We remember Bruce Arnott, Emeritus Professor of Fine Art

23 Jul 2018 - 12:30

Bruce Arnott, Herakleonine Head 1985

Bronze 320h


Note of thanks to Bruce Arnott, on the occasion of his inaugural lecture as Professor of Fine Art, Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, 2003.

Pippa Skotnes

Michaelis Professor of Fine Art, Director of the Centre for Curating the Archive


For the artist and indeed for the academic, there can be nothing more important than ideas.  When I was a student I used to keep a little book – a diary of sorts – that recorded all the ideas I encountered that influenced the way I thought about things. When I was thinking about Bruce's lecture a while ago I found this little book again and was at once amused by my youthful choices and amazed at how powerful a good idea is – how a special insight, or a novel reflection on a well-known subject can colour one's whole field of vision for years, even decades. Much of the material in this little book was gleaned from the poets. Eliot and Plath and Shelly were great favourites. There was quote from Graves about poetic thinking and desire; extracts from Darwin's Origin of the Species, a fragment from a war story that described the sky as more beautiful when contrasted with a wrecked city; one of Freud's attempts at a definition of art. Two of the entries were questions Bruce had asked me during discussions when I was a student at the School. One was a probing question about art and the imagination, the other, in response to a rather bleak image I had drawn of a rubbish dump: "where" he asked, “is the pumpkin?” by which I understood him to be asking where the hope was in the image, or where the contrast. Both of these questions bothered me for some time and in the end have profoundly influenced the way I have thought about art. In a small way, my experience reflects Bruce's particular brilliance – an experience many others, too, have shared – his provocative, challenging insights, at once providing critique, and the means to rethink one's position in often surprising new ways.

Bruce's tenure brought new vigour to the School. His legacy as a teacher is legendary. Right from the beginning, students of his sang his praises; his contribution to the post-graduate programme over the years was unequalled. At critiques and seminars, to which Bruce brought a new quality of rigour, it was his opinion we all waited, often anxiously, to hear. He has been both our fierce advocate within the University, reminding the centre (and us) that the creative arts are at the heart of the humanities and the humanities at the heart of the academy, and determined that we should make good this assertion by proving our intellectual mettle. As artists working within an academic institution, Bruce also insisted that we play the academic game, and show that we could play it well. He initiated the journal Artworks in Progress where artworks were introduced, and often intellectualised by the artist themselves, or presented with commentary or captions that provided the first interpretative point of access to the work. These articles may not yet attract direct subsidy, but the journal is an innovation, and pretty unique as a model in the literature of art analysis.

Bruce's creative work has been a compelling realisation of his philosophy of art, and for his viewers a touchstone of the power of tradition set against innovation, continuity set against change. It is characterised by those two greatest manifestations of the intellect, wit and irony, and in its forms are bound up the multiple references to both the primal and the classic impulses that his inaugural lecture has explored. His frame of reference is breathtaking, he is as curious about the enigmatic shapes that cover the rocks in the Drakensberg (a place we both love), as he is about the complexity of Greek myth and metaphor. And his work also reveals a tenderness -- objects to be bumped into to be sure, yet not to curse for being in one's way, but to apologise to for our clumsiness. Someone once said when seeing a bronze parrot Bruce made, "it puts a little smile on your face to look at it," and it is true, his work is a magnificent combination of the obdurate and whimsical.

In his marvellous book The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso describes how behind what the Greeks call Heidolon – at once the idol, the statue, the simulacrum, the phantom ­– lies the mental image. He describes this as " a fanciful and insubstantial creature" which, much like the San entoptics, flashes before our eyes yet emanates a prodigious strength, reflecting our awe in the face of what we see in the invisible. Then he describes how these images eventually take over the mind so that that "they fill the whole space of the mind in an ever more detailed and richer concatenation"

"What initially presented itself as the prodigy of appearance, cut off from everything, has become linked, from one phantom to another, to everything.

                        At the one extreme of the mental image, lies our amazement at form, at its self-sufficient and sovereign existence. At the other lies our amazement at the chain of connections that reproduce in the mind the necessity of the material world."

Bruce's work, like those shifting mental images, at first appears self-sufficient, self-contained, pared down – its rhythms and harmonies, perfectly tuned ­– then it reveals itself as full of meaning, intimately attached to a long history of sculptural practice, its shape and images suggesting a searching exploration of both the historical present and the deep past of creative expression. In these two things, Bruce's work reveals that the novel is a vanity without awareness of its context, that the seemingly insignificant can become heroic, that the powerful can be absurd.  It is in these contrasts, like the almost implausibly compelling image of the bright round pumpkin growing on a rubbish dump, that something of the contribution Bruce has made is suggested.

            Bruce, thank you for sharing these chains of connection, for your unparalleled collegiality, your wisdom and your humour. Each has enriched us.