When he died at the stately age of 95 in 2011, the Sunday Times hailed Edoardo Villa as South Africa’s “most prolific and famous sculptor”. It was no empty plaudit. Villa, who was born in 1915 on the outskirts of the northern Italian town of Bergamo, produced one of the major bodies of sculpture in twentieth-century South Africa. Numbering over 1000 works, Villa’s muscular sculptures, which ranged from solid volumes in bronze to curved surfaces and elongated cylinders in steel, played a decisive role in modernising the language of South African sculpture.
His work straddles a key moment in South African art history, coming after the accomplished if conservative figurative work of Anton van Wouw and directly influencing the syncretic modernism of Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae, both mentored by Villa. His involvement with dealer Egon Guenther’s Amadlozi Group of artists – he was a founding member with Kumalo, Giuseppe Cattaneo, Cecily Sash and Cecil Skotnes – positioned him as both a creative innovator and political progressive. Villa’s output as a sculptor is also as singular and enigmatic as that of Jackson Hlungwani.
Trained at the Scuola D’Arte Andrea Fontoni, a conservative Bergamo art school named after an Italian sculptor and woodcarver of the late-Baroque period, Villa’s conscription into the Italian military and later capture in Egypt radically changed his life path. Sent to South Africa, where he was imprisoned in Zonderwater, an internment camp east of Pretoria, Villa decided to stay in the country and work as an artist after his release in 1947. That same year he held his first exhibition in the Johannesburg Library.
The sculptor’s early years in Johannesburg were characterised by poverty, struggle and doubt, but also by experimentation and personal development. He struck up key friendships with vanguard artists and in 1955 moved into a house in Parktown North with Stanley Dorfman, a noted young painter and associate of Christo Coetzee and Douglas Portway, both important abstract painters. When Portway emigrated to England in the late 1950s Villa bought his house in Kew. Working from the same address for the next half century, Villa produced a rigorous body of work noted for its diverse use of materials, forms and colours.
Villa’s importance lies in his volumetric experiments and abstracted interpretations of the human form in bronze and constructed steel. His earliest work was figurative and produced in bronze, a material he would return to in different ways over the coming decades. It was Portway who suggested he experiment with cut steel. Villa later started adding colour to his steel constructions in the early 1960s and subsequently went through periods of rejecting it because of the way colour diminished the essential and monumental character of his work. But he would just as often return to colour, drawn to its playfulness and immediate emotive impact in an increasingly cluttered world.
The widespread visibility of Villa’s sculptures in public spaces across the country today makes his success appear self-evident. “Edoardo’s anti-establishment role is seldom understood,” says artist and historian Karel Nel, who knew Villa personally and is a trustee of the Claire and Edoardo Villa Will Trust. Working from his home without institutional support Villa formulated a practice that synthetized his European heritage with African influences. Along with his pioneering mentorship activities this formal aspects of his practice further challenged the narrative of separate development. It was never an easy option and Villa had to rely on private collectors like Vittorino Meneghelli and John Schlesinger to sustain his early career. The modernist architect Monty Sack was also an important early patron, prominently placing Villa’s work outside new office blocks in central Johannesburg in the 1960s, further advancing the idea of Villa as a leading contemporary artist of his time.
Throughout his career Villa cultivated a worldly practice that was synchronous with the boldest developments in modernist sculpture globally. “He understood the international art world, but at the same time his work engaged with being African,” says Nel. “Edoardo was not reproducing Anthony Caro or David Smith; his work is not pastiche of Euro-American modernism. He had the ability to absorb and transform what he experienced in South Africa to create a very powerful body of work.”
Art patron and Villa trustee Benji Liebmann agrees: “Like Henry Moore he was concerned with the interpretation of the human form, but his was a uniquely African take, and strictly personal. Edoardo’s work revealed not only his strong political and humanist views as well as his enduring joie de vivre.” Villa’s humanism is central to an appreciation of his work. Speaking to artist and teacher Allan Crump in 1988, during his residency as guest artist at the Standard Bank Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown, Villa remarked: “If anything could sum up my fundamental concern in art, it is that of the human and the individual – the human condition.”
The activities of Claire and Edoardo Villa Will Trust aim to celebrate and promote this rich artistic legacy by ensuring that Villa’s important contributions to South African art history remain clear and accessible, now and into the future.
Sean O’Toole 2016