Karin Skawran – A Letter

A letter

Karin Skawran, Byzantinist, artist, poet, and former head of the Department of Art History at the University of South Africa


Pretoria, 23 March 2007

Dear Andries Gouws,


Ever since I saw your exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum some time ago, I have been wanting to write to you. I really need to tell you how much your images have moved me they continue to resonate in my mind and in my imagination.


I was first drawn to your exhibition by its title, because I recognised Yanni Ritsos’ poem, which strangely enough also formed part of one of my own paintings which I exhibited at the Tina Skukan Gallery here in Pretoria in February 2003. My exhibition was entitled, “Islands of Refuge”.


I am a great admirer of the poetry of Yanni Ritsos (as I am also of Seferis’ and Cavafy’s work). I met both, Ritsos (who lived in exile then) and Seferis when I was a student at the British School of Archaeology at Athens, Greece, in 1968, doing research for my doctorate on Middle Byzantine fresco painting. The story of our extraordinary meeting under the then political circumstances must be kept for another occasion!


It was the intimacy and the stillness of your paintings which slowed me down and made me stand still to absorb every exquisite detail of each work. I was moved by its truthfulness and simplicity. Like “my” Byzantine icons your images demand contemplation inner and outer stillness “Andacht”. I was deeply aware also of the slow and thoughtful genesis of their creation, the lovingly rendered windows within windows both visual and spiritual ones.


Milan Kundera’s images of slowness came to mind I used these in an opening of a lovely fibre art exhibition (I am including an excerpt of this opening speech). Do you know his slim volume, entitled “Slowness”?


Over the past years slowness has occupied my mind, and I try to make it part of my creative work.


There is so much I would love to respond to in your work the exquisite light which transforms the ordinary and banal into something never quite perceived like this before. And the velvety shadows, mysteriously hinting at some human presence seldom seen, but always felt.


Then there is the frontality of the things you paint such a significant feature also in Byzantine icons, frescoes and mosaics. This formal device, if I may call it that, demands a still dialogue between the spectator and the things these “simple things”, which you have touched.


I would like to share with you one of my poems I have written about those icons I have spoken about, and which have led me to experience your paintings as icons of another kind.



Byzantine chapels


My islands of silence,

images robed in red.


enshrined at times

between my heart

and theirs

still dialogue,

relentlessly burning

and irrevocably heard



Salient hours (a somewhat similar poem by my friend and student, Margaret Hitge)


When we enter

the little curved basilica

of our belonging,

I cannot tell

whether light comes off gilded walls

or from eyes

which have seen past reflections

into the red thud of hearts,

but I know that searching for you

was my primal incitement

and that this tiny gold chapel

which we indwell

enshrines all my salient hours



I hope that you do not find my response to your work presumptuous, but it was important to me that you should know that your work has touched someone profoundly.


I am also a great admirer of your wife’s work, which I have acquired quite recently another first and happy encounter.


With warm regards,



Karin Skawran


P.S. I have not introduced myself: I am an art historian (a Byzantinist, to be more precise) and was the former Head of the Dept. of History of Art and Fine Arts at UNISA. I am now retired and so much happier painting and writing poetry!


The artist thanks Karin Skawran for permission to use this text.