Sonja Ferlov Mancoba – Selected Letters


Sonja Ferlov Mancoba
A l'écoute du silence. Hommage à Steingrim Laursen

The database of Sonja Ferlov Mancoba’s letters includes a selection of letters to and from the artist as well as selected manuscripts and notes. The letters are selected from the Ferlov Mancoba Archive, which is the property of Estate Ferlov Mancoba and placed at SMK – National Gallery of Denmark as a permanent loan. The comprehensive archive contains letters, printed matter, books, photographs and miscellaneous other materials from the artist family: Sonja Ferlov Mancoba (1911–1984), Ernest Mancoba (1904–2002) and Wonga (Marc) Mancoba (1946–2015).

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Danish sculptor Sonja Ferlov Mancoba is a central figure in Danish modernist art. Her sculptures reflect a preoccupation with the existential and cultural conditions of human life and convey a utopian belief in the ability of art to bring about social change. This theme is rooted, in part, in her connection to the revolutionary surrealist movement. During the 1930s, she was a member of the Danish artist group associated with the journal Linien. After the war, she was part of the exhibition partnerships Høst [Harvest] and Cobra. Non-western culture, especially African imagery, is a consistent source of inspiration, as it was for several other artists associated with Høst and Cobra. An underlying theme, which becomes particularly pronounced after the war, is a persistent focus on human existence and humanity.

Sonja Ferlov Mancoba never spoke or wrote much about her individual works of art. In letters to family, friends and working partners, on the other hand, she discussed her aesthetic and existential position. In the letters, she outlined a critical view of society and culture that sheds light on her sculptures. Her correspondence further offers insight into her exhibition history and the institutionalization of her art. This makes the letters an important source for our understanding of her art.

Sonja Ferlov Mancoba spent most of her life in Paris. In 1939, she met her life partner, South African artist Ernest Mancoba. They married in 1942 and had a son, Wonga Mancoba, in 1946. The two artists worked closely together, and Wonga Mancoba also grew up to be an artist.

The archive was assembled during the final years of Wonga Mancoba’s life and mainly consists of materials from the property on 153, Rue du Château, where the family lived and worked from 1961 on. It also contains significant materials from the family’s earlier years, but this material is limited in scope, probably due to the uprooted and unsettled nature of family’s life in Denmark and France.

The archive offers insights into traditional biographic questions about ‘who’, ‘what’, and ‘when’ as well as other significant aspects of meaning. For example, Sonja Ferlov Mancoba’s letter to her cousin Niels Ferlov (Sonja Ferlov Mancoba to Niels Ferlov, 12 December 1961) provides new knowledge about the former retail space on Rue du Château, where Sonja Ferlov Mancoba had her studio until her death in 1984. At the time, the family had recently acquired the property, and the letter includes Sonja Ferlov Mancoba’s sketch of a floor plan. Sonja Ferlov Mancoba’s correspondence with Niels Ferlov also includes letters in which she describes and elaborates on her views of art, history and society, almost as an informal, unpublished manifesto. An aesthetic, if you like. Thus, the archival documents related to Sonja Ferlov Mancoba contain multiple different levels of insight and interpretive potential in relation to her artistic practice. In addition, the archive offers insights into the three artists as a group.

Sonja Ferlov Mancoba signed many of her letters ‘EWS’, using the three family members’ initials: E for Ernest, W for Wonga and S for Sonja, underscoring that the letter in question was a common message from the three of them. Many of the letters are similarly addressed to all three of them under these initials, for example letters from visual artist Jan Groth, who in 1969 played with the sequence of the letters, writing ‘Dear SEW’ (Jan Groth, 10 September 1969). The use of the initials, both by Sonja Ferlov Mancoba and by her correspondents, represents both convenience and the notion of a human and artistic community. This is evident in the exchange of letters with visual artists Jan and Benedikte Groth, which verbalize and discuss a sense of community that is both about friendship and about the idea – and the ideal – of an artistic community between the two artist couples and a common perception of the artist’s role.

It is in the views of art and culture that are expressed in the letters that we get closest to the works of art in the sense of a hermeneutic interpretive principle. Sonja Ferlov Mancoba rarely discusses or mentions her sculptures as individual works of art; instead, she writes that she is working on ‘the sculpture’, definite singular (e.g., Sonja Ferlov Mancoba to Knud Ferlov, 19 March 1976 (draft letter)). She refers to different sculptures but describes them in a way that emphasizes her continuous artistic practice and material expression. This is in accordance with a view of art that Sonja Ferlov Mancoba also expressed elsewhere. In this view, the emphasis is on the processual aspect of sculpting, and the artist’s main focus is on the larger project and overarching perspectives. Thus, in an interview in 1970, she said that, ‘What is important is not the sculptures but the common spirit the artists seeks to express.’

The selected letters also shed light on the historical development of the institutionalization of her art. Thus, a lengthy exchange of letters related to architect Robert Dahlmann Olsen’s work on the first published monograph on Sonja Ferlov Mancoba deals with her ambivalent feelings about being the subject of description and her discomfort with Dahlmann Olsen’s focus on analysing the individual works of art. Instead, she wants the text to consider the role of art in the current cultural crisis and focus less on the artist and individual artworks (Sonja Ferlov Mancoba to Godfred Hartmann, 14 December 1970). This critique from the artist aligns with her use of the term ‘the sculpture’ and the absence of any discussion of individual pieces and their layers of meaning in the letters. Instead, her focus is on the fundamental and current state of art, culture and society.

The selected letters in the database offer many more angles and perspectives than outlined here. In this introduction, I have sought to identify some of the aspects and characteristics of the material that stood out to me in the process of sorting, reading and selecting letters for the database. The letters make up a rich material, and even if this introduction might give a different impression, it is far from homogenous. By their very nature, archives are heterogenous and incomplete, and this particular one is no exception. It does not represent a coherent narrative, whether about the artist, the artworks or the historical period that it covers.

It is my hope that the letters will be read and used, both in relation to the artists and in relation to other topics of art history. Among other items, the archive contains a letter from Kunstforeningen (the Art Society) inviting Sonja Ferlov Mancoba to take part in an exhibition of works by artists who ‘… are of great significance to contemporary Danish art.’ (Kunstforeningen to Sonja Ferlov Mancoba, 8 December 1984). Of the invited artists, Sonja Ferlov Mancoba is the only woman. This is an interesting point, not just in relation to Sonja Ferlov Mancoba’s work, but also, for example, in relation to the current research focus on the historical roles and possibilities of women artists. The publishing of selected items from the Ferlov Mancoba archive in Primary Sources in Danish Art History thus makes an important contribution to art history both with regard to Sonja Ferlov Mancoba and her family and in relation to 20th-century art in general.

Karen Westphal Eriksen