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Ahead of her time - Maria Stein-Lessing

THERE HAS NEVER BEEN anyone in the art world like Maria Stein-Lessing. She positioned herself as a crusader of African artefacts in the 1940s, and was a character so formidable and of such vast eccentricities that her human portrait evoked as much interest as her arts.

maria stein lessingShe was at once loved, feared, and loathed. Love or hate her, nobody marginalised her influence on cultural aesthetics until her untimely death in 1961. The resurrection of her memory almost 50 years later came about through a bequest by her late husband, Leopold Spiegel, to Museum Africa in order to honour her contribution to African art and culture, and a viewing of her collection.

Additionally, he left instructions for a memoir and record of Stein-Lessing's collection be edited by collector and art historian, Natalie Knight.

With this celebratory revival, deep and enduring memories keep flooding in from her students, now art luminaries throughout the world. Esme Herman, Cecil Skotnes, Judith Mason, Elizabeth Rankin, and Professor Eric Fernie. The latter went on to become director of the famed Courtauld Art Institute, recalls: "It wasn't the idiosyncrasies, the chain smoking, the dog tethered during lectures. What I remember is her intensity. I knew nothing about medieval cathedrals, but when Dr Stein-Lessing had given us a lecture on them, it just seemed as if they were the most fascinating things in the world."

Maria Stein LessingMaria Lessing, a Jewess, was born in German in 1905. She studied art in Germany, receiving a Doctorate from Bonn University. She took refuge in London in 1933, and in 1936, emigrated to South Africa. She was fascinated by African art and artefacts, becoming a committed collector. She married and divorced Dr Kurt Stein, and in 1943, she met and married fellow emigre and refugee Leopold Spiegel, who had escaped Germany in 1935. They were as diverse in character as is the earth from the moon.

Leopold was a socially sophisticated European, with style and courtesy, brought up by his upright, proper German father and mother. Maria was intellectually sophisticated. But that's where it ended.

Propriety was anathema to her. When she entered the lecture room, her impatient spaniel dog would skid ahead dragging Maria's inelegant body along by the leash. She would then bend in her sensible Dr Clark look-alike shoes and tether him to the desk leg.

She insisted on wearing outdated calflength suits over tightly buttoned blouses leaving no exposed flesh. The soft curtain of hair above her lip was yellow tinged at the cupid bow from smoking. It was her frizzy salt-and-pepper hair that drew most attention, springing from her scalp like a wild thorn bush. She wore owl-shaped glasses, except for special occasions, when she donned post-war era cats-eye art deco fashionable specs.

'M' and 'L', as they fondly referred to one another, moved to an apartment in Yeoville. At this time, L struggled to find employment, but he made up for it later in life by investing wisely, and accumulating a fortune.

Maria joined the staff of the Fine Art Department of the University of Witwatersrand in 1946. From then onwards, she garnered fame and notoriety for her Bohemian persona and mannerisms, her teaching and her collections.

Egon Guenther, a fellow refugee from Germany, smiles when he recalls Maria. "Maria was a chain smoker. She lit only one match a day."

Esme Berman, one of her first students,recalls: "Maria Stein-Lessing was omething of a sorceress; puffs of smoke from an endless chain of cigarettes clouded the air of the lecture-theatre, and out of the fog Maria somehow conjured up a vital image of the past. She gave luminous life to the periods with which she dealt, and endowed them with permanent meaning for her students."

Ironically, back then most South Africans were completely unaware of indigenous art and its invaluable future role on the world stage. They were dismissive, labelling it mere "ethnography", or "crude crafts". But, similar European backgrounds had exposed M and L to European and African cultures, to Primitivism and Expressionism. They knew that African masks had inspired the great masters of the 20th Century art in Europe - Picasso, Gauguin, and Matisse. They began to collect art from Central and Western Africa.

maria stein lessing African odyssey began; the odd couple scrambled, trawled and crawled, through the veld, in huts and caves in remote surrounds of southern Africa, gaining knowledge of the indigenous craft and rock engravings and paintings. Their small flat was crammed with masks on every square metre of the walls, woodcarvings, combs, snuffboxes, headrests, baskets or mats. In 1949, the couple relocated to London, where Stein-Lessing lectured in art at the University of Cambridge, and was curator of an exhibition: Art in South Africa, at the Wakefield City Art Gallery, Yorkshire. Three years later, they returned to South Africa, where she organised festivals and exhibitions on South African art and artefacts and resumed her post at Wits University.

M was always ardent about teaching. But by the late fifties, she grew disillusioned. As the months passed, she grew more irritable. What appeared as deep personal strength and an air of invincibility became despair.

Illustrious artist Judith Mason remembers her vividly. "She was already in her mid-fifties, but she looked like a different generation to other women her age. She had the life of Jewish refugee written across her face, and one got a good idea of what her life must have been like. She was very highly-strung and extremely intense, which was demanding. We irritated her.

We were so busy being 'cool' we were frozen in a coma." South African politics compounded M's despair. Wits University has always been a highly politicised environment. The Nationalist regime had come into power, and apartheid was entrenched. South Africa was excommunicated from the British Commonwealth. She feared that neo-Nazism was taking hold of the country.

The turning point was when very close friends of hers, fellow German emigres, left South Africa for the United Kingdom, and Maria felt betrayed by life itself.

maria stein lessingMaria Stein-Lessing's death came as a huge shock to everybody. To L, whose family had already been so disrupted by the Holocaust and war years, this was the cruellest blow of all. Esme Berman presented a eulogy and a memorial honouring Maria Stein-Lessing, at Wits, in March 1965. And L faithfully preserved her memory, and continued collecting artefacts, with works of artists and friends such as Walter Battiss, Cecil Skotnes, Gordon Vorster, Maggie Laubser and Irma Stern adorning his walls.

The collectables grew, but when he remarried several years later, his new bride Minna encouraged L to sell 600 pieces to Museum Africa. Seven years later, Minna died from a stroke and L was alone yet again. Later, L married his third wife, Hilda 'Ginger' Woolf, and they were happily married for almost 30 years. He died in 2006, aged 94, while living at Randjeslaagte Estate, a retirement complex in Johannesburg. So ends the sixdecade trajectory of the life and times of Maria Stein-Lessing and Leopold Spiegel.

The exhibition of their collections opens on 24 May 2009. ID JEWISH LIFE


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