What has been your approach to capturing the essence of these individuals in your work?

I have explored portrait painting in a variety of styles over the years . On one hand I have painted highly realistic ones where the focus is on likeness and accuracy of line resulting in a basically classical approach. For these ,as in my Mandela portraits, I always do live sittings with the subject, and even when I am compelled to use a camera I like to take my own photos. Capturing a likeness of the sitter sometimes happens effortlessly and at other times it takes many hours of  repainting. Having the correct lighting is of key importance to making the portrait work. 

I have done other more expressionistic types of portrait where the emphasis is on the  deeper ‘presence’ of the sitter rather than on the literal likeness. The being of the person is captured even though, or perhaps because, there is less attention to surface detail. 

Q: Can you tell us about any current or upcoming projects or exhibitions you have in the works?

I am currently working on a series of watercolours and oil paintings which I hope to exhibit in due course. These works are  a summation of what I have learned over many years about the use of colour as a result of my interest in Goethe’s and Rudolf Steiner’s indications on the subject (as a student I wrote a masters thesis on Goethe’s colour theory). 

I teach painting privately to small groups and also travel to do workshops. I am perhaps best known for my commissioned portraits which are always underway in the background even while I pursue my more experimental and ‘imaginative’ work. 

Recently I was, for about two years, ‘artist in residence’ at the Mount Nelson Hotel, painting portraits of their many guests.

Q: You have studied the work of Rudolf Steiner and have applied his approach to painting in your own work. Can you speak to how this approach has impacted your painting practice and what you hope to achieve through it?

I encountered the work of Rudolf Steiner in my matric year at school. Whilst I immediately and intuitively found what he had to say about painting  to be profound and convincing  it was very difficult for me to assimilate his approach whilst remaining true to my own natural inclination. For Steiner painting is first and foremost about colour. Although I love colour my own inclination was first and  foremost very strongly toward drawing and form, so I have had to work hard to learn to put colour first and to ‘ find the drawing out of the being of colour’.

Q: Can you share any insights or advice you have for aspiring artists or those interested in exploring painting as a therapeutic or educational practice?

My approach to teaching painting is not one of cloning artists to paint like me. I see it as a challenge to try instead  to enter into what each student is trying to do and to encourage them to realise  that. So as a painting teacher I am a chameleon. My own work is very much in the background when I teach: I don’t even refer to it. My advice to artists is really to pursue what you love and ignore the fashions, to pursue their own vision with integrity. 

Q: What do you hope people take away from experiencing your art, whether through viewing it in a gallery or participating in a workshop with you?

I would like my work one day to be seamlessly radiant:  to emit pure feeling, to be a window for the spirit.

Q: Can you talk about any challenges you’ve faced as an artist and how you’ve overcome them?

My greatest challenge as an artist has been to overcome the tendency to over-plan and pre- conceive. One MUST think and plan of course, but there is a point at which one must let go and trust, open oneself and allow the process to find its own course without preconception, begin without knowing the outcome. 

Q: How do you stay inspired and motivated to continue creating and exploring new ideas in your work?

I stay inspired by looking at and studying, again and again, the work of the artists I most admire, not in order to copy them as such (though to do so may sometimes be instructive) but to absorb the spark of the artist’s vision. 

Q: Can you discuss any notable achievements or awards you’ve received for your art and how they have impacted your career?

Awards that meant the most to me and why:

a) As a 4th year painting  student I won a national award (sponsored by NBS) given to the ‘best art student of the year’. It gave me confidence that I might make a career in art.

b) For my first solo exhibit at UNISA and WITS in 1992 I won a VITA award (best exhibition of the year). It encouraged me to try to live from the sale of my work. 

c) For the large 28 square metre canvas I painted for the William Cullen Library at Wits (for the 75th  Anniversary of the University) I won the Helgaard Steyn award. This was a high point for me in my career as I had always wanted to do a very large scale public work. 

Cyril offers weekly art classes in Cape Town, as well as frequent workshops there and in Johannesburg. See his upcoming lecture and workshop to be held in Johannesburg at the end of June 2023, entitled: ‘Painting out of the Being of Colour: Twelve Keys to a Deepened Experience of Colour in Painting’.
Contact Cyril for more info on WhatsApp 084 760 2092 or email cyrilcoetzeeartist@gmail.com


Cyril has been on podcasts to talk about Anthroposophy, and you can find these interviews here:

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