On 29 December 2016 the South African artist Judith Mason passed away at the age of 78 years at her home in White River, Mpumalanga. Throughout her career spanning a period of five decades, her work traversed the disciplines of painting, drawing, printmaking, mixed-media assemblages and artist’s books. She stands as one of South Africa’s foremost artists whose work is well represented in just about all national public, corporate and academic art collections, as well as selected collections abroad. Judith represented South Africa at a number of key international exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale in 1966, the São Paulo Biennial in 1971, the Houston Art Festival in 1980 and Art Basel, Miami Beach in 2008. She completed her studies in fine art at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1961, and three years later held her first solo exhibition at Gallery 101 in Johannesburg.
My first and most formidable memory of Judith Mason’s work dates back to my teenage years, when our standard 8 art class visited the Pretoria Art Museum in 1966. I was awestruck by her oil painting Leopard of Delight, which the museum had purchased the previous year, a painting that for me was immersed in magic; something that was to leave a lasting impression on me. It was 18 years later when I had the opportunity to meet Judith Mason for the first time, at a conference in Johannesburg. This time I was struck by the unassuming, kind and respectful presence of this deeply humane, creative and visionary artist.
Over the course of the past 16 years I have taken my first- and second-year painting students on our annual pilgrimage to the Stellenbosch University Art Museum and the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch to examine real living paintings. And each year a lively and enlightening debate ensued around Judith’s paintings Middle-aged Daphne, Middle-aged Eve (1972), Metaphorical Snake (1974) and Crucifixion (1965). Her paintings not only serveas highly appropriate examples of a variety of painting methods and techniques that prove enormously valuable in teaching students, but also reveal profound insights into the craft of painting, or what James Elkins refers to as the “alchemy of painting” – the struggle to control the uncontrollable; to make sense of our world with a stick crowned with a bundle of hair and dipped into that gooey stuff squeezed from tubes. Judith’s studio also resembled an alchemist’s laboratory, a space where alchemical transformations and transmutations were performed through her painting materials. Alchemy, writes Elkins, “is the best language for talking about substances … Hypostasis and transcendence are absolutely central to what painters think about.”1
As Judith herself put it in 2004 in a well-cited artist’s statement:
I paint in order to make sense of my life, to manipulate various chaotic fragments of information and impulse into some sort of order, through which I can glimpse a hint of meaning. I am an agnostic humanist possessed of religious curiosity who regards making artworks as akin to alchemy. 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 day.
Judith Mason was without any doubt a maestro. Her paintings are meticulously crafted, layer upon layer, where she knew exactly what she needed to paint underneath in order to achieve the desired final painted surface on top. Scumbled layers, dabbed and wiped layers, thin and thick layers, opaque and glazed layers, glossy and matt layers, and concealed, open and gestural brush marks and flat layers. The viewer becomes engaged in a physical act of seeing, being prompted to bend and angle the head or body before the paintings, and to peer through the glazed layers and hold on to the textures illuminated by the raking light. One wonders whether there is any direct relationship between the complex archaeology of Judith’s painted surfaces and the archaeological excavations on which she accompanied her husband Revil Mason to, inter alia, the Drakensberg, Kilimanjaro, the Richtersveld, Jerusalem and Athens.2
These technical devices are also strong features in the paintings of Robert Hodgins and Francis Bacon, two other painter-magicians. Apart from these three artists’ work being impeccably crafted, thereby asserting the magical affiliation between handcrafted images and their producers, their work also shares a haunting atmosphere of uncanny eeriness and a complex system of symbolism, bringing about a sensation of the “real” in a particularly forceful way.
Judith Mason’s work is strongly narrative in nature, as is evident in the titles of her paintings. On her flat painting supports she expressed a number of seemingly unrelated significances, producing a personalised symbolic language that assimilates multifarious realities into a whole. Being a fervent reader, she interwove her literary interests with her work. Her reading inevitably filtered through to her art-making, particularly in the form of artist’s books, livres d'artistes, and collaborative limited-edition publications. These include Ballot Box (1978), Skoelapperheuwel, Skoelappervrou (Butterfly Hill, Butterfly Woman) with Wilma Stockenström (1988/2010), A Dante Bestiary (1989), Selected poems by Patrick Cullinan (1992), Heaven and Hell and Daljosaphat (1992), A very brief Chaucer Reader (1993), Dante in South Africa (2005) with Patrick Cullinan and Stephen Watson, and Walking with and away from Dante (2011) with Daniël Jansen van Vuuren and Ettienne Koekemoer. These projects embrace a strong graphic dimension to Judith’s creative interests, which manifests itself in the form of an integration of text and image. By far her favourite work of literature, Dante’s The Divine Comedy resurfaces again and again in her work. This was no doubt buttressed by the two years she lived and taught at the Scuola Lorenzo de Medici in Florence, Italy. In an interview with art historian Karen Skawran3 she remarks how she has remained “enchanted and exasperated” by the images from the Divina Commedia that “[creep] uninvited into my work from time to time”.
So why am I attempting to illustrate aspects of one of the great imaginary voyages of all time? An affection for quattrocento art, informed as it was, by Dante and his Gothic contemporaries, is part of the lure. So, too, is my Teutonic enjoyment of any philosophical structure. I love words. Most of all I enjoy the power of the artist at the centre of his universe.
In answer to a question by Skawran regarding viewer responses to her installation Dante's La Divina Commedia, Judith’s comment aptly encapsulates much of what she tried toachieve in her work:
I would like the work to suspend the viewer’s disbelief and sense of the mundane for a while, as a literary narrative does. I’d like it to become the viewer’s reality, a metaphysical game in which good and evil, joy and expiation can be pondered without world-weariness, as a means, not as end in itself. And I’d like the shade of the Poet to forgive my impertinence!4
Brief biography of Judith Mason
Judith Seelander Menge was born in Pretoria on 10 October 1938 and matriculated from Pretoria Girls’ High School in 1956. Between 1957 and 1960 she studied fine art at the University of the Witwatersrand, after which she taught at the College of Art in Johannesburg.
Between 1962 and 1967 she lectured in history of art at the University of the Witwatersrand, followed by a part-time lectureship at the same university between 1969 and 1973.
In 1964 Judith held her first solo exhibition at Gallery 101 in Johannesburg. In 1966 she represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale in Italy, followed by the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil in 1971 and the Houston Art Festival in 1980.
In 1977 Judith became a full -time artist after obtaining her first major commission the previous year: a tapestry for the Royal Hotel in Durban. During the 1970s and 1980s she was represented by the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. In 1980 she visited India and Nepal for the first time.
Judith taught intermittently at various art schools, including as a visiting lecturer at the University of Pretoria and the Michaelis School of Fine Art in 1986, and the Scuola Lorenzo de Medici in Florence, Italy, between 1989 and 1991. On returning from Italy she lived in Cape Town until 2000, when she moved to White River.
Judith’s major exhibitions and publications include her piece The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent (1998) for the Constitutional Court, her artist’s book Dante’s Bestiary published in 1990, when she also exhibited at the Ombondi Gallery in New York, her installation Walking with and away from Dante, shown between 2006 and 2008, her major retrospective exhibition Prospect of Icons that was shown between October 2008 and March 2009 at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg and the Sasol Museum, Stellenbosch (now the Stellenbosch University Museum) and her exhibitions at Art Basel Miami Beach, Florida, USA in 2009, 2010 and 2015 respectfully.
Judith was married to Revil John Mason, former head of the Department of Archaeology, University of the Witwatersrand, with whom she had two daughters, Tamar Mason (born in 1966) and Petra Mason (born in 1970). In 1981 she married printer Bruce Attwood.5
1 Elkins, J. 2003. Four ways of measuring the distance between alchemy and contemporary art. HYLE International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, 9(1):105–18 [Online]. Available: http://www.hyle.org/journal/issues/9-1/elkins.htm [2017, Jan 9].
2 Judith Mason's oil painting Eulogy for a Dead Mountaineer, 2017. Facebook. [Online]. Available: https://www.facebook.com/judithmasonartist [2017, Jan 9].
3 Skawran, K. 2008. Responding to Dante’s “La Divina Commedia”, in Van Rensburg, W, Mason, J, & Freemantle, B. Judith Mason: A Prospect of Icons. Johannesburg: Standard Bank Gallery. [Online]. Available:http://www.judithmason.com/pdf/dante.pdf [2017, Jan 9].
4 Skawran, K. 2008. [Online]. Available: http://www.judithmason.com/pdf/dante.pdf [2017, Jan 9].
5 Mason, T, P Mason and H Lategan. 2017. An interview with the daughters of Judith Mason. LitNet [Online]. Available: http://www.litnet.co.za/interview-daughters-judith-mason [2017, Jan].