Edoardo Villa (South African, 2011)

Edoardo Villa (South African, 1915–2011) was one of South Africa’s foremost sculptors. He was born in Bergamo, Italy, where he studied at the Andrea Fontini Art School. While studying sculpture in Milan, Villa was conscripted into the army at the outbreak of World War II. His first experience of South Africa was as a prisoner of war in 1942. After his release, he remained there to pursue a career as a sculptor.

From his conventional heads and figures of the 1940s, Villa moved progressively through stylized figuration to structural abstraction. The universality of humankind is a theme that dominates his work. On first viewing, many of his sculptures would seem to be entirely abstract, yet all are basically figurative in concept. Classical art is fused with a Modern aesthetic. Villa’s work reveals both his European origin and his intimate experience of Africa. It is this cross-cultural synthesis, first seen in the Cubist work of Pablo Picasso (who discovered African art in Paris at the Trocadero) that characterizes the quintessentially Euro-South African sculpture of Villa.

Even in his most abstract work, there are constant allusions to human themes, in terms of structure, posture, attitudes, relationships, and circumstances. Villa’s style developed significantly in the 1950s, when the influence of the aggressive forms of the African environment led him to create his first constructed works, using abstract elements cut from sheets and rods of steel, a medium he has used extensively and masterfully. Aside from working in steel, Villa has also modeled works for bronze, and, more recently, began using the found shapes of polystyrene packaging.

Villa was chosen to represent South Africa at the Venice Biennale on five occasions, and has been recognized with awards at the São Paulo biennials of 1957 and 1959. His work has been shown in more than 100 solo and group shows in Italy, Europe, England, Israel, South America, Africa, and the United States. In 1995, to celebrate the artist’s 80th birthday, the Edoardo Villa Museum was officially opened at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Villa died in Johannesburg at the age of 95.