Remembering the Kitchen Boyby Sean O'Toole / 28.08.2009
“No smooching.” This admonition, part of a litany of don’ts posted on a wall in the pool hall below Braam Kruger’s former home in Fordsburg, offers a useful entry into the life of this raconteur artist. Kruger, who died of organ failure in June 2008, was never one to overlook a smooching opportunity.
For many, however, Kruger’s love affair with life (and women) seem to define the totality of who he was – a “flamboyant bon vivant and Lothario,” to quote Rowan Philp from his Sunday Times obituary. That his bonhomie was infectious few will dispute, but being a good-humoured rabble-rouser and lover of woman weren’t all there was to Kruger. He was first and foremost an artist.
Born in Boksburg in 1950, after finishing school Kruger moved to Pretoria to graphic design, then a far more expansive field of study than it is these days. In 1975 he mounted his final year exhibition.
“He did two things that were enormously impressive,” recalls Johann Kritzinger, a physician and art collector whose lifelong friendship with Kruger goes back to his debut exhibition.
“His early work as a student was in the mould of the traditional. Adolph Jentsch had a big influence; there were three or four watercolours that looked just like Jentsch. The rest of the room was filed with his early super-realist paintings.”
Kritzinger, whose collection of Kruger’s work forms part of the Kruger retrospective exhibition being held at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery (September 2 – October 14), is seated in a black leather settee in his Houghton home. Looming over him is a large monochromatic oil by Kruger. Produced in 1975, the work depicts a Picasso-like figure warding off the onslaught of wild animals and humans. It is captioned “Killing off a coward on a bear hunting safari” in the left corner. The
painting has an impressive story attached to it.
“After Tech, Braam moved to a house in Troye Street [in Pretoria]. It belonged to a guy known as Wild Man Pretorius. He was part of Braam’s romance with life – he was the last big game hunter. The old United Party government commissioned Wild Man Pretorius to hunt down the last living lions and elephants around Cape Town, behind the mountains in Stellenbosch. That was in the late nineteenth century.”
A regular visitor to Kruger’s Pretoria digs, Kritzinger says the hardworking artist was always a performer: “he entertained both physically as well as emotionally”. Competition amongst buyers for his early work was intense, if not always financially straightforward. “I traded two of my jackets for a painting,” recalls Kritzinger, whose first Kruger was a “beautiful colour wash painted on a canvas that had been pasted on a kitchen door”.
Although overshadowed by his later successes as a celebrity chef and food writer, notably for Business Day, Kruger managed to achieve some repute as an artist. His work was selected for the 1990 Vita Art Now exhibition, again the following year for the now defunct Cape Town Triennial exhibition, hosted by the South African National Gallery, which holds two of Kruger’s paintings in its permanent collection.
A 1992 selling exhibition at the Goodman Gallery is now also the stuff of legend. Kruger, whose consorts during the 1980s and 90s included artists Neil Goedhals and Kendell Geers, showed a naked portrait of Geers’ then lover, now a well-known curator. The gesture formed part of a complicated plot of revenge by Kruger, Geers allegedly fired from the Goodman (then his employer) after he assaulted work on the show. At least this is how the story goes.
“That was his last big show,” says Kritzinger. “I didn’t think it was such a great show.”
Kruger’s decision in 1994 to stop painting full-time and open his now-legendary Kitchen Boy restaurant in Troyeville might have made sense latterly, but at the time it reflected on the difficulties Kruger experienced dealing with commercial galleries.
“Braam had the tendency to make enemies very easily – long term and big enemies, especially amongst the art dealers. He hated dealers. He believed they cheated young artists,” says Kritzinger. No doubt his informal Mamba Awards from 1990-91, which awarded certificates in 15 categories (including a category for the most boring show), didn’t help endear him to the Jan Smuts Avenue elite.
Never one to deny his irrepressible energy – after all, he did once hold a South African swimming record in the 200m backstroke – Kruger remained an active part of the art scene. In 2000 Kruger started painting again, mostly private commissions. He also wrote criticism, sometimes even dispensed it off the cuff.
In 2005 I chatted with him at the Walter Battiss retrospective at the
Standard Bank Gallery. Flamboyantly dressed in a scarlet Chinese silk gown for the opening, his nails painted red, Kruger was not much impressed with aspects of his mentor’s art – Kruger first met Battiss in his later years as a professor at UNISA in Pretoria.
“Mostly kak,” he whispered. “In the final analysis, I realised Battiss was actually a fucking bad painter,” he soberly expanded the following day. “All those early Maurice van Esche cribs.” Esche was a well-known teacher in Cape Town and former pupil of Matisse. “And his oils had none of the luminosity they should have had.”
What to make of Kruger’s legacy? In his obituary for Vladimir Tretchikoff, published in Business Day in 2006, Kruger remarked of Tretchikoff that his style “eventually infiltrate[d] my own painting and attitude towards art”.
Despite his obvious affinity for kitsch, Kruger’s work is not that easily dismissed. A one-time student of lithography at Frans Masereel’s Centrum voor Grafiek in Belgium, his etchings reveal the hand of a skilled draughtsman.
Although proficient across a range of media, it is however his paintings by which Kruger is best remembered. Encompassing a variety styles, they range from the fancifully pop and romantically expressionist to the plainly kitsch. Sometimes flippant, other times gaudy, it is the painter’s off-kilter, magpie sensibility that, perhaps, best defines the essence of his appeal.
Like his famous 1990s period portrait of Mozambican independence leader Samora Machel as Saint Sebastian, Kruger’s art was often so wrong it was right, which more or less says it all about this irrepressible figure.