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When his paintings disregard the paint as a material and allow the canvas to participate in the reality of the idea represented – for Van Nazareth paints everything from memory – he gives the surface of his images all the sensuality of the material. Like a coagulated texture that is applied to the skin.

One thing his paintings and sculptures have in common is that they create space and evoke a powerful sense of mystery. His full human figures therefore have the power and monumentality of the statues of the contemplative Buddha but then without any religious connotation. His large torsos also bear testimony to a distant past. You could compare them with the large monumental ancestral statues, the Maori monolithic statues, left behind on Easter Island. The real name of Easter Island is TE PITO O TE HENUA, or the navel of the world. Like these ancestral figures, Van Nazareth’s sculptures also appear to be linked to the earth’s navel. His work therefore has a timeless metaphoric quality of both form and content. Within them they carry the eternal silence and continue to be linked to the earth from which they were created. 

Willy Van den Bussche

Honorary Head Curator of the PMMK Museum of Modern Art, Oostende.

South Africa’s unsung artist Herman van Nazareth

You grew up in trying economic times during the interwar years – why did you choose art as a profession?

I was introduced to art only at the age of 25. Up until then I had earned a living by, among other things, being a truck driver and a baker – and I had also shown promise as a competitive cyclist. I had to give up cycling after an accident which left me with a fingerless right hand.

When did you exhibit for the first time?

In Ghent in a group show in 1962. My first solo was the next year in Deurle near the village where I rented a cottage. My friends subsequently called me van Nazareth – the name stuck!

Aspects of my early work are still characteristic of my present style – the use of lacquer, the application of thin layers of paint that often reveal the base or ground colour, and the use of subtle colour harmonies and simple yet expressive compositions – I believe that is me!

Tell us about those early years

On my first day in Cape Town I bought canvases at the gallery of Joe Wolpe in Hoop Street and painted Bloedroem in four days. It was exhibited at the Fifth Cape Salon in August 1965 and awarded a student prize. This I could not accept because I was not a registered student. The prize went to Peggy Delport.

Bloedroem was subsequently included in a group exhibition, and was also shown at the Belgian Consulate in Cape Town. At this exhibition Herman included a painting titled Die Kind (The Child) that had been inspired by an Ingrid Jonker poem. This painting can be regarded as visionary in view of the events that occurred later during the dark years of apartheid in South Africa.

South African art critic Johan van Rooyen writes in the Cape Times of 5 May 1967 about the lack of anguish but the rawness of vision in Herman’s paintings, and also his pre-occupation with the sombre aspects of life.

“On the other hand, the simple horizontal compositions of his landscapes display dramatic explorations in which the influence of Constant Permeke’s art is discernible. The diminished scale of Van Nazareth’s paintings makes for greater subtlety yet potent expressiveness, with tension created solely through the use of colour.”