|THE EGON GUENTHER FAMILY COLLECTION:
A CONVERSATION WITH KAREL NEL
Egon Guenther, a pivotal art dealer who did much to promote contemporary an in South
Africa during the 1960s, also assembled one of the most remarkable private collections of
African art on the subcontinent. Karel Nel interviewed Egon Guenther at his home in
Johannesburg during August 2000.
|The interview is from the November 2000 Sotheby's catalog:
"African Art from the Egon Guenther Family Collection"
KAREL: Egon, you were born in Mannheim (on 24 January 1921), and grew up in
Germany, so where did your initial interest in African art come from?
EGON: From my father. From 1907 until he was interned during the First World War, he
was on the African continent in various countries, including South Africa, southwest Angola,
the Belgian Congo and finally - this was where he was taken prisoner and interned - Afrique
Centrale, a French colony.
KAREL: Had he collected African art while he was there?
EGON: No, not really. He had a staff from this period, which I still have today. Fantastic! A
Chokwe piece - he must have picked it up in Angola. He had a great interest in art in general
- my mother too - though he did not develop a specific interest in African art.
KAREL: So in a way he initiated your interest, but who would you say was your mentor?
EGON: The first man who awakened in me the interest in African art was Dr. Pfaff-
Giesberg, director of the Volkerkunde museum (known as the 'Zeughaus Museum') in
Mannheim, Germany. That was in the 1930s when I was at school and I was about fourteen
years old. When we visited the museum I showed an interest, and because of this, Dr. Pfaff-
Giesberg encouraged me to come back whenever I wished. I became fascinated. I became
infected by it. Strangely enough, that same Dr. Pfaff-Giesberg bought from me pieces of
African art for the museum when, many years later in 1951, I left Germany for Africa.
The man to whom I owe almost everything as far as African art is concerned is Hans
Himmelheber, probably one of the most important men in the field of anthropology and field
collecting. We met in 1946 and remained in contact since then.
KAREL: In the 1940s you opened an art gallery in Germany. What was the focus of the
gallery and whose work did you exhibit?
EGON: Immediately after the Second World War, whilst working for the American military
government of Germany, I began planning and preparing to open my own art gallery. My
father assured me of his full support. I began with the help of friends of the family whose
work was stamped by the Nazis as 'Entartete Kunst' — decadent art. Earlier there had been
an exhibition which you were, even at high school, forced to see, called 'Entartete Kunst'.
The Nazis had hung pictures upside down or on their edges and had tried to make fun of it.
Some of the most beautiful paintings were there. 'Decadent art' included African art but
referred to German artists as a general rule. African art was not included on that particular
We began to mobilize works of art, including African art, for an impressive exhibition program
of international stature. The first exhibition took place on 1 February 1947 with paintings by
Max Ackermann, Willi Baumeister, Rudi Baerwind, an artist with the surname Kunz (the poor
devil, he had earlier been caught painting abstract pictures and put into a concentration
camp) and Otto Ritschl. Negerplastik was also included.
I got this name 'Negerplastik' which means African art' from Carl Einstein's book of the same
title (it was published in Munich in 1920). Then some of my African-American friends
objected to the name, so on their advice I changed it to 'Exotic Art' - 'Exotische Kumt'in
Besides Exotische Kunst, I concentrated on abstract and surrealist art in my gallery which, by
the way, was called 'Gallerie Egon Gunther' and it was in Mannheim. To pay tribute to the
expressionists I staged in 1948 an exhibition of these artists: Barlach, Beckmann,
Campendonk, Dix, Feininger, Grosz, Heckel, Hofer, Kirchner, Klee, Kokoschka, Lehmbruck,
Macke, Marc, Miiller, Nolde, Pechstein, Rohlfs and Schmidt-Rottluff; sculpture was by
My gallery consisted of two rooms. The 'small room' permanently contained works of African
art, and this was mentioned on each invitation to an opening.
The last exhibition took place in December 1950. In 1951 I moved to South Africa.
KAREL: What were the aims or guiding principles behind the establishment of the gallery?
EGON: Simply to help to stop the isolation Germany had suffered since 1933 by being
completely cut off from international art events. To re-establish contacts with other countries.
I was the first German gallery that was listed post-war in the leading French bulletin on the
arts which was published in Paris by Wildenstein. So I did really succeed in this.
KAREL: You had a number of exhibitions which showed African as well as abstract and
surrealist art. What was the response to this type of exhibition in Germany at that time?
EGON: The response was very mixed. The majority hated what I was doing.
KAREL: Was there any common ground or defining factors when it came to the type of art
EGON: Well, of course, the early expressionists, such as Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff and
Pechstein were admirers of African art — which showed in their works, particularly Pechstein
who used African sculpture in some of his early still-lifes. Abstraction and surrealism was a
KAREL: With this as a background, how was your collection of African art shaped?
EGON: I had slowly started collecting pieces of African art immediately after the Second
World War, but I made one big mistake by selling most of them when I left Germany in 1951.
When I returned in 1964 for the first time since I had left, I tried to buy them back. Most
owners didn't want to sell, but some of these pieces I managed to obtain. Then I started
looking for other sources of supply which I found by tracing descendants of missionaries and
former colonial officials. I also purchased from collectors and dealers, and on auction sales -
mainly from Sotheby's in London. And as I became better known, people simply approached
me and offered me pieces of African art.
KAREL: How did your personal collection develop?
EGON: Well, I was actually a goldsmith. My involvement in the gallery and dealing in art —
African as well as European — was merely to establish an opportunity to produce a
collection. If you have limited means, you have no other real opportunity to collect. So the
easiest way was to run that business concurrent to my goldsmith workshop. I had done this
already in Germany, but there I could only start my workshop in 1949, after my dad died
because he was a goldsmith too, and I had to work for him when he needed me. I didn't like
to go into competition with him - he was the best friend I ever had. And I did the same in
South Africa. I had my workshop from the beginning, but was only able to reopen my gallery
in 1957 - that was in Johannesburg and it was called the 'Egon Guenther Gallery'.
KAREL: And was your family also interested in African art?
EGON: Very much so. From the start my father supported me fully and, to be honest,
without his financial and moral support I wouldn't have been able to do it. In 1947 I met and
married Hannelore Ingeborg Schmitt, and since then she has always been my staunches!
support, assistance and encouragement. We had three children. Our oldest, Miriam, started
collecting as a child and later studied art at university. Nico, the second, began to carve as a
small child and would no doubt have followed in my footsteps had he not died in a climbing
accident as a teenager. Thomas, the youngest, has a great interest in art and also collects.
So all of us, you see, we collected as a family, and as a family we have decided to part now
with these pieces in the interest of educating six grandchildren and caring for Hanne who
suffers from Alzheimer's disease and who needs special care.
KAREL: Looking at these African art pieces that you've collected over the years: what
would you say were the criteria that guided your selection of them?
EGON: When I started with Negerplastik (later Exotische Kunst) I had also the odd piece of
Oceanic art. The latter I dropped because I lost interest. Oceanic art was too decorative, it
repeated on purpose, and was sometimes too playful. But I was so impressed by the
magnificent power and plainness in African art - that structural quality - not playful, not trying
to, how shall I say, bring a nice little diing in which draws attention. Just plain structure in
naked art. No dressing. Nothing. Basic art. I still have the same feelings towards it.
Whether it's a humble headdress or an ancestor figure, it doesn't matter: it's just there. It's
full power, even if a fetish. Simple. Basic. And very often just elementary. But to an extent it
doesn't end there. It radiates, you see. You can see that, actually.
Let us look at this little Pende mask. It's just the place the mask occupies, just the expanse,
the presence of it that makes it great art. And in my opinion very, very few artists have
achieved that. Mind you, not every African artist achieves this. It's like in Western art: you
have out of your hundred-thousand only a few worth mentioning. Here it's the same. Many
things are merely of ethnographic interest and not of artistic merit. Me, I'm an art collector
and not a collector of ethnographica, irrespective of the colour or origin of its creator. Art
alone is of interest to me.
KAREL: When you first arrived in South Africa in 1951, was there much African art readily
available to acquire?
EGON: The most important pieces I bought in South Africa came from the owner of a curio
shop, called Ivy's in Pretoria. I saw them first displayed in a locked glass cabinet in late 1951.
The owner then was old Mr. Ivy. These pieces were not for sale. After Mr. Ivy's death, Bob
(Robert) took over, but they were still not for sale. After Bob's death, his daughter Marian
took over. Finally, I was able in the mid 1970s to purchase these pieces, and some more
which were found in a storeroom. These were mainly Congo pieces.
In general, to obtain good stuff you had to select. Let's say you found a bunch of twenty or
thirty spoons: only two or three would be outstanding.
KAREL: And the availability of headrests and beadwork and other southern African
EGON: Even in the 1950s you couldn't see headrests, funnily enough. But beadwork you
could see. You could buy many pieces. Very, very beautiful. Ivy's had drawers full. Stacks of
beadwork. I was fascinated particularly by the Ndebele. Later you never saw such things
KAREL: Were there any other collectors of the southern African material at that time?
EGON: Not that I know of. The first person who showed a serious interest was Jonathan
Lowen, who lived in London.
KAREL: It's interesting you mention Jonathan because he made one of the most important
collections of southern African material in Europe, which was acquired by the late H.E
Oppenheimer to become known as The Brenthurst Collection, now at the Johannesburg Art
EGON: Whenever he came to see me he showed me photographs of his up-to-date
purchases. He didn't start with southern African art. He started with African art in general,
and later began to specialize in southern African art. I too collected a number of headrests,
sticks and snuff containers, both locally and abroad.
KAREL: What quality of West African material was available on the market here in South
EGON: Besides Ivy's, hardly anything. There were a few people - one was Joan Hoather
who ran the Gainsborough Gallery in Johannesburg where occasionally you could find the
odd West African piece. Later a Hollander took over the gallery and he travelled a lot and
had connections as well.
KAREL: So you bought the majority of your collection through the auction houses?
EGON: Definitely - the vast majority.
KAREL: Did traditional African art influence any of your artists, that you represented in
your gallery in Johannesburg?
EGON: I think greatly, yes. Especially Cecil Skotnes, Sydney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae and
Eduardo Villa. This awareness was particularly so in Kumalo and Legae. They were
fascinated. Kumalo first, and later Legae.
KAREL: What is interesting is, if we look back to the start of your gallery in Germany, die
display of contemporary and African art side by side, it is very much what continued within
your gallery in South Africa. Here you nurtured and promoted an extraordinary growth of an
art that reflected its African context. This innovative quality amongst a small group of artists
known as the Amadlozi Group made an important contribution to the development of art in
EGON: In 1957 I opened my gallery in Johannesburg with an exhibition of Willi
Baumeister's paintings and drawings. And I was shocked by critics who said things like, 'Do
you expect people to swallow this?' 'It is a hoax.' 'It is in my opinion, rubbish!' When I told
them all about Willi Baumeister and his credentials in Europe and internationally, diey calmed
down a little.
KAREL: So there was a certain antagonism and lack of comprehension?
EGON: I wouldn't call it 'antagonism'. There was a certain resistance to any form of
intrusion in die Victorian atmosphere that reigned then in art circles in South Africa.
KAREL: To return to your African art collection: inevitably any collection has a certain bias
or strength, and if we look at yours, what would you perceive it to be?
EGON: I will give you an answer to the awkwardness of my aspect of collecting. I just
spoke of that beautiful presence and monumental structure that radiates even from a humble
old stool which is worth a few hundred Rands only. Well it doesn't come in anywhere, strictly
speaking. It excites me as much as an Archipenko, or as a Schmidt-Rottluff or as a Picasso.
So it has nothing to do with materialistic value. It is die piece itself that matters.
KAREL: Within your years of collecting African art, what have been the highlights, and
have you had any specific regional focus to what you've acquired?
EGON: If you would ask me which areas did I pay greater attention to, then I would say
very simply, just think of the bulge of the African continent. You go straight east to the great
lakes. You draw a line south to the height of southern Angola. And then you draw a straight
line west to the Atlantic.
KAREL: Do you have any advice that you could give to beginner collectors of African art
about how to start a collection or some pointers to look for when buying African art?
EGON: In general, the advice which I give all my clients is: instead of buying ten pieces,
use the same money and buy one. Be selective. Set up first a structure of pillars and fill in
later. Most people do it the other way around and collect quantity instead of quality. One
piece radiates to such an extent it will take the place of twenty. They will disappear in any
case, if you put that one in the middle.
KAREL: In other words, if you really focus on one, you will truly need to be discerning?
EGON: That's right.
KAREL: And avoid the clutter. In a sense, you give the space to -
EGON: Not that I did avoid it. [laughs] I did clutter. I admit. I feel guilty!
|To go to the preview and recap of the November 2000 Sotheby's auction
from the Egon Guenther Family Collection
(page will open in a new window)
It contains images and information from some of the pieces from the auction.