Art: Returning Reptiles, Or Jy Wouw Mos

November 4, 2016

A previously unseen sculpture of two lizards by Dutch sculptor Anton van Wouw (below) surfaced for auction at Russell Kaplan Auctioneers in Johannesburg earlier this year. The piece had become something of a legend for scholars of van Wouw’s work.




The link between a 1907 letter written by South African landscape painter JH Pierneef (Van Wouw’s godchild) and this sculpture was only made this year. The sculpture of two lizards is without a doubt the cast of the reptiles collected by Van Wouw with Pierneef for the project Slegte Nuusone of Van Wouw’s highest-grossing sculptures, which set a record for South African sculpture when auctioned in 2010 for R2 228 000.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Van Wouw came to South Africa to produce a monumental statue of the president of the then South African Republic (Transvaal), Paul Kruger. The work was commissioned by financier and industrialist Sammy Marks in 1896 and since 1954, it has been installed in Church Square in Pretoria. Van Wouw is most well known for his monumental statues of Afrikaans leaders and everymen, as well as smaller works showing an interest in the human form.

However, around that same time, Van Wouw was commissioned to produce a set of radically different sculptures for another financier and diamond tycoon, Sir Abe Bailey. These four works were life-size studies of reptiles – a toad, a snake, a tortoise and a lizard – that were not for Bailey’s well established and renowned art collection, but rather for the garden of his home in Waterkloof, Pretoria. These works were cast at the Giovanni Nisini Foundry, in Rome, and two copies were made of each, but scholars had only been able to locate a copy of the toad and photographs of the tortoise and the lizard.

The chief curator of University of Pretoria Museum, and a Van Wouw specialist, Gerard DeKamper, was intrigued by this set of sculptures when he found the Pierneef letter in the University of Pretoria archives . The letter, in Dutch, translates as follows:

“We took Mr Van Wouw to Hartbeespoort to go catch lizards for one of his projects. He wants to stick the lizards onto stone and take them to Italy to cast when he goes next month.”

The letter prompted DeKamper to speculate, in an unpublished paper, that this letter might be referring to the lizard commissioned by Bailey, but since the letter was postmarked 1907, it seemed unlikely. And so the mystery of whether these lizards were ever cast remained in question. DeKamper notes that in the University of Pretoria archives there are records of over 7 000 Van Wouw works and not one of them is a cast of a lizard.

However, there is a little lizard, much smaller than life size, in Slegte Nuus. About 35 cm in height, the work depicts two Afrikaans soldiers sitting, forlorn, with their rifles on the ground at their sides. One of the figures drapes his arm over the back of the other and hangs his head in deep dismay. The other peers out into the distance as if looking for answers.

This sculpture is pictured on the cover of AE Duffey’s 2008 publication Anton van Wouw: The Smaller Works and is described as early as 1938 in Morris Cohen’s book Anton van Wouw: Sculptor of South African Life. In Cohen’s account, he offers an intriguing interpretation for the lizard, which is almost unnoticeable behind the two figures, being part of the piece:

“Much privation has left its mark on the two young, but prematurely aged figures. It is a picture of abject misery, of a fight against heaped-up odds and a dark future. So immobile are they in their profound depression that a lizard placed at the back of the group looks on unconcernedly, safe.”

This interpretation reminds us that the smallest choices made by artists are often imbued with considered intent. The lizard, though easy to miss in the detail of the rock surface, is deliberately placed and very detailed: so life-like that it seems to be about to scuttle away as soon as the two men snap out of their despair.

The sculpture of two lizards that turned up Russell Kaplan Auctioneers was without a doubt the cast of the reptiles collected by Van Wouw with Pierneef and the project he had in mind was almost certainly Slegte Nuus.

The lizards are each contained on their own section of stone, a rough semi-circle, set into a wooden base making up two halves that look a bit like the cross-section of a brain. The two small reptiles are facing in opposite directions. Beneath one section of bronze an inscription reads: “Vir slegte nuus ~ No. 1” and below that the details of the foundry and Van Wouw’s signature. According to DeKamper, this piece is, in all likelihood, the only cast of this work. It is also set into its original base. On close inspection it is clear that the other work – No. 2 – is the same lizard that features in Slegte Nuus.

What is striking about these works is that they were cast directly from the bodies of these two unlucky lizards, though it is clear that some of the details of the scales have been worked in by Van Wouw. Metaphorically, the work seems to prompt an extension to Cohen’s reading of Slegte Nuusit is not that the lizard is “unconcernedly safe” but that it is fixed into the same presumed fate of the two unknown soldiers: to be immortalised in death.