Emeritus Professor Bruce Murray Arnott passed away in Cape Town on Friday 20 July, just short of his 80th birthday.
He was a formidable sculptor and academic, who taught at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, UCT between 1978 and his retirement in 2003, and continued his association as a postgraduate supervisor and examiner. He taught generations of sculptors, including Brett Murray, Charlayn von Solms, Berni Searle, Barend de Wet, Delise Reich, Kevin Brand, Angela Ferreira, Ed Young, Brendhan Dickerson, Zen Marie, Gerhard Marx, Vanessa Solomon, Margaret Chetwin, Jacki McInnes, Bonita Alice, Louise Linder and Eugene Hon.
He was born in 1938 in KwaZulu-Natal and matriculated from the Michaelhouse Diocesan College. He later graduated from the Michaelis School of Fine in 1960 with a BA Fine Art degree, and the Michaelis Prize, and later in 1961 with a MA Fine Art. His thesis was entitled The evolution of sculpture in South Africa.
Bruce was appointed at the South African National Gallery as curator of sculpture, prints and drawings, between 1962 and 1970, and during this time received a British Council Scholarship to research the influence of African art on Western sculpture at the Courtauld Institute. In 1970 he was promoted to Assistant Director of the SA National Gallery, and was responsible for the vast expansion of the African Art collections. He curated and wrote essays for the significant exhibitions African Weaving (1967), African Art in Metal (1970), and the Art of Rorke’s Drift (1972). He was also responsible for cataloguing Irma Stern’s private collection of art and artefacts and was the editor for the Catalogue of the collections of the Irma Stern Museum (1971).
In 1972 he moved to a farm at the foothills of the Drakensberg, where he continued to make sculpture modeled in the local clay and cast in lead.
In 1978, Bruce took up a full-time teaching post in sculpture at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. He remained at the university until his retirement in 2003, first as lecturer in sculpture, and later as Director of the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Convener of Postgraduate studies and Professor of Fine Art.
Bruce played a critical role in having art practice recognized as an academic endeavour within the institution. He introduced the MFA degree and was the founding editor of Artworks in Progress: Journal of the Staff of the Michaelis School of Fine Art in 1989, a publication that saw creative practice as equal to the written word. During his long academic career he continued to work as a sculptor, participating in many group exhibitions, three solo exhibitions and making most of his large public commissions. In 1985 he was selected to exhibit in Images of Man alongside Brancusi, Daumier and Picasso. He produced numerous public commissions, including Sphinx (1977), Baxter Theatre; Numinous Beast, (1979), SANG; Blacksmith (1986), Grahamstown Foundation Monument; Alma Mater (1996), UCT Middle Campus; Fountain (1989), UWC; and Oracle (1988), UCT. His work is also in most permanent art museum collections in South Africa.
His research was wide, and Bruce’s imaginings stretched between Minoan princesses, Delphic temples, the Green Man, San rock art, Arcimboldo, Brancusi and Demeter to flying sausage dogs and one-man-bands. Bringing these diverse references together was his brilliance. His inaugural lecture in 2003 gives a good sense of his wide-ranging influences and interests. A version can be read here:
He wrote definitive books on the artwork of the South African artists: Lippy Lipshitz. A biographical commentary and documentation of the years 1903-1968, with a catalogue raisonné of sculptures (1969); John Muafangejo: linocuts, woodcuts and etchings in (1977); and Claude Bouscharain (1977).
Bruce became a Fellow of the University of Cape Town in 1988. He had a deep affiliation to the University and to the Hiddingh Campus, having been resident in the Egyptian Building, the oldest tertiary structure in South Africa, for many years. One of his legacies was to plant an avenue of Populus simonii on the campus, which have grown from small saplings in the 1990s to the trees that are almost as tall as Hiddingh Hall. This is a fitting image to remember one of our distinguished staff members. Many recall Bruce as tough, as challenging and as diligent. He was always honest, understood brilliance and had a steely and wry manner of expressing his opinion. He was simultaneously generous, loyal and fought doggedly for his students.
Go well BMA
He is remembered by staff and artists:
Prof Pippa Skotnes:
Emeritus Professor Gavin Younge:
Although we were colleagues, we were also friends over a good many years. Memories of time and place are fugitive, but I do have a strong recollection of Bruce when he first joined the staff at Michaelis - tall and persuasive, he told me of his pig-farming experiment after leaving what we called the Nat Gal (now Iziko National Art Gallery). He introduced, or rather revitalised bronze casting as a sculptural medium. Toya, who had been a Departmental Assistant before my arrival in May 1975, used to sometimes perform alchemical tricks with fire and metal. Bruce introduced other innovations, like the 4th year catalogue that all Sculpture majors were required to produce. Bruce had had publishing experience and was a meticulous editor. This became evident when another of his inventions saw fruition - Artworks in Progress (aka, The Yearbook). This landmark innovation was peer-reviewed by Tony Morphet, on Bruce's suggestion.
These 'memories' were cemented in time by our daily teaching duties. The 4th years were, or course, the gold standard by which the various sections, Painting, Printmaking and so on, were judged. Bruce was a kind man, but not above delivering a withering, calibrating comment. During his tenure as Director he led the school from behind, allowing all staff to augment and enliven the academic project we called the BA Fine Art.
I, and others who succeeded him as Director, inherited a functioning, credible art school - some have said the 'best' in the land. For Bruce, comparative statements were not part of his nature - he liked to get on with the job of inspiring others and honing their endeavours through praise.
Go well my friend
It is de rigueur to whine and complain about whatever institution you might land up studying at. This tradition continues. However in my reflections and with the benefit of hindsight, positives outweigh.
Bruce had a profound influence on my development as an artist and sculptor... and on many other practicing artists. Barend de Wet, Kevin Brand, Angela Ferreira…and many many others. His guidance was both formal and intellectual. He was also hard on punctuation and footnotes…something I have never embraced.
Memories are many. With Bruce’s encouragement ...we established the Friday Afternoon Sculpture Drinks…which consisted of all the sculpture students and sculpture lecturers going to the Helmsley Hotel or the Stagshead….depending on the weather…for epic quantities of alcohol, conversations and disagreements. Bruce would throw Karl Popper and Ivan Illich at us in-between double shots. We could throw Marx and Trotsky back. On one occasion we all landed up at Scratch on Dub Night, a reggae club in town run by a few Michaelis students. Bruce skanking to an Augustus Pablo Dub Remix is an etched memory…and seemed to level the playing fields.
On a few occasions during the university breaks I assisted Bruce on his bronzes. His casts were often quite rough... and his preferred finish was smooth. A difficult marriage. He had banned electrical tools on the fettling and finishing of his bronzes…so I had to hand file and sandpaper his works to mirror finish. Punishing and exacting…but exhilarating.
Over the years I would see his new works pop up at various bronze foundries. His playful exactness and cynical undertows beguile.
The last time I saw Bruce was when we were both external examiners for an MFA student at Michaelis a few years ago. It was great catching up with him.
Condolences to his family and friends.
Undergraduate majoring in Sculpture 1982 – 1985; Masters student with John Nowers and Bruce Arnott as my co-supervisors 1986 – 1988; Part-time colleague in sculpture section from 1989 until Bruce’s retirement.
I found Bruce very intimidating at the beginning – when he looked at you with those piercing blue eyes – but when one got used to it he was a teacher without equal. He was insightful, somehow knowing what one needed to do, insistent and challenging that one should keep on interrogating the difficult topic, searching for the right fresh solution to a challenging subject and not settle for an obvious, previously used idea, encouraging and wise at the right moment when one was just about to give up. He taught by persuading self-examination and questioning everything, finding the answer yourself, pointing you in the right direction instead of supplying it and being so well-read, had an immensely wide-ranging knowledge of a huge range of topics to draw from. He was also a fountain of practical knowledge re sculptural processes. Bruce was analytical and incisive, an excellent editor and trustworthy judge of aesthetic subjects. He was eloquent and also witty (sometimes delivering his dry wit sotto voce, so that one wasn’t sure that you heard what you did!)
Bruce Arnott and John Nowers together as my mentors in my post graduate period, had an abiding influence on my life.
A memory from third year bronze-casting:
After the exciting event of the bronze casting, all the participating students would chop/chisel their bronze sculpture, still attached to the gating system out of the investment mold. This could result in despair, wild excitement, mystery - because somehow, the whole sculpture had become encased by a ‘skin’ of bronze and couldn’t be seen – and so on. We would all gather in Bruce’s office with our bronzes and a ‘post-mortem’ (Afrikaans – na-betragting) would be conducted. Everything would be scrutinized, taken stock of, pondered over, contemplated, admired, and so on. A learning experience with fun. It wasn’t just a crit! Beer was involved too!!!
Charlie van Rooyen, Senior Technical Officer:
I was thinking about what I can say about Bruce. The time I worked with him when he was a lecturer, I use to call him Mr Arnott. But when he became a professor he told me to call him Professor Arnott. For me he was a very good mentor and an excellent teacher, but he was very strict and I've picked up a lot of experience for him. He taught me a lot about moulding wax and bronze casting for him. He was a very intelligent man, I am very privileged to have worked with him
Associate Professor Johann van der Schijff:
Bruce taught me two important lessons. When I was working towards my MFA degree he used to always check in to see how my work was progressing, where I was working in the metal workshop opposite his studio at Michaelis. He always encouraged me to just hang in there when work was progressing sluggishly or ideas were slow to materialise. When once I made a sculpture with very sharp edges he gently pointed out that it could hurt someone touching it and that one should always show respect and empathy towards the viewer of one’s work.
Michaelis School of Fine Art
University of Cape Town
31 -37 Orange Street Gardens
8001 Cape Town
Tell: 021 650 7111
Fax: 021 424 2889