Wim Botha: Pieta

Page 1



Edition of 300 / 300

For Jozua and Anabel, and for Retha



Essay by Michael P Steinberg



Michael P Steinberg

For Svetlana Boym (1966-2015)

1 In April 1964, Michelangelo’s Pietà left the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome to take its place in the specially constructed Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair [fig 1]. The arrangement had been proposed two years earlier by Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York to Pope John XXIII and ratified by the latter’s successor, Paul VI. The Fair attracted 51 million spectators in its twelve active months (spread between April and October of both 1964 and 1965), with the majority of its futuristic pavilions dedicated to the technological promises of major American corporations, including General Electric, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, IBM, Bell Telephone, US Steel, Pepsi Cola, Dupont, RCA and Westinghouse. Masses of spectators flowed through these exhibits in moving cars, boats, and occasionally on conveyer belts. And although the Vatican Pavilion offered the sacred past rather than the secular future, it deployed a similar technology, moving along the millions of visitors to the Pietà on three parallel levels of conveyer belts, here called ‘mobile walkways’. Before the Fair closed, the Vatican announced that the sculpture would never travel again: its only conceivable response to the proliferation of invitations. In a way, the 2004 installation of Wim Botha’s Mieliepap Pietà in New York’s Cathedral of St John the Divine [fig 2] – which claims to be the largest Gothic cathedral structure in the world – signified a double return. Its raw material itself underwent a kind of historic return: the cornmeal or maize of which it was made is a staple African food but indigenous originally only to North America. And, forty years after


the World’s Fair, the entire installation riffed on its predecessor by replacing monumentality with modesty in every way – material, supporting platform, presentation. And no conveyer belts. As they are in Rome, spectators were invited to share in the sublime stillness of the image and statue. Botha’s Mieliepap Pietà and its 2015 successor, the bronze Prism 13 (Dead Pietà), embody reference and homage to Michelangelo’s work. Mirror images of the original form, their materials (maize and bronze) also differ from and perhaps oppose each other in their suggestions of the ephemeral and the absolute. And the new bronze revives explicitly the dialogue between the Pietà and the Laocoön group, which Botha saw and understood as companion works when he first went to Rome to see them. fig 1

Michelangelo’s Pietà in the Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair Photo courtesy of the Queens Museum


Michelangelo was 24 years old in 1499 when he completed the Pietà in a single year, according to the terms of his contract. Just over six years later, in January 1506, he joined the team that excavated from a garden on the Esquiline Hill the late Hellenistic sculptural group (dated to approximately 50 BC) known as the Laocoön group: a depiction of the death of the Trojan priest Laocoön along with his two sons [fig 3]. The version of the Laocoön story that made it well known is that of Virgil, from Book 2 of the Aeneid. Here, Laocoön is the priest who warns the Trojans that the horse at their gates may in fact be a Greek ruse. At the moment his advice is overruled by a crafty Greek in disguise, two serpents rise from the sea and attack his two sons. Attempting to save his sons, Laocoön dies with them, in physical and affective torment. Virgil’s account emphasized that suffering, describing in particular the screams emitted by the three victims. Ille simul manibus tendit divellere nodos perfusus sanie vittas atroque veneno, clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit: qualis mugitus, fugit cum saucius aram taurus et incertam excussit cervice securim.

fig 2

Wim Botha’s Mieliepap Pietà, 2004, in New York’s Cathedral of St John the Divine




At the same time he stretched forth to tear the knots with his hands his fillets soaked with saliva and black venom at the same time he lifted to heaven horrendous cries: like the bellowing when a wounded bull has fled from the altar and has shaken the ill-aimed axe from its neck. The Laocoön group’s reception in the Cinquecento has been admirably traced by Maria Louro Berbara, in a dissertation entitled Christ as Laocoön: fig 3 The Laocoön group, excavated in Rome in 1506, on display in the Vatican An Iconographic parallel between Christian and Pagan sacrificial representations in the Italian Renaissance.1 Later depictions confer other allegorical inflections to the figure and the story. The subject and group inspired El Greco to paint his only mythological subject, executed between 1608 and 1614.2 Here, the Trojan horse is depicted in front of the city gates of Toledo. William Blake returned to the image of Laocoön, as have Karl Marx, John Barth and many others. Beyond the parallels of Christ and Laocoön as sacrificial victims, the pairing of the Pietà and the Laocoön is both historical and thematic. Both depict the pathos of parents at the deaths of their sons. Michelangelo shows no physical pain: the body of Christ is in repose and Mary’s serenity evinces the dignity of her grief. The intense bodily suffering of the three Laocoön figures, however, has proven central to the history of modern aesthetics and its discussion of form and content, beauty and truth, pleasure and pain. The key treatise here is the German philosopher GE Lessing’s 1766 treatise entitled Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Comparing the sculptural group to Virgil’s narration of their story, Lessing asserts that the sequential nature of narration, or poetry, enables Virgil to describe the figures’ death agonies with gruesome realism. As a single image, however, the sculpture must represent the event in a single gesture, thereby limited to moderation not only temporally but because of the limited capacity of its viewers to

fig 5

Prism 10 (Dead Laocoön), 2014, bronze

fig 6

Laocoön 3, 2014, ink on paper

1 Dissertation, University of Hamburg, 1999. 2 Berbera, pp. 164-5.


absorb visual violence. For Lessing, Greek moderation was thus determined not by taste but by genre. In our own time, photography and most of all photojournalism have overturned this assumption, as in Sam Nzima’s iconic image of the mortally wounded 13-year-old Hector Pieterson being rushed, futilely, to help on the day of the Soweto uprising – the image that South African viewers will most likely call a modern Pietà [fig 4].

fig 4

Hector Pieterson carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, 16 June 1976 Photo by Sam Nzima

The positions of this image’s two principal figures – the dying or dead body of Hector Pieterson borne by the panicked 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo – recall the positioning and pathos of the Pietà. But the latter’s serenity and capacity for consolation are absent. The Soweto image is one of inconsolability in the context of the slaughter of innocents. More Laocoön, in this respect, than Pietà.

With his new bronze work Prism 13 (Dead Pietà), Wim Botha completes a unique engagement of both form and meaning not only with the Laocoön and Pietà sculptures and stories but also between them. His 2014 bronze Prism 10 (Dead Laocoön) [fig 5], the companion work in many ways to his Pietàs, offers a response not only to the Hellenistic sculpture but to Lessing’s treatise as well. Its tripartite structure references both the figures and the plot of its model. As with Prism 13 (Dead Pietà), the strategy here is anti- or perhaps rather de-representational. The three figures appear either covered in shrouds or rendered abstract, or both. On the one hand, there is the black shroud of death. On the other, there is an explosion of movement, a life energy that seems to emanate from the inanimate bronze without the help of anthropomorphic verisimilitude. Prism 10 (Dead Laocoön) is accompanied by a series of ink sketches; these relate to the bronze more as emanations than preparations, as enhancements of the sculpture’s sense of motion. Ink touches paper with economy and lightness, even when the strokes achieve a complexity comparable to that of the bronze itself [fig 6]. Prism 13 (Dead Pietà) is also accompanied by a generous series of sketches, in ink and oil, brought together as a single, sequential work. Here


again, economy and abstraction generate together a sense of movement and life. Consider the lines of sketch no 30 [fig 7] and the leftward descending line from the outline of Mary’s head to the right arm that holds the body of Jesus. Marking the very boundary between figuration and pure abstraction, the single line tells the story of grief and grace, falling from Mary’s thinking forehead to her consoling arm. In sketch no 28 [fig 8] the artist consigns to the page only the single ink line that, in the other sketch, will be the line of Jesus’ body, from head to leg: grief and grace, suffering and consolation.

fig 7

More’s the pity [30], 2015, oil on paper

At the same time, the abstract and often broken lines of Prism 13 (Dead Pietà) may suggest, Laocoön-like, that precisely the promise of grace and consolation has been broken. Mary’s right arm appears interrupted, no longer in contact with the body of her son. 3 The estimated twelve million people who viewed Michelangelo’s Pietà from the New York World’s Fair’s mobile walkways in 1964 and 1965 combined their encounter with a sacred work from the Italian Renaissance with a basic fantasy of technological modernity. This fantasy – the Leitmotiv of the Fair in general – is mobility. Mobility (from the sea to the railroad to the rocket) and information (from the printing press to the radio to the web) form the two components of the technological modern. Positioned on conveyer belts, the New York spectators watched the scene of the Pietà in a manner comparable to passengers looking out of a train window or to spectators in a movie theatre. Indeed, as an optical experience the Pietà would have been experienced as an object in motion, fig 8

More’s the pity [28], 2015, ink on paper


as if captured by a film or video. Only the pace would have been different: bathed in deep blue light, the Pietà received its rotating observers in a kind of sacred Adagio. To an extent, the active work of the eye, making still objects seem to move in both space and time, compensates for the passivity of the modern individual being moved along by technological manipulation.

fig 9

The various versions of Botha’s Pietà and Laocoön remain decidedly low-tech. Their materials are maize, bronze, wood, paper, canvas, ink and oil. But the juxtaposition of the various representations – maize and bronze, sculpture and paper/ canvas, with the sketches understood as emanations rather than preparations – suggests a complex engagement with the modern, including the modern’s retrieval of ancient icons. The Untitled (line drawing), 2015, wood and oil paint sketches respond with motion to the stillness of the sculpted forms; they show the sculptures how to move, how to be seen as moving. This dialogue is translated from the sketch back into three-dimensional form through Botha’s use of polystyrene as his sculptural medium (later cast into bronze), allowing him to work as immediately as with oil or ink. With the Pietà variation Untitled (line drawing) [fig 9], the interaction of sketch and sculpture plays out in the thin black lines of profiled wooden strips. The work of the eye makes still objects live and move in time, as if to make music out of images. (Thus the birth of cinema – of the moving image – is unthinkable without music: the art form defined by time and motion.) The founding theorist of the transient image as the mark of the modern is the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. His 1859 essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, which inspired the modernist painters of the subsequent decades, addresses a sketch-artist of the transient: the more or less forgotten fig 10

Constantin Guys, Carriage and Three Gentleman on Horses, 1860, ink and watercolour on paper


Constantin Guys [fig 10]. It was, for Baudelaire, the sketch that best captured the experience of the modern that he called ‘modernity’ – la modernité – thus inventing the word itself. Modernity, for Baudelaire, is a mode of experiencing the modern as the world in motion. Modernity, he wrote, is one side of art, the art of the fleeting, the transitory and the contingent – the other side of which is the absolute and the immovable. Baudelaire’s modernity constitutes a theory of experience and of art; it is also a theory of history. History moves. Through the passage of time, it creates distance from earlier periods, experiences and objects. This distance is both temporal and emotional; it can create both loss and recovery. An image of trauma – the Pietà, the Laocoön – moves us by momentarily cancelling temporal and emotional distance, thereby returning us to the moment of trauma and its promise either of consolation or inconsolability. The ephemerality of the sketch, on the other hand, reminds of the reality of time and its passage, which in turn promises both the recovery from trauma and the fading of life and its images, both hope and death.

Michael P Steinberg is Vice Provost for the Arts and Professor of History, Music and German Studies at Brown University. He is the author of studies on Hermann Broch, Aby Warburg, Walter Benjamin and Charlotte Salomon, among other publications.


More’s the pity


Prism 13 (Dead PietĂ )


Untitled (line drawing)


Untitled (Mercy paintings)



List of works

More’s the pity 2015 Series of 119 sketches Numbered up to 113 in pencil bottom right, with some duplicates [1] Oil on canvas, 34 x 51 cm [2] Oil on canvas, 38.5 x 48.5cm [3] Oil on canvas, 56.5 x 59cm [4] Oil on canvas, 58 x 59.5cm [5] Oil on canvas, 35 x 50.5cm [6] Oil on canvas, 48 x 65.5cm [7] Oil on canvas, 48.5 x 64.5cm [8] Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 97cm [9] Ink on paper, 38.5 x 56.5cm [10] Ink on paper, 38 x 56.5cm [11] Ink on paper, 38.5 x 56.5cm [12] Ink on paper, 38 x 56.5cm [13] Ink on paper, 38 x 56.5cm [14] Ink on paper, 38.5 x 56.5cm [15] Ink and oil on canvas, 39.5 x 53.5cm [16] Oil on canvas, 38.5 x 52cm [17] Oil on canvas, 51 x 71cm [18] Oil on canvas, 53.5 x 67.5cm [19] Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 34.5cm [20] Oil on canvas, 61 x 38cm [21 A] Oil on canvas, 34 x 48.5cm [21 B] Oil on paper, 60.5 x 72cm [22] Ink and oil on canvas, 67.5 x 60.5cm [23] Oil on paper, 34 x 56.5cm

[24] Oil on paper, 42 x 56.5cm [25] Oil on paper, 38.5 x 57cm [26] Oil on paper, 40.5 x 56cm [27] Ink on paper, 37.5 x 56.5cm [28 A] Ink on paper , 37 x 56cm [28 B] Oil on paper, 38.5 x 56.5cm [29] Ink on paper, 39 x 56.5cm [30 A] Ink on paper, 40x 56.5cm [30 B] Oil on paper, 37.5 x 56.5cm [31] Oil on paper, 48.5 x 71cm [32] Oil on paper, 52 x 71cm [33] Oil on paper, 50.5 x 70.5cm [34] Oil on paper, 50 x 70.5cm [35] Oil on paper, 49 x 70.5cm [36] Oil on paper, 50.5 x 70.5cm [37] Oil on paper, 50.5 x 70.5cm [38] Oil on paper, 51 x 70.5cm [39] Oil on paper, 51 x 70.5cm [40] Oil on paper, 50 x 71cm [41] Oil on paper, 51.5 x 70.5cm [42] Oil on canvas, 57 x 70cm [43] Oil on canvas, 58.5 x 61cm [44] Oil on canvas, 60 x 73.5cm [45] Oil on canvas, 59 x 68cm [46] Oil on canvas, 60 x 71cm [47 A] Oil on canvas , 57 x 72cm [47 B] Ink and oil on canvas, 49.5 x 70cm [48 A] Oil on canvas, 59 x 68cm [48 B] Ink on paper, 52 x 70cm [49] Ink and oil on paper, 50 x 70.5cm

[50] Ink and oil on paper, 50.5 x 71cm [51 A] Ink and oil on canvas, 54x 71cm [51 B] Oil on canvas, 56x 73cm [52] Ink and oil on canvas, 45 x 65cm [53] Ink and oil on canvas, 40 x 60cm [54] Ink and oil on canvas, 42 x 64cm [55] Oil on canvas, 37 x 49cm [56] Ink and oil on canvas, 35.5 x 49.5cm [57] Oil on canvas, 59.5 x 73.5cm [58] Oil on canvas, 63 x 80.5cm [59] Oil on canvas, 62 x 67cm [60] Oil on canvas, 60 x 71cm [61] Oil on canvas, 43 x 60.5cm [62] Oil on canvas, 39 x 60.5cm [63] Oil on canvas, 64.5 x 60cm [64] Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 69cm [65] Oil on canvas, 54.5 x 68cm [66] Oil on canvas, 53 x 65cm [67] Ink and oil on canvas, 53.5 x 61.5cm [68] Ink and oil on canvas, 50 x 72cm [69] Ink and oil on canvas, 51 x 73.5cm [70] Ink and oil on canvas, 49 x 72.5cm [71] Ink and oil on canvas, 49.5 x 72.5cm [72] Oil on canvas, 51 x 73.5cm [73] Ink and oil on canvas, 48.5 x 73.5cm [74] Ink and oil on canvas, 60 x 63cm [75] Oil on canvas, 40 x 60.5cm [76] Ink and oil on canvas, 40 x 60cm [77] Oil on canvas, 60 x 76cm [78] Ink and oil on canvas, 60 x 72.5cm


[79] Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 62.5cm [80] Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 83cm [81] Oil on canvas, 52 x 70cm [82] Ink and oil on canvas, 53.5 x 69cm [83] Ink and oil on canvas 42.5 x 70.5cm [84] Ink and oil on canvas, 60.5 x 70cm [85] Ink and oil on canvas, 59.5 x 75.5cm [86] Ink and oil on canvas, 59.5 x 73cm [87] Ink and oil on canvas, 59 x 70cm [88] Oil on canvas, 55.5 x 67.5cm [89] Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 71cm [90] Ink and oil on canvas, 52.5 x 71cm [91] Oil on canvas, 38 x 55cm [92] Oil on canvas, 48.5 x 51.5cm [93] Oil on canvas, 37 x 50cm [94] Oil on canvas, 36 x 55cm [95] Oil on canvas, 53 x 75cm [96] Ink and oil on canvas, 54 x 66.5cm [97] Oil on canvas, 57 x 59cm [98] Ink and oil on canvas, 46.5 x 59cm [99] Oil on canvas, 53 x 60cm [100] Ink and oil on canvas, 46.5 x 59.5cm [101] Ink on paper, 37 x 50cm [102] Ink on paper, 54.5 x 70cm [103] Oil on canvas, 55.5 x 60cm [104] Oil on canvas, 62 x 60cm [105] Oil on canvas, 53.5 x 56.5cm [106] Oil on canvas, 47.5 x 60cm [107] Ink and oil on canvas, 61.5 x 70.5cm [108] Ink and oil on canvas, 47.5 x 70cm

[109] Oil on canvas, 53 x 70cm [110] Oil on canvas, 53.5 x 70cm [111] Oil on canvas, 46 x 59.5cm [112] Oil on canvas, 45 x 59cm [113] Oil on canvas, 48 x 60cm Prism 13 (Dead PietĂ ) 2015 Bronze, wooden pallet 242 x 224 x 126cm Untitled (line drawing) 2015 Wood, oil paint 219.5 x 196.5 x 120.5cm Untitled 1 (Mercy paintings) 2015 Oil on canvas Diptych, 66 x 101cm each Untitled 3 (Mercy paintings) 2015 Oil on canvas 147.5 x 95.5 cm Untitled 4 (Mercy paintings) 2015 Oil on canvas 147.5 x 95.5 cm

Untitled 5 (Mercy paintings) 2015 Oil on canvas 147.5 x 95.5 cm Untitled 6 (Mercy paintings) 2015 Oil on canvas 147.5 x 95.5 cm Untitled 7 (Mercy paintings) 2015 Oil on canvas 147.5 x 95.5 cm Untitled 8 (Mercy paintings) 2015 Oil on canvas 147.5 x 95.5 cm Untitled 2 (Mercy paintings) 2015 Oil on canvas Diptych, 86 x 98cm and 74 x 98cm



WIM BOTHA Wim Botha was born in Pretoria in 1974, graduated from the University of Pretoria with a BA (Visual Art) in 1996, and lives in Cape Town. He has received a number of prestigious awards, including the Helgaard Steyn Prize for sculpture in 2013, the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 2005, and the first Tollman Award in 2003. Recent solo exhibitions have taken place at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown (2014); Kunstraum Innsbruck, Austria (2013); and the Sasol Art Museum, Stellenbosch (2013), as well as Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg, and Galerie Jette Rudolph, Berlin. Notable group exhibitions include The Divine Comedy, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, and other venues (2014-15); Artists Engaged? Maybe, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (2014); Lichtspiele, Museum Biedermann, Donaueschingen, Germany (2014); Imaginary Fact: South African Art and the Archive, the South African Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013); the Göteborg Biennial, Sweden (2011); Memories of the Future: The Olbricht Collection, La Maison Rouge, Paris (2011); the 11th Triennale für Kleinplastik, Fellbach, Germany (2010); Peekaboo: Current South Africa, Tennis Palace Art Museum, Helsinki (2010); Olvida Quien Soy – Erase me from who I am, Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (2006); the seventh edition of Dak’Art, the Dakar Biennale (2006); and the touring exhibition Africa Remix (2004-2007). Botha’s work is in the collections of the Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Johannesburg Art Gallery; Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, Port Elizabeth; Unisa, Pretoria; University of Johannesburg; South African Reserve Bank; Absa Bank; Sanlam; Sasol; BHP Billiton; Spier; Gordon Schachat Collection; Museum Biedermann; Sammlung Stahlberg; Olbricht Collection; and the Jochen Zeitz Collection; among others.

ARTIST’S ACKNOWLEDGMENTS With gratitude and appreciation to Michael for tea and talks, Sophie, David, Andrew, Joost, Federica and everyone at Stevenson who makes all this possible, and to Stephen Bourne for his dedicated assistance. Special thanks to Gert Kershof and Manus Holm for their committed work on Prism 13, and Gaby for the beautiful book design.

Published by Stevenson © 2015 for works by Wim Botha, the artist © 2015 for text by Michael P Steinberg, the author ISBN 978-0-620-67497-3 Editor Sophie Perryer Design Gabrielle Guy Photography Mario Todeschini, Anthea Pokroy Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town

Published on the occasion of Wim Botha’s solo exhibition at Stevenson Johannesburg, 18 August – 25 September 2015

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