JOHAN OLDERT (1912-1984)
Johan Oldert was my teacher and I owe him so very much.
In the latter part of the 1960’s I decided I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to make it my chosen career. It was my all absorbing passion.
My dad did not like the idea of his son starving in a garret one bit, and so made it very clear he was not paying one cent for an art education for me. If I did not concede to his plan for me to follow a medical career I was on my own. And so it was. I then took a correspondence diploma course in art, but on completing it I still did not know how to become, and survive as a career artist. It seemed my dreams were still-born.
At this time in the very early seventies places like the Carlton Centre had just opened and there was suddenly a proliferation of Art Galleries in the Carlton and similar centres – they were the first malls and Sunday shopping was the rage. This was the new entertainment and just about everyone spent their evenings and Sunday afternoons visiting these centres. I was no exception and while going from gallery to gallery I noticed a certain artist whose work really appealed to me. His name was Johan Oldert. His paintings were somewhat different to others on show and the colours and composition he employed touched a nerve in me. I wished I could paint like him.
At this time an article on this artist appeared in the then very popular and somewhat cultural ‘Outspan’ magazine. His telephone number was included at the end of the article and so contact was made.
When I finally built up the courage to phone Johan Oldert the voice at the other end of the line was rather curt and said that he would see me at seven sharp, and if I came a minute later than that the doors would be locked. So it was with a lot of trepidation and a little excitement that I set off to meet my new hero resplendent in my best suit. When I arrived the door was opened by a very tall lady who turned out to be his wife Gladys and she showed me through to the dining room where the artist was just finishing his supper. That first impression of Johan Oldert was of a somewhat portly man of medium height with snowy white hair and beard and penetrating blue-grey eyes. Mischievous eyes they were and Joe Oldert was a mischievous man.
He sitting at the head of the dining table wearing a vest which was full of holes, paint splattered baggy trousers which were held up by an old tie used in place of a belt. The very epitome of a tramp was this vision that greeted me.
I was invited to sit after he had commented expansively on my attire and with a twinkle in his eye said to his wife how honoured he felt that someone would go to so much trouble to dress up so just to visit him. He really was having me on and later showed me that he had a whole wardrobe full of suits far finer than the one I was wearing.
After I had been interrogated for a bit we withdrew to his studio which was in fact a little disappointing. It was a smallish spare room, but with good south light, piles of magazines and books stacked on the floor and scores of empty canvases propped against the wall. The thing that caught my eye was the finished paintings, smallish oils resting on top of a school-type radiator. There must have been four or five and they were beautiful.
In the room there were two largish studio easels standing side by side, and in the one closest to the window there was a canvas showing the first marks of a new work. The ambience and the smell of the studio were intoxicating. This was all so exciting!
“So you want to be an Artist?” Johan asked “Yes” I replied. ‘Umph’ was his response. I had started as a water-colourist and had taken some of my watercolours to show him and also a single oil nude which I had painted using the tip of a palette knife. He found this incredibly funny.
Joe Oldert (everyone called him Joe) had a razor sharp brain and an incredibly cynical sense of humour which he often turned on his friends or guests. He could be incredibly funny but at times incredibly cruel. A typical instance was that when I started going to Oldert for lessons I had been working for a large plastics company. The night I first met Titta Fasciotti (and I so badly wanted to impress this great artist), he introduced me by saying “This is John Smith, he wants to be a famous artist and he also makes hosepipes!” He also introduced Fasciotti as ‘Titta’ knowing full well that the artist had a ‘perceived’ problem of believing people did not respect him. I was then in my twenties and was in total awe of all great established artists, and having been introduced as Titta I assumed it was okay to address him as that, and then I got the fright of my life when he suddenly went into a rage and spent most of the evening sulking. I only found out long after when I had got to know him better that he saw me calling him by his Christian name as a sign of great disrespect. Joe Oldert would have found that amusing, at the same time having a little dig at Fasciotti’s sensitivity while enjoying my discomfort.
This was his cruel cynical side, at other times he was just plain funny and very generous about sharing his knowledge and experience.
One night there had been an exhibition and after it was decided to go to the Oldert’s place to play cards and have a few drinks. As the game commenced the telephone rang and Joe went out to answer it and came back after about an hour. Titta enquired as to where he had been and he said he had to answer the phone. “Who was on the line?” enquired the card players. “A young woman” responded Oldert. “Which young woman?” asked Fasciotti “Oh I don’t know – it was a wrong number!”
There were so many of these funny events and only Joe Oldert could retell them and have everyone in stitches. People loved him and hated him all at once. He was a real charmer and he had huge presence. When Johan Oldert arrived at an exhibition or any event there was an immediate buzz and everyone knew he had arrived. When he left it was as if a light had gone out.
When it came to teaching he had me sit at the easel next to his and paint. After the episode of the nude I’d painted with the tip of the knife he had told me to only use watercolours as a hobby medium, and if I wanted to be a career artist I should focus on oils and learn to use them properly and learn all I could about them. Please remember dear reader that this was three or four years before the Watercolour Society of South Africa came into being, and it was started for that very reason. In this country few people took mediums other than oils seriously. No-one back then could have imagined that a few years later, from the mid-eighties to the early nineties things would swing around so and oil painters would go to the wall a dime a dozen. Happily I kept my hand in and never stopped doing the watercolours but have been ever- grateful that I had the good fortune to go to Johan for lessons and that he taught me so much about painting in oils and a love of art.
Oldert was an incredibly hard taskmaster as were most of the teachers back then. One night when I was painting in his studio he made me scrape my canvas back thirteen times. I would be working and he’d suddenly say “Scrape that!” and I dutifully would do his bidding. After about the tenth time I asked “Why? You haven’t even looked at it!” “I don’t need to.” was his reply “I know its rubbish.” One didn’t argue because he would give you your hat and send you home and I had lots of stuff I still had to learn. Later he explained that he did that so I would never fall in love with my labour – only the desired results. If something was not right – scrape it and start again – even thirteen times if that was necessary. He also said that no matter how many times you scraped and repainted it had to look as if you had done it once.
One night I arrived at his studio and he told me to set up my canvas in the easel but not lay out any paint. After I sat down he said I should start painting in my mind and tell him in detail what I saw. I found it terribly difficult, but after a while I got into it and started to see images in my mind on that blank canvas. “Remember!” he said, “a real artist does not only paint when he sits at an easel – a real artist paints in his head all the time!” This was a lesson that has served me all these forty years and I still hear his words echoing in my mind.
There were so many things he taught me, and the most valuable lessons were not necessarily when we were in the studio, but often after the lesson where we would sit up till the early hours talking about painting and art and he would say stuff, often without explaining fully, and it sometimes took months and years for me to understand those pearls of wisdom.
One of those was the value of ‘Happy Upstrokes’. He never elucidated but then years later when I was having problems with a passage in a painting and then ‘Happy Upstrokes’ popped into my head and bingo! This opened up a whole new world of brush handling and strokes I’d never thought of. He knew how dangerous spoon-feeding a student was and left these jewels in the air for me to find and identify, and use. His philosophy was that it takes a clever person to be a good artist, and so he played these games. If the student could identify and use the wisdom he was sewing, then he had done his job. If the student couldn’t then he should not be an artist and do something else. How things have changed.
Johan Oldert was born in Rotterdam in 1912 and arrived in South Africa in 1935.
He was the son of a Baker (His mom had died when he was young) and he had a very difficult childhood.
He studied art at the Royal Academy of Art in Rotterdam under Koos den Hartog, and later at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London under Harold Brownword. He often spoke of his years at art school and how difficult and hard it was in those back in those days.
Later after arriving in South Africa Oldert again went back to study and this time at the Natal Technical College under Merlyn Evan and Nils Anderson. Here he joined and was member of the NSA. Later he studied at the Witwatersrand Technical College under Eric Byrd.
The decision to become a full-time career artist was made for him when he fell down a lift- shaft in the building where he worked as an illustrator and commercial artist in Johannesburg. After a long convalescence he decided it was time to go it alone and thank goodness he did. It is strange how often a negative happening can hold the key to so much that is positive!
Johan loved the ladies and was married numerous times. I believe the one thing that would have pleased him greatly was to know that his son Anton (Benzon) had made art his career choice and been so successful at it. I remember when Joe Oldert told me that there would be no class the following week as he was going to Durban to meet up with his (estranged) son Anton. A week later after his return I was regaled with his story of the prodigal son and their meeting, and a detailed description of him (Joe) stumbling around on the jetty in the dark calling out to Anton. Suddenly this tousled and bedraggled head popped up out of the hatch of a rather unsavoury looking boat … named ‘Woodrot!’ The prodigal son had been found and restored to his paternal bosom.
Johan Oldert died a few years later in 1984 – I still miss him and even now his words still reverberate in my head.
Johan was a wonderful sculptor, musician and cook besides being a painter. He could have made a career in any of them. I could write a book on this man but for the moment will settle for these few pages. I’m glad he decided on painting, and hope when people think of him they will remember his paintings. I will remember the man who was my teacher!