Nita Spilhaus exhibition – A Hidden Treasure Revealed

6 Oct 2015 - 11:45

Honours in Curatorship students Nina Carew and Hedwig van der Merwe write about the Nita Spilhaus exhibition, for which they interned for their student practicum. The exhibition will run at the Sanlam Art Gallery until the 23rd of October

Nita Spilhaus exhibition – A Hidden Treasure Revealed

An exhibition of paintings, drawings and etchings opened at the Sanlam gallery on the evening of the 9th of September. The retrospective show presents the works of an under recognized 20thcentury South African female painter, who rendered Cape scenes in a familiar but individual way.

The opening coincided with the release of a book, entitled Nita Spilhaus and her Artist Friends in the Cape in the early Twentieth Century by Peter Elliot.  The book was written by her great-nephew, who also opened the exhibition. Building on works from Sanlam’s own collection, the collaboration between Sanlam and Elliot allows Spilhaus to be remembered both in a visual and textual context.

The affiliation between the Spilhaus family and Sanlam served as a catalyst for both the book release and the exhibition. Sanlam has had  a large number of works by Spilhaus in their collection for a number of years and it has always been the intention of the art director to rekindle interest in the artist as part of the Cape Impressionist Movement.

A large portion of Sanlam’s Spilhaus collection is made up of etchings; and thus etchings made up the majority of the exhibition. The etchings were professionally restored and framed for the exhibition, a process the interns were closely involved with.

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Nita Spilhaus

Pauline Augusta Wilhelmina “Nita” Spilhaus was born in Lisbon in 1878. She was orphaned in her infancy and was raised by her grandfather in Lübeck. During the period 1896 – 1907, Nita studied first at the Lübeck School of Art, and then furthered her studies in Munich at a number of art schools, also spending two summers in the artists’ colony in Dachau just outside the city. For two years she concentrated on assembling her first folio of etchings, sketches of her home town of Lübeck, and this was published in 1901.

At the end of 1907, Nita moved from the hub of the European art world to Cape Town to live with her uncle. She gradually made friends with artists all of whom had been trained in Europe and were struggling to adapt their techniques to South African conditions and make ends meet in a place largely unreceptive to their art. This group included Hugo NaudéPieter Wenning, Edward Roworth, Ruth Prowse, Allerley Glossop, Florence Zerffi and Moses Kottler. A selection of works by some of these artists is also included in the show.

During the First World War, being a German National Nita was forbidden to engage with others outdoors. This limited her subject matter dramatically, and she therefore turned to portraits and flower-studies that could easily be done in the confinement of her home.

After her marriage to Dr Simon in 1921, she continued to paint and draw, establishing a clear path for herself as an artist from which she never deflected. In 1925 the couple moved to Munich but Nita continued to exhibit her work regularly in South Africa. By 1938 they had returned to Cape Town.  Nita continued her work, producing a set of etchings for the Cape Times and a later a further folio of etchings entitled Trees.

In the 1950’s she drew and painted in her new surroundings in the Jonkershoek Valley progressively losing her eyesight until she was no longer able to continue. She died in Rondebosch in 1967.

According to Peter Elliot, a study of her work reveals a depth and breadth of subject matter. Using works from her most prolific period, 1908-1921, Sanlam casts light on an artist that was overshadowed by her contemporaries and possibly neglected by the critics of her time. Various factors, including her dual citizenship, contributed to the exclusion of Spilhaus as part of the major canons of South African art. The exhibition attempts to place her as a more prominent figure in South African art history.

The selection consists of works from Sanlam’s own art collection, private collectors and various public institutions around the country. The collection includes works from Spilhaus’s early student days in Europe, her most productive period in South Africa, and her later works while she was slowly producing less because of her health.

12071729_10207824442190401_363629523_nAs two of the three students who worked as interns alongside Stefan Hundt, director/curator of the Sanlam Art Collection, we felt very privileged to be part of, and eager to learn from, the experience. The process of bringing the exhibition together included travelling around the Western Cape and sourcing artworks from various private collectors and art institutions. Most of the private collectors had an affiliation with the Spilhaus family and provided us with a more personal connection with the artist. We were given the freedom to take on the roles of designing the exhibition and gained a more thorough understanding of the practical components of curating under Stefan Hundt’s guidance.

Gallery viewing times:

9th of September to the 23rd of October

Monday-Friday 9:30- 16:30

Or by appointment with the curator, Stefan Hundt – email address: