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Brush strokes of brilliance

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TO susanne pieter winning portrait

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Susanne du Toit's winning portrait.

Diane De Beer

THE career of South African Susanne du Toit (now living in London), last year’s winner of the £30 000 Portrait Award for a painting of her 35-year-old son, has changed dramatically.

Like the portraits she’s been painting mainly of her family (“because having a model is a real luxury”) her private space has suddenly been turned to the out-side world with her first commission from Friends actor David Schwimmer and his family.

“They wanted a family portrait. I was terrified,” she says of the experience. Fortunately she’s had mail while on holiday in the Cape crooning about the painting being the coolest thing in their home!

Winning one of Britain’s top art prizes means she’s been plucked from her private world and been put on show. It’s exciting and Du Toit is trying to enjoy it as much as she can. Along the way, it has also been a huge learning curve.

“I suddenly had to learn to speak about my work,” she says, “publicly.” On the advice of a friend, she met a consultant who gave her the basic guidelines and now she’s much more comfortable speaking in public.

She’s also been asked to present workshops at London’s National Gallery – something she really loved doing. And with her profile rocketing, she’s been embraced by the city’s art community.

“It’s been tough to find my place,” she says. But no longer – it’s not a problem with her new status.

Du Toit graduated from the University of Pretoria in the mid-1970s and followed this with postgraduate studies in Massachusetts, US, where she started finding her style. At the time her work confused people because coming from apartheid South Africa, these were not the issues she addressed in her painting. Many local artists have grappled with that concept, when angst is not part of their art.

Through the years, her art has manifested as an intensely individual experience. Any value it may have for other people comes from that. “I use art to deal with my immediate context, rather than a greater one. My meaning is personal before it is public. My subject is always rendered primarily through my relationship with it,” she writes in an artistic statement on the web.

She attributes her present style more specifically to a Glitter and Doom exhibition of inter-war German art at the New York Met a few years ago. She was struck by the humanity of this portraiture, the soul, and the zeitgeist of that time.

“This influence became more personal in my own work, especially as I was painting and drawing my family.”

What she loved and learnt from this personal gallery of models was that she could focus on the painting.

“I knew how to capture them and didn’t have to think about it.”

They were also comfortable with her skills to allow her absolute freedom. She had the luxury of painting people she cared about which ensured that she could more easily embrace their souls. That’s what really moves and motivates her. It’s the essence of her work. That’s also the worrying and tough aspect of future commissions. Now she has to get to know her subjects and capture them in a way they probably have to be comfortable with.

Waiting in her not-too-distant future is a commission from the National Gallery – an offshoot of the prize. “I don’t know yet who they are going to ask me to do, but they’ll probably match my style with someone they want to include in the gallery.”

It makes her nervous because with the prize comes publicity and she knows that the British press takes no prisoners. Think of the recent portrait of Princess Kate!

Her son-in-law, married to one of her two daughters, Elize, is actor Rafe Spall (we last saw him as the journalist in Life of Pi) who last year finished a Pinter play on Broadway with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. He has to navigate that world and should be the perfect guide. He grew up with a bit of fame as the son of Timothy Spall, best remembered as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies and one of the leads in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies.

It’s been a whirlwind, but Du Toit is still overwhelmed by all that’s happened. It was the third time she had entered the prestigious portrait competition.

The first few times she did a painting of her brother-in-law (Rafe’s dad) Timothy and followed that with one of Rafe. This time she zoned in on home and selected a family group including most of her kids. She had already entered the painting with a title when her children persuaded her to pick the one of her eldest child, Pieter, which she did. “I simply asked them to change the title because I hadn’t sent the painting yet.”

At the time of the announcement, she and her orthodontist husband, Pieter, who is hugely encouraging and supportive of her work, were travelling India and out of reach. When they arrived in Delhi with the news waiting, they were ecstatic.

Du Toit is warm and speaks easily about her world, but one suspects she’s a bit of an introvert which she concedes. She’s happiest when painting all on her own not having to engage yet finding, discovering and depicting her world on canvas.

There’s a scrutiny and vulnerability in portrait painting for both the artist and the subject, but it’s something she has turned to her advantage – and it shows.

Look through her catalogue and the paintings pictured here. How can we not feel proudly South African with these brilliant brush strokes telling such amazing stories?

Working towards a London exhibition, her trajectory is well placed, but her heart lies in her painting and the fact that after all these years, she knows: “I can do it!”

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