Art Gallery Turned Home
Text Graham Wood Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs Elsa Young The majestic double doors that lead from the brick courtyard into 91-year-old African art specialist and former gallerist Egon Guenther’s home are an astounding artwork. They were carved by Cecil Skotnes, and for many years served as the entrance to the Egon Guenther Gallery. Egon built the main house in Linksfield, Johannesburg, in the late 1950s and raised his family there, adding the gallery wing in 1965. (Skotnes contributed a mural to the original house.) Now his daughter, Miriam Grech-Cumbo, and her husband, Aurelio, live in the main house, where they in turn have raised their family. Egon stays in what was the gallery. Skotnes, Edoardo Villa, Sydney Kumalo (who were part of the Amadlozi Group) and Ezrom Legae were among the artists represented by Egon, and together they had a huge influence on South African art from the 1960s on. Egon came to South Africa from Germany in 1951. He’d had a successful gallery in Germany, where his main aim was to reintroduce contemporary art – banned by the Nazis – after World War II. In South Africa, Egon carried on searching for African art and bought from collectors, at auction sales and from international dealers to enhance his existing collection. His was widely acknowledged as one of the most important and interesting collections. The bulk of it was auctioned in New York in 2000, but some pieces remain with him. His interest in African art is rooted in an insistence on the importance of local and immediate environmental influences on art, and this conviction affected the direction and aesthetics of the Amadlozi Group. (Egon was, and still is, a printmaker who collaborated with a number of artists, and was influential in this way, too. It was he who persuaded Skotnes to give up painting and make woodprints.) His aesthetic convictions also found expression in the architecture of his house, especially the gallery wing. ‘It is interesting that this is an African house,’ says Miriam. ‘Most South African houses are still European in structure and style.’ The gallery is one of the few pristine examples of the architect Donald Turgel’s visionary style, which was forged during the years he spent travelling and living in North Africa. The distinctive white plastered walls, the recesses and ledges for sculptures and, perhapsmost of all, the trademark geometric patterns in the brickwork over the windows reveal Turgel’s hand. Egon explored his preoccupation with a South African aesthetic through furniture, too. He has a particular interest in Transvaal furniture, made before the Boer War. Much of his furniture is practically sculpture. He points out details on the dining-room chairs, such as the distinctive tool marks where spokeshaves were used to plane the wood when no other tools were available. He finds it fascinating that Transvaal furniture grew out of a local style of carpentry. The Boers who trekked to the Transvaal lost touch with the European techniques and styles that predominated in the Cape, and invented their own. He also points out the African influences on the designs on the chairs – carvings reminiscent of those on tribal headrests and inlays with patterns drawn from local people. Despite its artistic associations, Egon and Miriam are adamant that these walls, which have held and influenced so much of South Africa’s art, enclose first and foremost a family home. The influence of environment, he says, works both ways. ‘Growing up surrounded by things of beauty and interest has also influenced two generations of children,’ he says. The ripples of this spirit are still felt throughout the art world. EGON GUENTHER ON COLLECTING I collect art, furniture and artefacts, but also books, cameras, pipes, wine, microscopes and more. When you collect, you learn a lot. I have never bought for investment purposes, only for love. A collector’s relationship with his collection is almost like a love affair; you make contact with a piece. That’s why a collector must not become an accumulator; the monetary value is not important. My impulse is to share rather than to keep my collection to myself. There are more important ways to be rich than hoarding. To create a good collection of anything, you must collect with intelligence and knowledge (and a sixth sense, too). I feel the things I collect are very important because they reflect the history of the time. Your collections become a reflection of yourself. Collecting is like a disease... a sickness. This article was originally featured in the April 2012 issue of House and Leisure.