Dean Simon: turning great political circles with the humble pencil

Tribute to Peter Rezant and the Merry Blackbirds, a pencil drawing by Dean Simon. Photograph courtesy Dean Simon.

Tribute to Peter Rezant and the Merry Blackbirds, a pencil drawing by Dean Simon. Photograph courtesy Dean Simon.

You might remember Dean Simon’s intense photorealistic pencil drawings of Litvak Jewry, marketed in calendars in the 1980s. This Johannesburg artist who became one of South Africa’s few military artists whilst in the army recently explained to My View what he’s been up to.

Considering the progress of his art career as backwards in comparison with most artists, he concedes he has had the curious advantage of having been able to by-pass galleries. “One of my clients, Ivor Ichikowitz, is a big art collector. He approached me to record people who’d made a dramatic positive influence on SA. For me, this idea was boring. I’ve been doing portraits of the ‘usual suspects’ for years.

“We kicked the idea around a bit and decided the idea was not to show the version of history in text books.  It asks questions rather than gives answers. Answers are never simple.”

Simon works in pencil. “It’s an unusual, difficult approach. You throw your mistakes away. Working from light to dark, the work comprises layers, thematically and physically.”

He works on high linen content, archivally impeccable paper, a need he learned in the army. From the 1980s, he had wanted to be a cartoonist. “At the time, veteran cartoonist Dov Fedler told me I would struggle in this country, because there was not much scope for this type of work.”

He studied architectural design. Before he was snapped up in a job, the industry invited him to freelance. It was a feather in his young cap: he never did work full time in the field, but learned to skirt around it armed with his drawing skill.

“Just before I went into the army – call up was compulsory for white males at the time – I watched a tv programme on military art. It really impressed me. I contacted the Military Art Board. It was an impossible job to get. They had only had three military artists since the Second World War. This art’s tradition reaches back to Thomas Baines’ Eastern Cape border war art.”

In the face of almost insurmountable possibilities, Simon actually did get the job. “I learned to create the perfect photograph without a camera, summarising what was happening, what I saw.”

On his return from the notorious border war in the late 1980s, Simon was approached by the publishing house LJ Venter, with a commission to document the Lebanese war in Israel. “But it was enough war for me,” he said, speaking of a bout of malaria he’d suffered, but also a sense of too much violence, bureaucracy and rules in his life. Simon now wanted to focus on his Jewish roots; thus the calendars came into existence.

“The Nazis just wiped out everything: they didn’t want to only destroy the people, they wanted to wipe out all memories. The perception was that Jews are always wealthy, manipulative, capable of destroying the world. But the reality is that Jews of the time of the Russian pogroms were very poor. There is a census of poverty in Europe prior to the First World War. The poorest people in Europe were the Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement.” My grandmother died the day that project saw light of day. “It was about where the people had come from and where they went.”

“I have been very fortunate,” he digresses to discuss his contemporary work. “I’ve gone back to front in my career. I got the support of the big collectors before I went to the galleries. It’s a double-edged sword, however: many of my collectors don’t want their work in the public domain. I have to get their permission before I can publish their names as owners of my work.

Simon feels strongly that his current series of drawing which will comprise some 30 works, must be shown at Cape Town’s SA Jewish Museum. Ichikowitz, a well known businessman with strong government connections, is funding the project, which is about repopulating SA’s history archives. “In his private capacity, Ichikowitz has commissioned these works, but he says the work is too important to be privately shown.”

“I am inundated with commissions, but am not building a profile. My challenge is to break that mould, by exhibiting.  It will give me freedom to do what I want to.”

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