Cecil Higgs: Mother and son - SOLD
Cecil Higgs (1900 - 1986)
Mother and son - 1941
Oil on canvas
28 x 33,5 cm
Signed and dated bottom right
Sold - 2011
Cecil Higgs’ career can be divided into four distinct stages which influenced her art making: An initial prolonged study period of eleven years in London and Paris; the Stellenbosch period, during which she had a her first solo exhibition, the Cape Town period when she stayed in Sea Point for 15 years, and the Vermont period, where she settled after being awarded the Medal of Honour for painting by the SA Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns in 1963.
[…] when Cecil paints it is her sense of the poetry that she sees that seems to give her work its special value. Tremendous experience, technical training and experiment have gone into most of her paintings, but what to my mind is most important is the way everything combines to make the total effect poetic.
When renowned US art critic, Clement Greenberg, visited South Africa in 1975 and viewed Cecil’s work on her retrospective exhibition of that year, he said that of all the South African artists’ work he had seen, hers came closest to an ‘international style’.
‘Mother and son’ (1941) is of symbolic significance, as it was completed during World War II, when many mothers had to deal with the loss of their sons. It was also a time when families were torn apart, many never able to reunite. Of further significance is the fact that the artist never married or had children of her own, and at the age of 41, when she painted this work, she may still have been struggling with these personal issues, having also lost her brother in World War I.
This work portrays a pensive mother, her head bent as if in mourning and her hair carefully contained in a hairnet in the fashion of the time. Her young son sits on her lap, his head turned away from her, silently unaware of his mother’s emotional turmoil. The artist thus creates a visual separation between the emotional awareness of adult and child. Higgs often used friends as sitters for her paintings, one of whom was Olga Booth who, having suddenly lost her husband, joined her brother as a guest in Higgs’ Stellenbosch home in 1940. Booth would often leave her young son in Higgs’ care, and Higgs became strongly attached to him, forming a friendship which would last a lifetime. The boy in this picture is most likely based on the Booth boy, who would have been a similar age at the time.
With her calculated choice of palette, the artist portrays the mother in cold, lifeless tones, causing her to blend into the background, distinguished only by a glowing white outline. In stark contrast, her son’s rosy pink skin and sun-blonde hair make him the epitome of youth and health, accentuating the pair’s emotional separation. The animated vase, playfully created with poetic vision, tilts towards the pair as if to shower them with fresh blooms, bringing an element of calm to the work whilst also referring to the cycle of life.
Christina van Heyningen provides some insight regarding the artist’s use of colour: Colour [is] used with severity and passion but used, too, with exquisite discretion and grace, to emphasise and to console. Colour that deliberately or by an intuitive flash, lights or darkens the phrases of drawing, sometimes sweetens, sometimes envenoms them .In conclusion, she states: Cecil Higgs strives always, in form and colour, after the true, the quintessential .
Dieter Bertram, Cecil Higgs close up , Rivonia, 1994, pp 17,147,151 and 215
Esmé Berman, Art & Artists of South Africa , Halfway House, 1983, p 215