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A Deep But Dazzling Darkness: South African Artist Judith Mason

Judith Mason, Self Portrait Age 90, Oil on canvas, 1988, Courtesy (c) Judith Mason

By HAYDEN PROUD, JAN. 2018

Self-deprecatory, yet always able to muster a surprising turn of phrase or a near-heretical viewpoint, Judith Mason (born Pretoria, 10 October 1938-died White River, Mpumalanga, 28 December 2016) was an alert, highly literate artist whose innate creativity shaped her every utterance and action. Throughout a lifetime of dedicated work she remained at all times loyal to her own complex personality. The visual legacy that she leaves behind her is similarly complex and just as eloquent. As age stole her once-radiant beauty, Mason’s candour became at once startling, yet also life affirming in the face of her own mortality. ‘I am a crone, not a woman,’ she declared as she reached her seventies; ‘and I want to embrace all the freedom that this status bestows.’ Suffering and existential anguish were her abiding concerns; subtle monochromy, infused with passages of muted colour, was one of the means she used to communicate the metaphysical. The haunting viscerality of her early paintings led critics to immediately liken them to those of Francis Bacon. 

Judith Mason, Jean Genet of Loop Street, Oil and mixed media, 1995, 48 x 37 inches, Courtesy (c) Judith Mason

Judith Mason, Homage to Christopher Smart, Hand spun, hand dyed mohair, 2014, 2/5, 96 x 110 inches, Courtesy (c) Judith Mason

This ‘elderly female art worker,’ as Mason labelled herself, never uncritically accepted new thinking on artistic issues, and she was never one to pander to trends. Inviting confirmed feminists to disagree with her, she openly confessed: ‘I dislike being classified as a “woman artist” … [ I ] used to believe that one's gender had little to do with how one makes artworks. Lately, I am more and more drawn to the conclusion that female artists are less proactive and more receptive than males. Men seem to be stylistically stronger and impose their vision with greater force. It is a notion, after all, not a theory, and maybe it just applies to my own passivity.’ 

Judith Mason, Self Portrait, Oil on board, 1984, 50 x 34 inches, Courtesy (c) Judith Mason

Judith Mason, Our Lady of the Transit Camp, 2007, Oil on board, 47 x 51 inches, Courtesy (c) Judith Mason

According to Mason herself, however, the fiercest critics of her work had almost always men. She surmised that they were possibly ‘repelled by its subjectivity and “emotionalism” [or] its ashamed ugliness.’ That her work could be ‘stylistically stronger’ or equally robust in a ‘masculine’ sense is evident in oil paintings such as the [South African] National Gallery’s She Wolf of 1965. This image, one of a series of archetypal animals that stand as metaphors for humankind’s baser nature and fall from grace, is one of her iconic works. It is an image inspired by Dante’s epic poem La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) a work that served as a constant literary touchstone for most of her life. The calculated, powerful and expressive muscularity seen in She Wolf is conveyed with an impeccable and elegant painting technique born of discipline and mastery in drawing. Its strength and the gender of its maker had, in its day, the potential to arouse great admiration, but possibly even envy in the eyes of her male contemporaries. Yet Mason also had the capacity to produce drawings and paintings that embodied all of the attributes of the ‘feminine’; a diaphanous sensitivity of line and ambiguous, symbolic references to what Esmé Berman called ‘her domestic self.’ Attributes of the body, such as the eye, the female breast, or a lock of hair featured in many works. With a magpie’s sharp and discerning eye she also began to select and collect found objects that she integrated with drawing and painting to create such subtly disturbing works such as Table of Relics (1974), now in the South African National Gallery. In Undiscovered Animals, her final exhibition (held in 2016), Mason's affinity with the wild and bestial was once again on full display, albeit with more delicate linework.

Judith Mason, Deciduous Angel, 2016, Hand dyed, hand spun mohair, 104 x 112 inches, Courtesy (c) Judith Mason

Judith Mason, Pregnant Woman, 2004, Pencil on paper, 47 x 28 inches, Courtesy (c) Judith Mason

Mason’s identity and her formation as an artist and a thinker are strongly connected to her experience as a student under Heather Martienssen, Cecily Sash, Erica Berry, and Charles Argent at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where she completed her BA Fine Art degree in 1960. The strong emphasis on formal and compositional aspects in painting and drawing at Wits, underpinned by Sash’s belief in the-then orthodoxy of Basic Design, made a deep impression on several generations of students. Mason imbibed what she was taught by her Wits mentors, but the formalist doctrines of flatness, truth to material and proportionality were for her never a straightjacket. In her best work, she reconciled the romantic qualities of the visionary, the mythical and the surreal with the formal practicalities of good picture making. Organic, psychological and celestial space was always alluded to in her images, but always, to some degree, they were framed and contained. As she reflected in her last years: ‘to use inert matter on an inert surface to convey real energy and presence seems to me a magical and privileged way of living out my days.’ WM

Hayden Proud

A graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art, and author of several books and catalogues on South African art, Hayden Proud is curator of historical collections at the Iziko South African National Gallery where his brief has extended to include the curatorship of the Michaelis Collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings at Cape Town’s Old Town House. His curatorial expertise covers wide areas of the collections, which also features British art and major holdings of 19th- and 20th-century South African art. He has edited and co-authored Revisions: Expanding the Narrative of South African Art, which focuses on the work of emergent black artists in the country. Proud works strategically with the historical collections to make them relevant to a new generation of South Africans by integrating them within thematic exhibitions and promoting debate on the colonial past and the transformational present. He is also engaged in teaching on a postgraduate curatorial training programme at the University of Cape Town.

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