Gerard De Leeuw (1912–1985): A Centenary Exhibition
May 30th 2012, 10:56
“Gerard de Leeuw believed he could make rain. Or, to be more precise, he believed that the bronze smelting that he practised from his suburban foundry in Orange Grove, Johannesburg, had the unintended but inevitable effect of producing rain, regardless of the season.”
So writes Federico Freschi, formerly Associate Professor in the Department of History of Art at the University of the Witwatersrand, now director of the Goodman Gallery Cape, in a catalogue accompanying the exhibition “Gerard de Leeuw: a Centenary Exhibition”, to be on view at the Sanlam Art Gallery from 25 July–28 September 2012. This exhibition showcases more than 40 bronze sculptures by De Leeuw and a selection of paintings by his artistic friends, amongst them Father Franz Claerhout, JH Pierneef, Stefan and Iris Ampenberger, Fayetta Varney, Wolf Kibel, Lippy Lipschitz to name but a few. The exhibition was compiled by Dr Fred Scott and opened at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery in collaboration with the Sanlam Art Collection and supported by Business and Arts South Africa and Stephan Welz & Co. A fully illustrated catalogue will be on sale from the gallery.
“Born in Amsterdam in 1912, De Leeuw followed his family to South Africa in 1932, his father, a goldsmith, having migrated to Cape Town in 1928 for health reasons. De Leeuw had decided early on that he wanted to be a sculptor. To this end, he attended various art schools in Holland and spent some time studying under Isidore Opsomer at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, a venerable institution that prided itself on providing a solid, classical training. He also attended various art schools in Paris, including the studio of André Lhôte (Hagg, 1975: 88) where he learned the rudiments of bronze casting, and encountered the work of the animalier Francois Pompon, which was to have a lasting influence on the numerous animal studies he produced throughout his career.
Although he eschewed the self-conscious modernism that characterised the work of Lipshitz, Kibel and others in this circle, his contact with these artists, coupled with his engaging and charming personality, ensured that De Leeuw was always well connected in the South African art world even if he did not enjoy the same public acclaim as many of his peers during his lifetime. After moving to Johannesburg in 1936, he extended his circle to embrace the leading artists of the region, including Hendrik Pierneef, Erich Mayer, Frans Oerder, Maurice van Essche, and Francois and Uys Krige. It is a testimony both to the extent of De Leeuw’s connections in the art world and to his charm and persuasiveness that he successfully supported himself during his early years in Johannesburg by selling, on commission, the works of these artists (Strydom, 1979: 54).
According to his biographer, Matthys Strydom (1979: 54), De Leeuw was inspired to begin experimenting with bronze casting after reading the life of Benvenuto Cellini, and soon began mastering the intricacies of the lost wax method. These culminated with a post-Second World War tour – first to Britain, where he attended evening classes at the Kennington Art School in London and worked as a restorer at the Morris Singer foundry, and then to Holland and Belgium, and finally to France, where he worked at the Rudier foundry.
De Leeuw did not enjoy great public acclaim during his lifetime and indeed did not have a solo exhibition of his work until a retrospective held at the Pretoria Art Museum in 1980, five years before his death. This is due to various factors, not least his slow working method – a function of his meticulous perfectionism – and consequently relatively modest output. With the exception of the larger sculptures, he insisted on casting all his own work in his studio foundry, with some assistance from his sons, John and Gerard junior (whose portrait bust as a young boy he made in 1960) and his trusty assistant (and ad hoc cultural advisor, travel companion, and interpreter) Simon Rammutla. Always the perfectionist, De Leeuw would destroy works that he found to be unsatisfactory, while others would remain uncast and, in time, perish (Scott, 1969: 37).
In the final analysis, De Leeuw’s work resists easy categorisation, being at once humorous and complex, commonplace and ideologically loaded, naïve and recondite. In its commitment to the figure it remains part and parcel of the European humanist tradition in which he was trained – hence his success both as a portraitist and a sculptor whose work, if not always profound, is enduringly whimsical and charming (as the rise in recent auction values for his work attests). As with the work of other white artists of his generation, his commitment to finding an “authentic” African voice is, with postcolonial hindsight, less easy to assimilate – at best it comes across as benignly patronising, and at worst as reductive and essentialist. Nonetheless, it locates him squarely within a powerful rubric that allowed South African modern art to break decisively from European forms and points of reference, and to develop that elusive quality of contingency (on time, place and culture) that continues to characterise the best of South African art.
The above text extracts from:
Federico Freschi, 2012, “The Rainmaker: Pragmatism, Myth and Magic in the Works of Gerard de Leeuw”, in Gerard de Leeuw: A Centenary Exhibition. Stephan Welz & Co., Johannesburg
Sanlam Art Gallery
2 Strand Road, Bellville
25 July–28 September 2012
Open: 9am–4.30pm Mon–Fri, or by appointment
Tel: 021 947 3359 / 083 457 2699
 A number of South African artists of De Leeuw’s generation, including, inter alia Bettie Cilliers-Barnard and Erik Laubscher, attended Lhôte’s studio. See Alexander et al, 1988.
 Now the Zahra Modern Art Foundries, the Morris Singer foundry was founded in 1848 and is famous for having produced a number of well-known British public sculptures, including the Eros at Piccadilly Circus and the lions at Trafalgar Square, as well as the works of Henry Moore. The foundry of Alexis Rudier in Paris, which operated from1874 to 1952, produced the sculptures of many of the major artists of its age, including Auguste Rodin and Aristide Maillol.