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 of Africa.
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.
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.
1940 Born in the district Herbert near Kimberley.
1950 Parents move to South West Africa. (Namibia)
1956 Started painting under South West painter Banie van der Merwe.
1958 Matriculated Windhoek Hoerskool.
1958-1959 Private painting lessons under Otto Schroeder in Windhoek.
1960 Started studies in Art under prof H M van der Westhuysen, Zakkie Eloff, Anna Vorster, Leo Theron and Gunther van der Reis at the University of Pretoria.
1963 Received BA(Fine Arts) degree.
First one man exhibition in Windhoek.
1964-1966 Teacher in Art, Windhoek.
1967 Locum Tenentes at the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education.
1969 Junior lecturer in the Department of History of Art, Universiy of Pretoria.
1970 Received MA(Fine Arts) degree, University of Pretoria (cum laude).
1972 Responsible for the introduction of the Fine Arts training programme on the campus of the University of Pretoria.
1974 Received DPhil degree, University of Pretoria.
1978 Appointed as Head of the Department of Fine Arts, University of Pretoria.
His book, "Kuns in SWA" appears in three languages: Afril@@aans, English and German.
1979 Promoted to Professor in Fine Arts.
Received the J P van der Walt award for his publication "Kuns in SWA".
1980 Development of new Department of Fine Arts.
Received commendation for his painting "Rooi Landskap", Republic Festival Exhibition, Durban.
(Critic Edward Lucie Smith).
1983 Appointed Commissioner for S A's participation in the Valparaiso Biennale.
Visited Argentina and Chili and made contact with artists like Juan Egenau.
Visited various foundaries in the USA, Britain and France to study their bronze casting methods.
1984 Increased attention to university career and development of activities in the Department of Fine Arts.
1987 Began cooperation with Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg.
1988 Department of History of Art consoli- dated with Department of Fine Arts.
1991 Retrospective exhibition, University of Pretoria.
1992 University of Pretoria began with a collection of his paintings.
1993 Concluded a contract with Global Art, Switzerland, to represent him abroad.
Namibian Arts Association, Windhoek.
Government of Namibia, Windhoek.
Namibian Broadcasting Corporation, Windhoek.
HSRC, Pretoria. Volkskas Bank, Pretoria.
Meat Board, Pretoria.
University of Pretoria.
University of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein.
University of South Africa, Pretoria.
Pretoria Art Museum.
William Humphreys Art Museum, Kimberley.
City Council of Springs.
City Council of Windhoek.
State collection of South African Art, Bonn, Germany.
Momentum Life Assurance.
Anglo American, Johannesburg.
Rand Merchant Bank, Johannesburg.
Everard Read Gallery, Johannesburg.
Oliewenhout Art Museum, Bloemfontein.
Department of Fine Arts, Pretoria.
Mercedes Benz SA, Pretoria. Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Corporation.
Sankorp (Pty) Ltd, Johannesburg.
Everite Ltd, Johannesburg.
Price Forbes Group, London.
Genbel Limited, Johannesburg.
First National Bank.
Head Interiors, Johannesburg.
Russell Marriott & Boyd Trust, Durban
The Head Group, Johannesburg.
J L Margo, Oxford, U.K.
Phillip Sameuls Fine Art, St. Louis, Missourri, USA.
Global Art, Geneva, Switzerland.
B J Hays, London.