Local artist Jack Lugg is being celebrated with a book launch and a retrospective exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum from May 7 until June 23. DIANE DE BEER investigates his life and work which is detailed in The House That Jack Built, an illustrated biography instigated by his daughter Pippa Lugg Verster:
Checking my artistic circle, none of them was really familiar with the artist Jack Lugg, but if you should venture into academic and artist circles, the response would be totally different.
“I first heard of Jack Lugg in about 1965 while I was still a student at Selborne College. He was the best-known artist in East London and his art was totally different from the art I had grown up with…” writes celebrated artist Norman Catherine in the foreword of The House That Jack Built – Jack Lugg (Jack Lugg Art Gallery CC).
For many, says his daughter, Pippa Lugg, in her introduction, the name brings back memories of an influential mentor, or others who own his art are reminded of a devoted and passionate artist. “My father worked tirelessly: sketching, sculpting and painting over the course of seven decades.”
He was the head of the of the department at the East London Technical College Art School for 35 years and it was her hope that this book (together with the exhibition in the Pretoria Art Museum) would be a testament to “his remarkable life, and to all that he built”.
She explains that the foundations for the book were laid by the artist himself, and his wife Rosemary. They planned to publish it to celebrate his 80th birthday but sadly it didn’t happen in time for his birthday or even before his death in 2013.
But things were set in motion and part of these was a blank sketchbook that his daughter gifted to him on his 78th birthday which became an integral part of the book. She explains: “The cover of the book was decorated with a collage of his paintings and sculptures and I titled it Jack Lugg’s Memoirs.”
She wrote a note encouraging her artist dad to record his memories with the aim of including it in his book. His response: “If it ever happens.” Hers: “Not if but when.”
And she proved him wrong. When she was sorting through her parents’ vast collection, including 1 000 artworks, with her brother, the last box she unpacked was the small book which her father had created, and she describes as a gem. She believed he had given her a masterpiece handwriting his entire life story and illustrating every page. “It was the actual moment of conception of this publication,” she recalls.
Once she started gathering her thoughts and the people she wanted to include, she invited Kin Bentley, at the time sub editor at Port Elizabeth’s The Herald. She describes him as an experienced art critic and also a past student of her father. “He paints a picture of a man whom he knew as an inspiring mentor and teacher.”
And what makes the essay special to her as the daughter is that in quoting for her dad’s memoirs, Kin has allowed the artist to tell his own story. “The result is a sensitive and personal account.”
Complementing this work, Barry Gibb, an Eastern Cape art historian who taught Lugg in the ‘50s drew on his vast art historical knowledge to present an insightful and layered analysis of the artist’s paintings and sculptures.
Because these two writers knew the artist, they brought a wealth of knowledge and perspective but, writes Lugg Verster, the book is about the artist and his extraordinary body of art. For her it is important that “the artworks take centre stage” and together with the current exhibition, they have published many works which have never been seen in public before.
Thus, The Visual Essay is dedicated to illustrating his creativity and includes prints, sketches and paintings. The idea was to allow readers to witness the development of the artist and his particular journey.
“Short textual inserts highlight important life events, themes and anecdotes,” she notes. It follows his work through the decades from 1938 when he was a teenager to 2013, the year of his death.
It’s quite extraordinary to be introduced to an artist in this way, if indeed that is the case as it was for me, and to have an accompanying exhibition showing a comprehensive collection of his work.
And covering a life and a prolific one at that, it is fascinating to see the way the artist has developed, where he has been influenced by his time or artists living in specific eras.
Initially, the Jack Lugg Art Gallery was based in Knysna for 18 years. Then it continued to operate in Plettenberg Bay through the gallery website and studio appointments until the author’s death in 2013. Now run by his children, the Jack Lugg Art Gallery sells artworks through the website and arranges private viewings by appointment in Port Elizabeth. The works on show range from Lugg’s teens in Pretoria where he studied under Walter Battiss, to his service in World War 2, through his studies in Durban where he won the Emma Smith scholarship, to Camberwell, London and Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, where he studied under Matisse.
Perusing the gallery website or his book, Lugg had a deep connection with the landscape, animals, and people of Africa. He held his first exhibition at 17 and continued to exhibit in many solo and group exhibitions throughout his expansive career. His art can be found in significant public and private art collections around the world and this current Pretoria Art Museum exhibition, which runs until June 23 in the South Gallery.
The first iteration of this current exhibition and launch of The House That Jack Built was held at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, Port Elizabeth in February last year and was opened by Dirk Oegema, Director of the Pretoria Art Museum. An East London exhibition and launch took place at the Ann Bryant Art Gallery in April 2018 and was opened by Marlene Neumann, South African Master Fine Art Photographer.
Now Gauteng can catch a glimpse of this Eastern Cape painter/sculptor who should be better known and celebrated and whose family is determined to nourish and nurture his legacy.
*The exhibition will be opened on Tuesday (May 7) at 6.30 for 7pm by Prof Ora Joubert.