Christo Coetzee (1929 – 2001)

Christo Coetzee

(1929 – 2001)

Christo Coetzee was born in 1929 in Turffontein, Johannesburg. Coetzee’s father died when he was 10 years old, and was then raised by his mother and his two sisters who were 16 and 20 years older than him.While growing up Coetzee was intrigued and inspired by a family friend, Finie Basson’s, collection of artworks. When he was 13, Finie Basson gave Coetzee his first commission, which was a medium sized oil painting of pink and white roses. She paid him £5 for it.

Coetzee studied at the Wits University from 1947 to 1950. He studied with a number of artists whom he would maintain friendships with for many years; they included Cecil Skotnes, Esmé Berman and Gordon Vorster, among others. In addition to this he was also able to meet Alexis Preller and visit the studio of JH Pierneef. After he graduated at the end of 1950, Coetzee had his first solo exhibition in Cape Town which was opened by John Paris of the SA National Art Gallery. After this he travelled to London with a Postgraduate scholarship from Wits. Here his talent was further developed under the guidance of Prof. William Coldstream at the Slade School of Art.

From 1954 Coetzee regularly held solo and group exhibitions in prestige venues in London, Milan, Paris, Japan and from 1965 in South Africa and Spain. During this time he had the opportunities to engage with some prominent artists and important art critics. Additionally, during this time a number of important galleries as well as corporate and private collectors in South Africa and abroad began to acquire many of Coetzee’s works.

In 1952 Coetzee and Marjorie Long were married. They went to Spain for their honeymoon, and actually stayed for several months. However after their journey Marjorie returned to South Africa and Coetzee stayed behind in London until the beginning of 1953. Coetzee then returned to South Africa only to return to London shortly after. Unfortunately Marjorie never joined him overseas again, and they divorced 11 years after their marriage.

Coetzee’s first job in London was a salesman for a tobacco company, however he was unhappy and found another job through the Gimpel Art Gallery, which he visited regularly. He then began working at Robert Savage’s framing business where he could be in contact with young artists and the London art world, he was also able to master methods of framing, and he would later use these skills for his own art. At the end of 1953 while in London, Coetzee met Anthony Denney whom was a photographer, art collector and interior design consultant. They shared a very significant friendship where Coetzee was then able to meet many influential people including gallery owners and art collectors. In 1954 until 1956, Coetzee rented a room in Anthony’s house, which he paid for with paintings. Coetzee then left to live and work in Paris. Coetzee’s first solo exhibition in Europe was held in 1955 at the Hanover Gallery in London.

In 1956 Coetzee received funds from the Italian government to go to Italy. Meantime while Coetzee was in Italy Michel Tapié de Ceyleran, the French critic, visited Anthony Denney in London and saw a large painting of Coetzee. He then invited Coetzee, through Denney, to travel to Paris on his return from Italy, where he would then be introduced to the owner of the Galerie Rive Droite, Jean La Carde. Coetzee went on to spend most of the next 10 years in Paris where he collaborated with the Galerie Stadler and was under the guidance of Michel Tapié.

Coetzee continued to travel due to his art. He went to Japan for some time, he returned to South Africa for a short time as well as returning to live in Spain. He had numerous exhibitions in Osaka and Tokyo (Japan), in New Hampton, Pittsburgh and New York (USA) and in Turin (Italy) and in 1961 Coetzee had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Stadler, immediately after this show he had his first home soil exhibition in 10 years in Johannesburg. After a large and important retrospective exhibition of Coetzee’s work from 1948-65 at the Pretoria Art Museum his work became increasingly familiar in South Africa. In 1975 Coetzee held a solo exhibition of his work in Cape Town. After the opening of this show Coetzee went back to the gallery and cut up 23 of his paintings in what he called an act of ‘construction’ rather than ‘destruction’. Just four months after this ‘protest exhibition’, as Coetzee called it; he restructured these same works by combining the fragments and pieces of the original artworks creating new pieces to be shown at the Rand Afrikaans University’s Gencor Gallery in Johannesburg.

In 1983 a second retrospective exhibition of Coetzee’s works was held in the Pretoria Art Museum which displayed 81 of his works from the period of 1965 to 1983. He was also then awarded a medal of honour from the Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns that same year. A third retrospective took place at the University of Stellenbosch which was held on his seventieth birthday in 1999. The exhibition also accompanied a book illustrating his work from the previous 3 decades. Sadly, Coetzee died in Tulbagh at the age of 71 in November of 2000.