François Krige (1913 – 1994)
François Krige was born in July 1913, in Uniondale near Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo. He was the fourth of six children, and his was a well-known family; his father was a famous rugby player, his mother a renowned novelist, and his brother Uys a celebrated writer. In 1927 Krige began his studies at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. After two years he moved to Johannesburg to join Uys, who was writing for the Rand Daily Mail, and was immersed in the world of arts and literature. With the encouragement and support of his brother, Krige continued to take art classes and to sketch and paint in Johannesburg. He exhibited three works in the annual South African exhibition in 1933, before leaving for Europe in 1934 to further his art studies.
After a brief visit to England, Krige moved to Valencia, Spain, where he lived for a few months with Uys, and they both learned to speak Spanish. Around December of 1934, the brothers moved to Almeria in Southern Andalusia. In March 1935, Francois and Uys were joined by their mother, Sannie, and they continued travelling around Spain together. Throughout his travels in Spain, Krige carried out a number of detailed studies of Spanish towns, people and market places, and was influenced by the Spanish masters and the atmosphere of the country. In April 1935, they arrived in Madrid, where Krige decided to stay for two months in order to study under Daniel Vázquez Díaz at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Fox, 2000). After completing the course, he travelled to Paris and the Low Countries, enrolling in an etching course at the Higher Institute of Fine Arts at the Royal Academy in Antwerp from 1935 until 1936. He then travelled to Italy via Germany and Austria, remaining in Florence for a few months, where he made a number of etchings and drawings, and briefly studied fresco and mural painting. His works from this period were developed from his studies done in Spain; according to Fox (2000:33) the study trip was a time when “his drawings developed a sureness of line and a stripping away of all superfluous elements in order to convey the essence of the subject”. Krige’s graphic art was influenced by the work of Rembrandt as well as etchings by Pieter Wenning, Frans Oerder and Hugo Naudé from his native country (Fox, 2000:32).
In 1936, after spending three years travelling, Krige decided to return to South Africa, settling in Johannesburg. A number of his works were selected for the Empire Exhibition – held in Johannesburg that year – an exhibition held once every four years, always in a different city of the British colonial empire. The New Group, which was founded in 1937, would have a significant impact on the South African art scene. Many of the artists who formed part of the group, including Frieda Lock, Lippy Lipschitz, Terence McCaw, Gregoire Boonzaier, Alexis Preller and Walter Battiss, had recently studied and travelled in Europe. He joined the New Group and exhibited with them in 1938 in Cape Town.
In 1941, at the beginning of the Second World War, Krige and his brother joined the English forces, and he became an official Wartime Artist, together with South African artists Neville Lewis and Geoffrey Long. He followed the war where South Africans were involved; travelling to Libya, Egypt, Syria and Italy to record scenes of the war. Many of his works reflect his reactions to the destruction and suffering he observed around him.
Fox (2000:48) writes of Krige’s wartime work: “In keeping with his practice as an artist before the war, Krige was often more interested in the landscape and in depicting characters rather than battle scenes or portraits of heroes […and thus] he struggled to deliver what was required of him.” Rather than only battle scenes, he often painted portraits of people he encountered in the war, and scenes of small devastated villages in southern Italy as well as grave-diggers at work in Sidi Rezegh. Although not his most celebrated works, many of his war paintings were highly acclaimed and were exhibited in South Africa and in London. His ‘Dryfsand Bo-op Halfaya Pass’ was exhibited in the New Group exhibition in 1943. Krige was able to sell a number of his paintings of military subjects in South Africa to the War Art Committee to supplement his income. Most of his works were in charcoal, pencil or pen and wash, and occasionally in oil – although he later used some of these as studies for oil paintings.
In June 1944, Krige wrote a letter to the Director of Military Intelligence asking to be discharged from the army. He cited how difficult the war experience had been for him, and wrote, “I long ago reached a stage where I cannot assimilate my experiences any longer. Should I continue, it could only result in a reduction in the quality of my work” (Fox, 2000:59). He was discharged, and returned to South Africa in 1944, where he spent a year in Cape Town and was part of a successful exhibition of war art in 1945. In 1949 he received the Gold Medal from the ‘Suid-Afrikaans Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns’ – an honour which most artists receive much later in their careers.
From 1946 Krige spent time taking study trips to Lesotho, as well as around the Cape Peninsula, and up the West Coast. He was particularly interested in depicting the traditional lifestyle of Cape Coloured fishermen from around the Western Cape. He carried out a large number of studies of the fishermen, their homes and villages, and old sailing craft. He illustrated a number of books, including his brother Uys’ Sol y Sombra. He remained a member of, and exhibited with, the New Group until 1954, but was rarely involved in its activities – choosing to maintain a level of privacy in his life and work.
Krige made study trips to Botswana and Namibia, living amongst and sketching the Bushmen, in 1957, 1960, 1962, and again in 1968. His friendship with Walter Battiss may have had an influence on his interest in Bushman heritage and culture (Fox, 2000). Krige spent time with the !Kung in north-eastern Namibia, accompanying the Danish ethnographer Jens Bjerre to draw and paint the !Kung and their traditions.
In 1967, Krige moved from Cape Town to Montagu in the Karoo, where he would live until his death. He regularly worked on landscape and still life paintings, and also began etching again, after his wife Sylvia had an etching press made for him. According to Fox (2000:69), “Still life is the genre in which Krige was to make his most important contribution to South African painting.” He preferred to work on his own, in the solace of his home and his painting. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Krige revisited in his subject matter a number of his earlier sketches and memories from the war years, such as his 1987 ‘Dead Tank Driver’ – which he reworked several times.
1978 was a difficult year for Krige; in addition to the tumultuous political developments in the country, it was also the year of his mother’s death, the treason charges against his friend Breyten Breytenbach, and the nearly fatal accident of his brother Uys. The result was an introspective period where Krige revisited his past. Fox (2000:105) writes: “It was a time of looking back over his life. He revisited the emotional space of the war and repainted scenes of bombed buildings in Foggia […] It was during this period that Krige also returned to his sketchbooks of the Bushmen for inspiration and transformed his drawings into a large body of significant paintings.”
Krige generally chose to avoid exhibitions and involvement in groups, and chose Montagu for its quiet and largely isolated atmosphere, as well as the surrounding dramatic landscape which had always fascinated him. According Breyten Breytenbach (2000), “It is often said that Françoise Krige was a retiring person, discreet and unostentatious. Indeed, if we look at how seldom he exhibited and how reluctantly he sold many of his works, it is clear that he shunned the public role or posture.”
Despite his reluctance to participate in exhibitions, Krige showed some of his work at the Association of Arts in both Cape Town and Pretoria. His work formed part of a travelling exhibition of graphic art around West Germany in 1978 and 1979. A number of his war works were shown at the South African National Museum of Military History in 1980. Apart from his war work, his focus remained on traditional categories such as portraiture, still-life and landscape (Hundt, 2000). Hundt (2000:136) writes that Krige maintained a similar style of painting throughout his life, occasionally experimenting but always returning to the Post-Impressionist technique and conventions he had adopted in the early stages of his career. According to Fox (2000:130), “It is Krige’s serene communion with his subject, his reverence for it, that touches us, as well as his humanism, which emanates from the work”. These enduring qualities, along with his superb draughtsmanship, make Krige a respected figure in the South African art world.
In 1990 Krige took his last trip to Europe with his wife, visiting a Van Gogh retrospective in Amsterdam and galleries in London, but they decided to end the trip early due to his dwindling health (Fox, 2000). He was diagnosed with cancer soon thereafter, but continued to paint until 1993. In the last year of his life a television programme was made about him and a book of his drawings was published.
Krige passed away on 19 February 1994, after a painful battle with cancer.
Berman, E. (1996). Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape, 240-241.
Breytenbach, B. (2000). “Foreword” in Fox, J., The Life and Art of François Krige, Fernwood Press: Vlaeberg, 9-12.
Fox, J. (2000). The Life and Art of François Krige, Fernwood Press: Vlaeberg.
Hundt, S. (2000) “The Art of François Krige: An Appraisal” in Fox, J., The Life and Art of François Krige, Fernwood Press: Vlaeberg, 132-137.
© Johans Borman Fine Art