Judith Mason

THE READER: Judith Mason

One of South Africa’s leading contemporary artists discusses the reads that have inspired her

Judith Mason’s work spans painting, drawing, printmaking and mixed media. It can be found in collections all over the world, including at Yale and in the Bodleian library, Oxford. She has represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale (in 1966) and the Sao Paulo Biennale (in 1971) and her work has been exhibited at a number of international art fairs, including Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach. locally, Mason has lectured at Wits, Michaelis and the University of Pretoria. In 2008, her career of more than 45 years was the subject of a major retrospective at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg. Perhaps her most renowned piece is The woman who kept silent and the man who sang, a triptych on display at the Constitutional Court of South Africa.

What are you reading at the moment?

I generally read two or three books at a time. At the moment I am reading a Canto a day of Clive James’ new translation of The Divine Comedy. For light relief, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known is an absorbing psychological thriller with characters so well drawn that I am going to miss them when I’m done. But Teofilo Ruiz’s The Terror of History is mesmerising me. He meditates on the ways we try to survive in an apparently meaningless universe. His erudition, rationality and quietly confessional style are worn lightly, and I just long to commit the whole book to memory, or at any rate come to acquire the serenity he reflects.

How do you decide what to read next?

I am like a sniffer dog when whiffs of a new Donna Leon, Deon Meyer or Carl Haissen hang on the air. My self-discipline is cast to the winds and I gobble them up at once. I read widely around work in progress or new projects, but am helpless in the face of any whodunit, good, bad or indifferent.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

Without doubt, Dante’s Divine Comedy. Trying to explain why is like playing Beethoven on a vuvuzela. Suffice to say that his transcendental vision in the last Canto of Paradiso has mattered to me more than anything I have ever read in my life. And I have abstracted a serviceable definition of art-making from his words: “how substance, accident and mode unite”.

What is your favourite novel of all-time?

The Towers of Silence, part three of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet. Humane and beautifully written, it concerns the last months of an elderly and insignificant missionary’s life. Her quietly tragic story becomes an indelible part of one’s moral imagination.


Mason’s studio

What’s your favourite book about art?

There are hundreds of favourites, but Kenneth Clark’s The Nude still stops me in my tracks with its lucid prose and eloquent arguments. My first copy was confiscated by a policeman in 1962. I hope he read it, and learnt that the body is capable of conveying delight, pathos and the sublime, and is not intrinsically indecent.

What were your favourite books as a child?

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I still read it every year, and my houses have always reflected Mole’s aesthetic. I had an unrequited love affair with Capt. WE Johns’s Biggles for a year or two before realising I was a pacifist. No wonder he never wrote, never sent flowers.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson – a history of the Second World War from the Normandy landings onwards. Incomprehensibly awful in every sense of the word, and profoundly moving, it held my recipient spellbound.


Judith Mason’s Self Portrait at 90

Which book have you never been able to finish?

I never finished Alice in Wonderland, and I threw Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion against the wall. I’m the only supercilious atheist bigot allowed in my house.

What book do you turn to for advice?

I don’t usually read for advice, and practical problems are usually resolved by Wiki. But as regarding life skills, I have benefitted greatly from Goya: A Life in Letters. Whether he is moaning about patrons, worrying about relatives and friends, illness, or the price of donkeys he reminds one that if the great have mundane concerns and behave well under duress, so can we all. Being socially dishonest, I find myself shamed by his frankness: “I was not able to reply to your letter for I had too much to do, and still have. Adios. I cannot continue as I am listening to some splendid singing and don’t want to miss it. Francisco de Goya,” he writes to an unwelcome correspondent.

You have created art books in the past. Explain the appeal of this medium?

Artists’ books appeal to me because they are artworks which in some way involve the manner in which books both enclose and disclose their contents, and require the action of the reader in paging through the work. Such books can have text, but usually the format, imagery and idiosyncratic bindings and materials are at least as important as the written work. Editions are usually very small, and often only single books are produced. The concept is the most important thing, and originality of execution and idea are paramount. A love of books of any kind, and the opportunity to make something which is readable, playful and unique is the attraction for most book artists. It is also often a good way of escaping the limitations of language and producing something accessible to everybody.

Tell me about your most recent artist book project.

Walking With and Away from Dante was the most recent of the artists’ books I have worked on and is different from others in that it is much more complex and involved the labour of many people. Others which I am busy completing are more typical of my own work. One is a Loaf and Fishes volume which incorporates slices of simulated bread, painted and fossil fish, and a handmade knife which I found in the veld. Another is a set of three palm pod boats, navigated by bronze monkey heads and containing paintings on vellum in page form. A third is a recipe for a savoury pie in the form of a dish with spinach “leaves”.


Mason’s Walking with and away from Dante (2011) | Photograph: Roger C Fisher

What book would you give to the President of South Africa to read?

I would like to give the President a bundle of three books. The first is Mathews Phosa’s collection of poetry, called Deur die oog van ‘n naald, to remind him of the why of the Struggle. The second is Nelson Mandela’s Conversations With Myself, which will have a discreet bookmark at pages 403 to 410. Lastly, Zapiro’s From Amandla to Nkandla, with the respectful request that he looks, laughs and reflects.




  1. A. de A. says:

    Judith Mason is a throwback to a time when great artists were referred to as “I Grandi Spiriti.” The terms the Renaissance used to describe Michelangelo, Leonardo and a few others. A supreme and consummate artist, her work has countless facets, dimensions and references. What is more, the rare ability and eloquence to explain it. To throw light on the act of creation, the “madness” of inspiration so close to the sacred, as was believed in the Renaissance. The interview gives us a brief and precious glimpse of Mason’s wit, keene intelligence and profound humility. She is a treasure to be cherished. Her work a gift to us all.

  2. Revil Mason says:


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