Biography

Jaime Lass was born in New York City, and trained at Pratt Institute. She wanted to study fine art, but her mother wouldn’t let her (because it was ‘of no use to anybody’), and insisted she study commercial art. But this gave her in the end precisely what she wanted: a sound technical training with an emphasis on draftsmanship. On leaving Pratt she put her career aside and worked as a bluegrass and folk singer and guitarist, weaver and textile designer (late 50s-60s). From the late 60s on she became increasingly involved in animal welfare, both in the US and in Edinburgh, and in the 70s co-founded Lothian Cat Rescue, a massive shelter south of Edinburgh and still going. She also published a self-illustrated vegetarian cookbook (The happy herbivore, Edinburgh, Canongate 1979), which still turns up at Amazon. But she continued to draw and paint seriously for her own pleasure (only one work from that period survives and opens this collection). In 1957 she married Roger Lass, now an honorary professorial fellow at the universities of Cape Town and Edinburgh.

On arriving in South Africa in March 1983 she was blown away by her first sight of Mediterranean light with its knife-edged shadows, and decided to devote the rest of her life to serious painting. She studied for several years in Cape Town with the distinguished South African painter Michael Pettit; from the mid 1980s she began exhibiting, first in group shows and then solo shows in galleries in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

For her the indispensable foundation of graphic art was drawing. Making art of any value or expressiveness presupposes being able to draw impeccably (in any medium) anything you can see or imagine. Her style (with one exception here) is best characterised as ‘illusionist realism’, often with surreal elements (impossible perspectives, shadows with nothing to cast them). There is often a brooding darkness and unease behind the brilliant light, a darkness explicit in the exquisitely painted death and violence of her earlier work. For viewers who paint, the fact that she often worked in oil with 00 and 000 water-colour brushes may say something about the kind of artist she was. As does a brief list of those she admired most: Jan van Eyck, Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, with a special corner for reserved for Escher. She once said in public to another artist who was criticising her for her ‘retrogressive’ representational style, ‘I can’t respect an artist who can’t prove to me he can draw’.

There is an element of bravura and deliberate virtuosity in some of her work, a delight in her own extraordinary technique. Despite this, or possibly helped by it, the work of art always came first. Her basic approach to art was deeply conservative and puritanical. She was committed to the values of High Art in the classical, pre-modernist sense, and had a profoundly hierarchical view of artistic quality. I recall once going with her to a big Dali exhibition, and as we went through she stopped and commented on every picture, distinguishing for me what she thought was good art from what she thought cheap and vulgar. As we were leaving she said quietly, ‘Now you know the difference between a whore and an artist’.

The works presented here, all from private collections, derive their emotional power from her imagination, a profound loneliness that dominated her life even in the midst of society, her immaculate draftsmanship and command of perspective sufficient to distort it, her knowledge of the academic rules and a willingness to break them, and her extraordinary gift for painting light. These pictures span the roughly two decades she had as a professional, before she became too ill to work. There is a study of her earlier work with illustrations of pictures not included here in Tietze, Anna (1993), Painting from the still centre : the art of Jaime Lass. Smithsonian Libraries African Art Index Project. South Africa: call number N8.A34 A78, Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Reprint of original in de arte 47, pp. 3-14 (Pretoria: University of South Africa).

The pictures are followed by a set of notes and comments. Not that viewers will necessarily need them, but some of these pictures are quite enigmatic, and nobody will be able to ask her questions any more. I’ve thought to anticipate that, and give some information that’s simply not obtainable elsewhere.

Thanks to Pat and Henry Fenn and Meg and Ian Laing for providing pictures from their collections. And to Bronwyn Lloyd for all but one of the photographs (that one by Ian Laing). And to Des McKie for her IT skills and imagination.

Roger Lass