Nico Roos (1940-2008) Biography...
Nicholaas Oswald Roos was born in the district Herbert near Kimberley in 1940,
where his father was a farmer. While Roos was still a child the family moved to
a house outside Upington. He therefore grew up in a rural environment and as a
child became intimately acquainted with the landscape. In 1950 the family again
moved, this time to South West Africa (Namibia), and Roos, then ten years old,
got to know the Namibian landscape which would later play such an important role
in his art.
Roos's art training started in Standard 8, and even then he experimented with
various media such as tempera, gouache and oil paint, media which he still uses
today. While still at school he already used an outside room as a studio, and
was certain that he would one day follow a career in art. He was further
convinced of this when the well-known artist, Otto Schroeder, offered to
instruct him in painting and drawing, after Schroeder had seen a work by Roos on
an art competition and had been impressed by the young man's talent.
In 1960 Nico Roos enrolled as a student for the degree B.A. Fine Arts at the
University of Pretoria. In the same year his professor in Art history requested
him to write a paper on Adolph Jentsch. In this, manner a firm friendship
between Roos and Jentsch came into being, a friendship which was to last until
Jentsch's death. Over the years Jentsch also imparted a huge amount of
information to the young artist, information such as how energy should radiate
from a painting to make it lively, how the artist should maintain continuous
concentration while completing a painting, how the paint should be applied, as
well as how the brush could be used in various ways. Jentsch also introduced
him. to the world of philosophy, and also explained to him how he applied his
Eastern philosophy in his painting. In these days Roos's own painting revealed
strong sylistic influence form Jentsch's art, and even today we see certain
elements in Roos's work which remind us of Jentsch's "handwriting".
During the years when Roos was a student, the university students received their
practical training at the Pretoria Technical College, where at the time there
was a strong group of art lecturers, artists of stature, such as Zakkie Eloff,
Anna Vorster, Gunther van der Reis, Leo Theron and Ernst de Jong. Roos was
influenced from all sides, also being influenced indirectly by European masters
such as Picasso and Braque, and especially by the brilliant Graham Sutherland,
who was to have such a strong and lasting influence on the work of Roos.
Roos's earliest paintings (from the period of approximately 1965 to 1967) reveal
a romantic vision of the Namibian landscape, strongly influenced by Jentsch. The
influences of his art training became visible only after 1967, when he started
experimenting with abstract compositional elements, and when he began to grasp
the meaning of abstract qualities in forms and relations of forms. However, to
this day he has never entirely banished the actual natural elements from his
painting, while his art con- tinues to swing between the two poles of acceptance
and avoidance of natural elements.
Roos has an exceptional love for the and parts of Southern Africa, especially,
as we have seen, for the Namibian landscape, and while many of the scenes he
paints are landscapes of the imagination, he continues to refer to the landscape
of Namibia. In his earlier work of the sixties he indeed frequently makes use of
Jentsch's almost calligraphic style, with the landscape being rendered through
means of short, powerful brush strokes. Jentsch's influence in these early works
are quite clear - the calligraphic brush marks, the shallow perspective, the
concentration on design and the lively composition. Also strongly reminiscent of
Jentsch is the pre- dominant use of earth colours such as reddish brown, ochre
yellow and dull green'. Already in these early works we find Roos concentrating
on the foreground, on rocks, grass and shrubs which flow together in an
intricate pattern. In the later works this intricate foreground pattern would
spread to cover almost the entire surface of the painting.
From the sixties onwards Roos's concentration on the outward appearance of
nature decreased, while we find in his work an increasing spiritualization. We
see him in these years struggling to reveal the intrinsic characteristics of the
South African landscape in an individual, personal manner, as his work becomes
more and more abstract. Some of the intrinsic qualities of our landscape which
Roos captures in his paintings are the following: its rough textures, the
predominance of earth colours, the staccato rhythms and sharp light and dark
contrasts caused by the fierce sunlight, and predominantly sombre mood and even
dramatic qualities which we find here. This predilection for the dramatic can
also be traced back to the influence of Graham Sutherland's art.
An aspect of the importance of Roos's art for South Africa lies in the fact that
he has achieved a unique interpretation of our landscape. He has stripped the
landscape of all romantic associations, has investigated its geological
structure thoroughly, and has revealed its essence completely.
According to Melanie Grobler' different types of landscape can up till now be
identified in Nico Roos's art: The landscapes which are true to nature, the
landscapes with a shaft in the ground, landscapes in the form of a cross, the
landscapes which reveal a cross-section of the earth, the vistas, the coastal
series, and the mountain-landscapes. In all these, however, we find Roos's
personal "handwriting". Like many other South African artists, Roos became
increasingly involved with abstraction from the sixties onward, and in that way
also increasingly came in contact with international art movements. It is
paradoxical that this involvement with abstraction resulted, in the case of Roos
as well as of other South Africans, in a greater awareness of the
characteristics of the African environment. In the case of Roos the abstraction
that influenced him brought him to a greater appreciation of the forms, texture
and feel of our own landscape.
He applies the calligraphic elements which were passed on to him by Jentsch, and
develops his personal "African calligraphy" - lines which run crisscross through
his landscapes, dry textures of stones, grass and plants, sharp planes of rocks
which develop intricate patterns to a final logic and which reflect the essence
Although Roos has succeeded in penetrating to the essence of the South African
landscape, his work is quite often imbued with a feeling of unreality, are
frequently imaginary landscapes, or landscapes in which man feels himself to be
a stranger. He depicts imaginary worlds which only come alive if the onlooker
begins to join in the game and is pre- pared to follow the artist into his
imaginary world. Only when we exert ourselves and participate in an imaginative
way in the adventure of rich colours, involved shapes and strange, romantic
emotions, does the world of Roos become reality and do we feel that we can move
around in it. That is when a space is created between our own, everyday world
and our identity, and when we achieve entry into a richer, fuller world where
something fascinating is constantly taking place.
Roos creates comprehensive, extensive landscapes - it is as if he wants to
encompass the whole cosmos in each of his landscapes. That is why, especially
with regard to his large works, that we can speak of his "cosmic" landscapes.
Strangely enough, the human figure practically never appears in his landscapes,
and there is only occasionally reference to man-made structures, such as we see
in his "wall-as-shaft" paintings where we see parts of built up walls. One also
does not get the feeling that man could appear at any moment in these
landscapes, and this gives a feeling of desolation to many of his works.
Although it can thus be said that Roos's landscapes are "alien to man", they
nevertheless possess a kind of nostalgia, a longing for a utopian world which
has vanished. As Prof Dirk van den Berg has put it:2 "Al skilder Nico Roos geen
mense en geskiedkundige gebeure in sy landskappe nie, projekteer sy werke tog
vir die betragters 'n menslike wereld, 'n stryd om die ruimtelike ordening van
menseverhoudings, 'n lig- en skaduspel van goed en kwaad, nuanses van waar en
vals in die spel van kieure."
If we accept this point of view, we must also accept that there exists a direct
link between the art of Nico Roos and the 19th century British romantic
landscape painters, for instance William Turner, and their "painted theology"
which glorifies the grandeur of the creation.
In his attempt to express the grandeur of nature Roos also delves into the
earth, especially in his so-called "shaft paintings", where practically the
whole surface of the painting is filled with a kind of cross-section through the
earth. In this cross-section intricate contrasts of planes, lines and textures
can be found, which, although largely abstract, refer to rocks, earth layers,
roots of plants and to undefined geological structures. These works often have
the feeling of a primeval world, in which the passing of centuries has gradually
altered the geological structure. This mood of a "primeval world" is heightened
by a sun or moon or strange planet hovering above the horizon.
The final issue in Roos's landscapes is, how- ever, far more than the creation
of atmosphere or the realization of a visual drama. At the core of his work lies
the intricate and involved game of textures, sur- faces, lines and the quality
of the paint application (often so heavy that the surface of the painting
becomes three-dimensional and carries powerful tactile elements). Roos's art is
about the basic elements of painting, about colour, line, plane, surface and
texture, and in Roos's case, the calligraphic marks made on the canvas. As
Melanie Grobler puts it in her thesis, Roos's work can be described as
"calligraphy on geography", because Roos never entirely moves away from nature
and natural elements, and it usually refers to the Southern African landscape.
Roos's landscapes never carry symbolic elements.
What he wants to depict is the more universal experience of the landscape. In
the creative process, however, the landscape is transformed into a hyper-
personal, individual vision and an individual emotional world.
Roos's visual language has changed through the
years from a fairly simple, true-to-nature one to a language which is
comprehensive, involved and almost abstract. Concomitant to this is his
increasingly rich use of colour and his increasingly intricate composition. Even
in his smaller works we find a microscopic reflection of the macro-cosmos. The
intricacy of the works gives a richness to the painted surface, because each
element appearing on that sur- face refers to another element or elements which
appears elsewhere - a fascinating game of point and counterpoint which, in the
large paintings, possess the richness of fully orchestrated symphonies.
Roos can surprise us repeatedly by suddenly
reverting in his latest work to a style of an earlier period. In this manner he
can today paint an unusually realistic watercolour of, for instance, a scene in
Namibia, and then revert to his virtually abstract, involved compositions. This
is, however, an indication of a constantly seeking spirit; and behind it all we
can discern a logical development. In the same way he can, although his work is
primarily sombre and dramatic, suddenly give us a joyful, nearly play- ful
painting, with clear, cheerful colours.
Over a period of nearly thirty years Nico Roos
has grown in stature as an artist until today, at the age of 53, he is to be
regarded as one of South Africa's important artists. He works with complete
commitment and dedication, and uses the few hours which his responsibilities as
Departmental Head at the University of Pretoria allow him as best as possible
for painting. His day is heavily loaded with responsibilities and commitments,
because he also serves on a large number of committees. Nevertheless, he has
retained his enthusiasm for art and is as artist remarkably productive. May his
work grow in strength and conviction, and may his career as an artist continue
to show an upward curve.
ALBERT WERTH - May 1993
Roos has held over twenty sole exhibitions and taken part in numerous group
shows. In 1991, the University of Pretoria held a Retrospective Exhibition of
his work and he was presented with a Silver University Medal by the Principal of
the University in recognition of outstanding achievement. In 1993 he was honored
with a Retrospective Exhibition of his work at the Pretoria Art Museum. In 1998
he was awarded the Medal of Honour for painting by the South African Academy of
Arts and Science – the highest award made to an artist in South Africa. Nico
Roos passed away on the 25th January 2008 from a heart attack. He was 67 and
living with his wife on his farm in Namibia. He had an exhibition in Namibia the
week before he died.
Back to Roos Gallery