On 14 April 1886 Maggie Laubser was born on Bloublommetjieskloof farm in the district of Malmesbury in the Cape Colony. In 1903, at the impressionable age of 17 she visited Cape Town and its cultural life inspired artistic ambitions, she studied art briefly under Edward Roworth. Laubser was elected a member of the South African Society of Artists (SASA) in 1907, long before she became a noted modernist. Her first recorded participation on a SASA related exhibition was in a joint show with the SAFAA in 1910, when she entered a work entitled Hibiscus, on offer at 3 guineas. Around 1912 Laubser visited Pretoria and subsequently moved to the Transvaal, taking a job as a governess on a farm for a short while, she later taught at Ermelo. Laubsers early strikingly coloured paintings portrayed the landscapes, rural workers, animals and flowers of the Malmesbury area where she grew up.
In 1913 Laubser left for Europe, she lived briefly in an artists’ colony at Laren, Holland until outbreak of World War 1. Thereafter she moved to London, and began her studies at the Slade School, London, under Henry Tonks and Ambrose McEvoy (1915 -1918).
There is no further record of Laubser exhibiting with SASA until 1922, when she returned briefly to Cape Town from abroad. It was then that she entered her paintings; Wild Poppies and Garda Bay in Autumn. They had been painted over the previous two years, when, after her studies at the Slade School in London, she had visited Germany, and then the shores of Lake Garda in Italy. The two works showed that she was already schooled in the principles of Modernism.
Laubser went to back to Germany soon after the 1922 exhibition and settled in Berlin. It was her that she came into contact with the German Expressionists and was encouraged by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, she began to further develop the style for which she is now best known, the use strong colour and simplified, assertive forms that give her canvases a powerful impact. In 1924, she returned permanently to South Africa to live near Klipheuvel in the Cape. She lived in seclusion on the Klipheuvel farm but she made working trips to the then Transvaal, Orange Free State and Natal. It was during this phase of her work that she developed a distinctive pastoral style, painting mainly portraits of African and Indian men and women. She exhibited regularly.
In 1936 Laubser served on the selection panel of the Empire Exhibition (the convenor was Professor Martin du Toit, long one of her most sincere supporters) and became a member of the New Group. During the same year she made a trip to Gansbaai with May Hillhouse resulted in her famous paintings of the fishing village.
In 1944 she moved to Strand and later started building her cottage “Altyd lig” at Strand, where she lived until her death in 1973. Much of her early artwork work proved ‘too advanced’ for public acceptances at the time, but today, Laubser’s artworks are sought-after.
• Joyce, P. (ed) (1999). A concise dictionary of South African Biography. Cape Town: Francolin Publishers.
• The advancement of Art, SASA and its exhibitors 1902-1950 [online], available at: sahistory.org.za [accessed 6 April 2009]
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