OTTO KLAR (1908 -1994)

Bridging the Gap


Gerrit van Niekerk was one of the most creative and controlled gallerists I have ever met. (In fact if ever we decide to do a series of articles on gallery-owners and dealers, he would be my first choice) Nothing ever ruffled Gerrit’s slinky smooth demeanour. Well not altogether nothing – the prospective arrival of one Otto Klar sent him into an absolute state, one more befitting of a visit by the dominie than a visit by a well-known and successful painter. Generally the reaction would be the other way around as Gerrit could be quite intimidating in his own right.


This particular morning I arrived to find Mr Van Niekerk chewing his nails and pacing up and down. When I enquired what the trouble was he answered me by saying Otto Klar the eminent artists was due to arrive shortly, and he would be bringing work. I asked if he did not like Klar’s work, and he replied that he did, most of it, but that when Professor Klar brought work to one it was considered a high honour, and one was expected to take all of it. One didn’t reject any of the paintings offered by the good professor. It just wasn’t done.


Besides the prospect of negotiating a deal with the paintings, Klar had insisted that the gallery owner should join him for lunch, and for some reason Gerrit felt this was a prospect worse than giving birth. He solved that one by suddenly declaring that I would go to lunch with the artist instead. That was then decided and just then the visitor arrived. He was well set and of average height and spoke with a strong Austrian accent. There was nothing particularly daunting about that, or his stature, or his very firm handshake, but he had a certain presence.


After the formalities had been dealt with he immediately started rummaging in portfolios he had brought and started extracting literally dozens of what looked like sepia and sanguine conte-crayon drawings on pink and yellow long narrow pieces of paper. They were all very similar and I remember not being that impressed with them until I saw the prices. Gerrit had also seen these and turned ashen.


We are talking about the 1980’s and the prices for those drawings were on average what other artists were charging for large oils.  A huge sum of money for those days.


By the time everything had been displayed it was lunch time and Otto wanted to go have lunch and finalise business after, and so he and I left Gerrit to sort out the drawings and get a cheque ready for his return. We walked over the road to the parking garage where he had left his car, a large Mercedes (of course), and in his brusque manner the professor reversed without looking – right into a car passing behind him. He was out of the car in a second admonishing the poor bewildered innocent as he went. I was astounded when the fellow apologised and moved his car out of the way so that we could complete our reversing and get to our destination. No numbers or names were taken and the other fellow’s car was fairly badly dented. Those old Mercs were pretty tough so not much damage to our car.


After all these years my recall of that lunch is rather blurred, but I do remember that I did not get much of a chance to talk and he was not lacking when it came to ego.


When we arrived back at the gallery Gerrit van Niekerk had the cheque ready and he had of course taken everything. Later I asked why he had taken all the work if he didn’t want it. The answer was ‘because it was Otto Klar!’  That was my one and only experience of the great man. We never met again.


Otto Klar was born in 1908 in Austria, arrived in South Africa in 1939 and died in Pretoria in 1994.


While writing this article I did some research and sadly there is nothing mentioned of his family or family life. Perhaps the thing he should be remembered for though is bridging the gap between being a professional, selling artist, and the role he played for a while in academic/contemporary art world. It seems he had a fairly thorough training at the Wiener Kunsakadamie in Austria and was initially very traditional in his style. Then he suddenly seems to have had a change of heart and in the late 1950’s changed over to abstract expressionism, and even though his traditional roots were often evident in his abstract work, this switch seems to have pleased the contemporary praise-singers, that is he pleased them until he suddenly after some years unrepentantly changed back to representational work, saying that among other things he was tired of living off his wife’s money. This decision by Klar seems to have really upset people like Esme Berman, who like many others of her time, believed that the future of art lay in Expressionism and Abstraction. He may have been somewhat visionary in that his work still looks fresh and relevant today, whereas much of the applauded abstract work of that time now looks tired and very dated.  Berman never forgave him for this ‘short-sighted’ and almost treasonous act. Her references to him in her rather biased book ‘Art and Artists of South Africa’ were less than flattering.  He was more or less dumped with what she referred to as ‘popular’ artists after that.


Another POPULAR artist was Tretchikoff, who has after all this time been ‘forgiven’ by the art world and has been moved from banal and popular to ‘accepted’ artist. Perhaps in time Otto will be forgiven and also be considered as an accepted artist once more.


In truth Professor Otto Klar was and always has been a true and committed artist, and if one looks at art as a marriage of fine craftsmanship and keen intellect he was not found wanting. If he was founding wanting in any way, his only sin could be that he was not madly exciting or inventive in the main body of his work. Competent would be a good description. He had a huge following and covered a wide repertoire of subject-matter ranging from abstract, traditional genre, portraits and just about everything else. All were handled competently, and many of his works are displayed in the top art-museums in this country and abroad.


Klar’s work is easy to find on the net and is really worth studying. He was a good journeyman artist and should be remembered for his long and diligent contribution to South African art, as should all artists who have served the 10,000 hours and gone beyond. He is one of those artists who have left an indelible footprint that current and up-coming artists can step into when negotiating the quagmire of a career in the visual arts.


My very short experience of Klar leads me to believe that he lost not a single night’s sleep over what the Esme Berman’s of this world, or any other of his detractors thought.


Besides painting he taught art in the Pretoria area of the then Transvaal, and among his students was Alice Golden who became very successful in her own right.


His professorship was bestowed on him by the State President of Austria and as was his nature he made the most of that title.


We cannot afford to forget people such Professor Otto Klar. He was a colourful character and he made a huge contribution to our art in this country, and most of all he was a true Artist in every sense of the word!



  • Colleen

    These posts are so informative, interesting and very readable John! I hope you intend to put them into a book one day?

  • G

    Otto Klar married my great grandmother. I came across this post while doing some research. I Dont remember him as he passed away while I was still young but I grew up in a home adorned with his paintings, I own three myself. Thank you for the post!

  • Albert Wolfgang Thorius

    According to my dad, who passed away years ago, he bought 2 pictures from Otto Klar himself while the latter was driving through the south of Namibia during the 1950’s selling his pictures. Is there any record of this?
    Kind regards
    Albert Thorius

    • John Smith

      I met Otto a few times Albert. I have no record of his work although I do know he was quite prolific. Thanks for writing!

    • Louise Panton

      June 2015. Interesting…we lived in Oranjemund, SWA during the 1950s and my Dad was an amateur artist so obviously interested in artwork. My understanding was that my father invited Otto Klar to exhibit in Oranjemund during the early 50s. We have a number of his paintings in the family and also received some hand painted cards from him for Christmas which I still have today.

  • John Smith

    That is really intersting Louise!

  • John Richard Edward Smith

    Thanks G – you are so lucky!

  • Lyn Gancewicz

    I also have one of his Christmas greeting cards – about 5 inches by 3 inches, showing a rural cottage or farm, bought at an auction in JHB about 20 years ago along with 3 paintings. Lyn

    • John Smith

      Thank you!

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