Edoardo Villa

When he died at the stately age of 95 in 2011, the Sunday Times hailed Edoardo Villa as South Africa’s “most prolific and famous sculptor”. It was no empty plaudit. Villa, who was born in 1915 on the outskirts of the northern Italian town of Bergamo, produced one of the major bodies of sculpture in twentieth-century South Africa. Numbering over 1000 works, Villa’s muscular sculptures, which ranged from solid volumes in bronze to curved surfaces and elongated cylinders in steel, played a decisive role in modernising the language of South African sculpture.

His work straddles a key moment in South African art history, coming after the accomplished if conservative figurative work of Anton van Wouw and directly influencing the syncretic modernism of Sydney Kumalo and Ezrom Legae, both mentored by Villa. His involvement with dealer Egon Guenther’s Amadlozi Group of artists – he was a founding member with Kumalo, Giuseppe Cattaneo, Cecily Sash and Cecil Skotnes – positioned him as both a creative innovator and political progressive. Villa’s output as a sculptor is also as singular and enigmatic as that of Jackson Hlungwani.

Trained at the Scuola D’Arte Andrea Fontoni, a conservative Bergamo art school named after an Italian sculptor and woodcarver of the late-Baroque period, Villa’s conscription into the Italian military and later capture in Egypt radically changed his life path. Sent to South Africa, where he was imprisoned in Zonderwater, an internment camp east of Pretoria, Villa decided to stay in the country and work as an artist after his release in 1947. That same year he held his first exhibition in the Johannesburg Library.

The sculptor’s early years in Johannesburg were characterised by poverty, struggle and doubt, but also by experimentation and personal development.  He struck up key friendships with vanguard artists and in 1955 moved into a house in Parktown North with Stanley Dorfman, a noted young painter and associate of Christo Coetzee and Douglas Portway, both important abstract painters. When Portway emigrated to England in the late 1950s Villa bought his house in Kew. Working from the same address for the next half century, Villa produced a rigorous body of work noted for its diverse use of materials, forms and colours.

Villa’s importance lies in his volumetric experiments and abstracted interpretations of the human form in bronze and constructed steel. His earliest work was figurative and produced in bronze, a material he would return to in different ways over the coming decades. It was Portway who suggested he experiment with cut steel. Villa later started adding colour to his steel constructions in the early 1960s and subsequently went through periods of rejecting it because of the way colour diminished the essential and monumental character of his work. But he would just as often return to colour, drawn to its playfulness and immediate emotive impact in an increasingly cluttered world.

The widespread visibility of Villa’s sculptures in public spaces across the country today makes his success appear self-evident. “Edoardo’s anti-establishment role is seldom understood,” says artist and historian Karel Nel, who knew Villa personally and is a trustee of the Claire and Edoardo Villa Will Trust. Working from his home without institutional support Villa formulated a practice that synthetized his European heritage with African influences. Along with his pioneering mentorship activities this formal aspects of his practice further challenged the narrative of separate development. It was never an easy option and Villa had to rely on private collectors like Vittorino Meneghelli and John Schlesinger to sustain his early career. The modernist architect Monty Sack was also an important early patron, prominently placing Villa’s work outside new office blocks in central Johannesburg in the 1960s, further advancing the idea of Villa as a leading contemporary artist of his time.

Throughout his career Villa cultivated a worldly practice that was synchronous with the boldest developments in modernist sculpture globally. “He understood the international art world, but at the same time his work engaged with being African,” says Nel. “Edoardo was not reproducing Anthony Caro or David Smith; his work is not pastiche of Euro-American modernism. He had the ability to absorb and transform what he experienced in South Africa to create a very powerful body of work.”

Art patron and Villa trustee Benji Liebmann agrees: “Like Henry Moore he was concerned with the interpretation of the human form, but his was a uniquely African take, and strictly personal. Edoardo’s work revealed not only his strong political and humanist views as well as his enduring joie de vivre.” Villa’s humanism is central to an appreciation of his work. Speaking to artist and teacher Allan Crump in 1988, during his residency as guest artist at the Standard Bank Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown, Villa remarked: “If anything could sum up my fundamental concern in art, it is that of the human and the individual – the human condition.”

The activities of Claire and Edoardo Villa Will Trust aim to celebrate and promote this rich artistic legacy by ensuring that Villa’s important contributions to South African art history remain clear and accessible, now and into the future.

Sean O’Toole 2016



Chronological Biography | Chronologiese Biografie


1920             Born: Bergamo, Italy; Studies at: Scuola d'Arte Fontini, under Minotti, Lodi, Barbieri

                    Gebore: Bergamo, Italia; Studeer: Scuola d'Arte Fontini, onder Minotti, Lodi, Barbieri


1940-41       North African campaign. Wounded in battle. 2 months hospitalization in Cairo

                   Noord-Afrika-veldtog: gewond op slagveld: 2 maande in hospitaal in Ka'iro


1942-47       Sonderwater prisoner of war camp,South Africa. Encouraged by Dr. Sonnabend, Welfare Officer. Four group exhibitions

                   Sonderwater krygsgevangene kamp, Suid-Afrika. Aangemoedig deur Dr Sonnabend, welsynsbeampte. Vier groepuitstallings                   

                   November 1946: visits exhibition: SA Academy of Arts; Johannesburg Art Gallery

                   November 1946: besoek uitstalling SA Akademie van Kuns, Johannesburgse Kunsgalery


1947            Works done in camp: One-man exhibition in Johannesburg Public Library

                   Werke uit kamp: Selfstandige uitstalling, Johannesburgse Openbare Biblioteek


1949            Assistant to Willem Hendriksz. Lives at Lupini factory. Later stays with Douglas Portway in Kew. Learns terrazzo casting

                   Assistent vir Willem Hendriksz. Woon by Lupini se fabriek. Woon in by Douglas Portway in Kew. Leer terrazzo-gietwerk


1950            First commission: St. Appolonia; Dept of Dentistry, University of the Witwatersrand

                   Eerste opdrag: St Appolonia; Departement Tandheelkunde, Universiteit van die Witwatersrand


1955            Starts welding

                   Begin sweiswerk


1956            Participation in national exhibition: First Quadrennial of SA Art

                   Deelname aan nasionale uitstalling: Eerste vierjaarlikse uitstalling van SA Kuns


1956            First represented on Venice Biennale; visits Italy

                   Eerste verteenwoordiging op Venesiese Biennale, reis na Italia


1957            First representation on Sao Paolo Biennale, Brazil

                   Eerste verteenwoordiging op Sao Paolo Biennale, Brasilia


1958            Visits Venice Biennale

                   Besoek Venesiese Biennale


1959            Takes over Portway's studio in Kew; his home since then

                   Oorneem van Portway se ateljee in Kew; sedertdien sy tuiste


1960            Large commission: "Africa" 6,6 m, Union of South Africa, Rand Easter Show, Milner Park

                   Groot opdrag: "Afrika" 6,6 m, Unie van Suid-Afrika, Randse Paasskou, Milnerpark


1962            Visits Venice Biennale

                   Besoeke aan Venesiese Biennale


1964            Lucas Legode starts working for the artist and becomes his valued assistant

                   Lucas Legode word deur die kunstenaar in diens geneem, en word 'n onmisbare hulp


1965            Married Claire Zafirakos

                   Getroud met Claire Zafirakos         


1967            Monograph by Lola Watter is Produced

                   Monografie deur Lola Watter verskyn


1969            Transvaal Academy, Johannesburg: Gold Medal, and Olivetti Award

                   Transvaalse Akademie, Johannesburg: Goue medalje en Olivetti-prys


1970            Retrospective Exhibition 1960-1970, Pretoria Art Museum, Johannesburg Art Gallery

                   Oorsigstentoonstelling 1960-1970, Pretoriase Kunsmuseum, Johannesburgse Kunsgalery


1972            Visits Venice Biennale

                   Besoeke aan Venesiese Biennale


1974            Five works: SA Contemporary Art, Athens, Greece

                   Vyf werke: SA Hedendaagse kuns, in Athene, Griekeland


1976            Exhibition at RAU: 1970-1976

                   RAU tentoonstelling: 1970-1976


1976            AFROX Metalart guest artist: RAU, Johannesburg

                   AFROX Metaalkuns gaskunstenaar: RAU, Johannesburg


1979            Gold Medal from South African Academy for Arts and Sciences

                   Ere-penning van Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns