JH Pierneef, Mont au Sources. c 1931

JH Pierneef, Mont au Sources. c 1931

Mont aux Sources. Not the usual view of the famed Amphitheatre, but a view taken from deep down in the Thukela Gorge. On the map, an 8 to 10k roundabout walk from Tendele bungalows. On a fine morning, I strode out manfully. OK, I set out, slowly. For the last two decades, I’ve been bizarrely plagued by chronic fatigue syndrome. Walking -as we normally know it- has been a bit of a challenge, and this was a big walk in my book. But I figured if I walked really slowly I could do it. In my bag, I had an A4 size sketchbook, pencils, a watercolour kit, digital camera, phone, water, boerewors, a boiled egg, salt, and some cherries from Ficksburg. I also had a sachet of D- Ribose, a magic sugar that is supposed to support the mitochondria, those little energy factories in our cells.

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The landscape is splendid, invigorating. It’s no co-incidence that landscape painting took off in the late 1700s just as people were losing their religion. For the new agnostics, the spiritual path went to Nature rather than the Church. Landscape painting will, at some stage, make you ponder forces larger than yourself. Aside from the sheer scale of things, there’s non- human time. Away from our usual distractions, a day can be a very long thing as the sun works its way over the 150 million -year -old cliffs. Even in Pierneef’s time, Nature was seen as eternal, proof of an Almighty. But in the 21st century, this is a fragile remnant, a world threatened by us in all sorts of ways.

Along the way I met plenty of pale skinned European hikers, sunning themselves in the African Alps. One of them was a German called Mark Muller who offered to send me a pic if he found the Pierneef site.

Greetings from the North!

Greetings from the North!

I ambled on, making sketches along the way. But two and half hours in, there were still plenty of hills to walk around before the fabled Gorge. I turned back, knowing that I was frustratingly close but also with relief. I was getting way out of my league. A week later, I got this photo from Mr Muller. See how those hills on the right match the original Pierneef?  Yes, this was the site. Now I’ll have to get back there somehow. Anybody got any steroids?

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The oil painting is “Good day Monsieur Courbet.” by Gustave Courbet. (1854)

And so to the three Pierneef KZN sites. A quick online search reveals that Pierneef’s panel simply titled “Drakensberg” is the Sentinel, that jutting lump of basalt to the right of the Amphitheatre. The second mountain painting is Mont aux Sources. The way to get to these is through Tendele camp, in the Royal Natal National Park. A world heritage site and a little piece of heaven if ever there was one. Nice one, Henk. On your trail I’ve been down some crooked paths, spent strange nights in bad taste game lodges, trawled the nether regions of no – hope Noupoort and been kicked off disused mining property in Joburg. I’ve met fierce frontiersmen in Louis Trichardt and I’ve sat pondering the elegance of your handwriting in the National Archives. I’ve seen your serene landscapes rudely interrupted by four lane highways, hooting trucks, Tuscan townhouses and the rolling carnival of modernity that is South Africa today. Sometimes the trail runs cold. Others, its like going through a wormhole, back into a lost world.

JH Pierneef Drakensberg 127x 140 cm c1931

JH Pierneef
Drakensberg 127x 140 cm
c1931

Pierneef’s Drakensberg is indeed a place of dragons, brooding and mysterious. Making tea on a bright morning I looked around and seated on the breakfast table behind me was a large chacma baboon. I ordered him out and he left the bungalow clutching some canderel sachets and a lemon, looking hurt. Then he sat on the patio table and looked through the window at me eating my breakfast. I threw a jug of water at him. He gave me a very sour look.

Wat kyk JY?

Wat kyk JY?

Later that day, the mood changed and heavy Pierneefian cloud settled around the mountains. It stayed like that for several days. I slept, I read, I made drawings of trees and starlings. No clear view of the enshrouded peaks. Happily, I prolonged my stay. As many an Alpine wanderer has noted, the mountains have the effect of expanding the soul. Rich fragrances float on the breeze. Notes on a drawing list these as ” honey… turkey shed in Pretoria….grandfather’s Tabac.” The high air gets into obscure crevices of memory it seems. When the sky opened up I drew and did quick watercolours. The foothills have a lot of grey and red in them, and the deep langorous shadows suggest Ultramarine. Nature is big here and very changeable, a visual feast of monumental forms. And never enough time to get it all down.

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Three images of dogs in painting that come to mind:

Jan van Eyck’s ” Arnolfini Wedding” from 1434 is one of the early wonders of oil painting, and it shows the superior capabilities of oil over tempera. At the feet of the bridal couple stands a little hound, a Flemish poodle of sorts, every hair of its coat meticulously present. The dog stands for fidelity, but it also announces its proud ownership of the marital couple. Below is a detail from Titian’s “The death of Acteon,” in the National Gallery, London.

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It was painted in 1560 and shows Acteon being turned into a deer and set upon by his own hunting dogs. This as punishment for spying on the bathing goddess Diana. Rather harsh, that.

There is Goya’s “Head of a dog” from the early 1820’s.

Head of a Dog.(detail)

Head of a Dog.(detail)

The dog appears marooned in quicksand and stares up into a vast expanse of nothingness. A remarkably modern and poignant painting, done on the walls of his farmhouse near Madrid and only seen by the public many years after his death.

I’ve done a lot of drawings of our Africanis over the last four years. Here she is with her farm buddy (the aptly named Blackie) having an afternoon nap . Unusually, both dogs kept still long enough for me to make the drawing. The Overbergian landscape was washed in with gouache and watercolour afterwards.

Two dogs sleeping. Gouache. 24 x 27 cm. 2014

Two dogs sleeping. Gouache. 24 x 27 cm. 2014

So how do you draw a dog?

For starters, we can’t make rules that apply to the anatomy, like we do with the human figure. (The head goes into the body 6 times, and so on). There’s just too much variety of canine form.

I suggest you start with a sleeping dog, and get to work rapidly with a sharp pencil. Keep an eye on the negative spaces and don’t give up. You’ll soon get the hang of the alien physiology. There are no tricks, no formulas, it’s just a matter of observation and developing your visual memory. You may want to bear in mind John Ruskin’s words; “The true zeal and patience of a quarter of an hour are better than the sulky and inattentive labour of a whole day.” Your pencil will soon start to tell the truth. And hopefully the sleeping dog will lie.

As we crested the Franschoek Pass, the town lay way below in a patchwork of winelands, the proverbial jewel in the crown. It was the literary festival, and we were on our way to breakfast with some of my writer friends. Franschoek is a kind of a paradise, the living embodiment of everything old Tinus de Jongh liked to paint.

Oh no not another beautiful Cape mountain scene

Oh no not another beautiful Cape mountain scene

We were eating, appropriately, at the Pierneef restaurant at the La Motte wine estate. The Rupert-Koegelenbergs own this 130 hectare swatch of heaven. You can sample organically grown wine, eat great food and top up your art education at the La Motte museum. Rupert art patronage extends well back into the 80s, when Anton Rupert sponsored the famous Rembrandt Triennales. We admired Kentridge’s audacious  “Conservationist’s Ball,” a defining work of the era, perhaps. But the real thing at La Motte is the collection of early Pierneef work, most of it acquired from Pierneef’s daughter. Looking carefully, you see him going from an early Art Nouveau mode into Impressionist and plein air work, and then the experiments with “cubism.” There are works in many media too, watercolours, gouaches, oils and that most esoteric painting medium, casein. There are also a few duds here: a seasick rendering of the Sierra Nevada, a clunky Aloe, and a school project-like “Khoisan” painting. They tell of the long and perilous path to artistic autonomy; the singular quest for a personal style.

Bosveld Stormwolke, 1920. Gouache

Bosveld Stormwolke, 1920. Gouache

Our breakfast was good and my writer friends were in extroverted form. They believe strongly in their craft, and it distresses them that the visual arts have jettisoned the craft of art. Steven Sidley, who also happens to be a handy saxophone player, advanced the theory that the arts have a craft component which needs fluency before the “art” gets made. You can’t improvise until you know your scales.

Of all the arts, contemporary visual arts require the least apprenticeship. There are complex reasons for this, but in short, sometime in the mid C19th, the camera released painting from its need to describe the world. This opened a floodgate of new forms of expression within painting (all the “isms), followed by a century obsessed with innovation for its own sake. By the 1970s it was fashionable to declare that painting was dead. The craft  in painting – drawing, a knowledge of colour, a basic methodology of constructing a painting- was no longer needed to make art, and so the institutional knowledge died. Even at school level today, the emphasis is often on the “conceptual’ rather than the “craft”. I have artist friends who rail against this state of affairs, but they’re pissing against the wind. In this era of digital distraction, painting is just one of many vehicles of expression, take it or leave it. Surprisingly, a lot of people do still take it: there are more feet through museum doors than ever before, amateur painting groups thrive, and if the high standard of entries to last year’s Sanlam portrait competition is anything to go by, there are a lot of good, serious young painters out there. For some reason, daubing a woven fabric with coloured muddy oily stuff still appeals. Allez des literateurs! Allez les peintures!

Tyd om te trek. Bring die voorlaaier! En jou kwasse!

Tyd om te trek. Bring die voorlaaier! En jou kwasse!

City Hall en passant

City Hall en passant

And so with Pierneef  to the Eastern Cape, to the mysterious world of East London. I tell people I’m having a show there and they softly mouth the words “East London” in an “ag shame” way, and the conversation ends. They don’t know what to say: I might as well be showing in outer space. How desperate, to be scrabbling about where nothing ever happens! True, East London does feel like a town past its glory days. The lovely colonial and deco buildings of Oxford street have taken a knock, but it’s the transforming –  the sense of the frontier –  that makes the Buffalo City so interesting.

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The gallery was built in 1905 , and bought in 1907 by the prosperous Bryant family. The colonial English went forth and made replicas of their world. They named their suburbs and streets Berea, St Andrews and St Marks, and they came to stay with all the confidence of a conquering race. In this mini London, the well-to-do copied and even outdid the standards of the metropolis. From the ceilings to the parquet floors and art nouveau door handles no expense was spared. The far sighted matriarch bequethed it all to the city and, after recent restoration, the house looks grand again. In the garden, the coach house doubles as coffee shop and extra gallery, and between venues they have up to twenty shows a year.

There’s a rare portrait of Wordsworth here, much coveted by the Wordsworth Trust. Here’s the wandering poet of the lonely cloud, looking somewhat homesick. Or perhaps alarmed at the sudden appearance of all those threatening Pierneefian cumulonimbus things.

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With the exhibition formalities done, I took to sightseeing with my old china Mr Donnelly. Down at the beachfront we met some Zimbabwean craftsfolk. Sales, they told me, were fair to middling. They too were a long way from home. We took the road down the coast, the Indian ocean on our left and dense euphorbia -dotted hills to our right. We stopped at the mouth of the Great Fish river, that contested line between Xhosa and Settler worlds. Nothing really to mark its importance, just a couple of fishermen trying their luck off the beach. Okes with surnames like Bowker, Pringle or Emslie, no doubt. We had a toasted chicken mayo sarmie at the Great Fish Diner, bought a Cob from a man next to the road, and headed home.

Frontier ahoy!

Frontier ahoy!

 

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Way back in the twentieth century I attended an art school in the backwaters of the Eastern Cape. One of the advantages was that the Graham Hotel – with Castle Lager at 40 cents a shot – was 5 minutes walk away. Another was that it steadfastly refused the tide of innovation that held sway in big city art schools. Archaic practices like life drawing were firmly adhered to. Teaching – as invented by the tyrant Henry Tonks of the Slade art school – lived on in the deep colonial periphery. First year: pencil drawing from casts. Second year: still life painting and anatomy studies. Third year:  life painting. And despite one’s youthful indiscipline, one could not help being enriched by this.

Our life class convenes on a Wednesday morning at the Hornbill Gallery. We’re middle aged, our youthful competitive urges long gone. We’re all artists of one sort or another – trying to lift our game, to hone our craft. No-one gives instruction – a level of competence is assumed. Life drawing is a wonderful ego corrective, should you need reminding of how difficult this game is. You go through a wide range of emotions; hope, curiosity, then self doubt,  frustration and humility. One yearns for improvement. However, there’s no discernible upward graph: small gains are followed by smudges and reversals. That well rendered arm ends in a clump of viennas for fingers. That satisfying line is misplaced on the page: start again. But looking at the drawings later, there’s always something: just enough to keep you going back for more.

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We warm up with quick, minute-long poses. Our model Kim does what she likes and we follow. Later we do longer reclining poses. There’s a conversation about these, an ebb and flow between artist and model. Unlike say, Degas or Lucien Freud, who were famous torturers of the model, this is very egalitarian. The class is mainly female; that may be why. Modelling intends to project something: sexuality, opulence, cool sunglasses. This is a presentation of one’s form, unadorned. It takes something though to survive the close scrutiny of ten sets of eyes, and Kim has it: the rare knack of being present and absent at the same time. During short breaks we look at each other’s drawings and offer encouragement or appreciation. And then we are back to the business. Look , there it is, this mysterious living thing. That neck at that angle, that hand resting on that leg, will never be exactly there again. Here it is, ticking away, trickling away, your life and mine. Get it down while you can.

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I’ve had the brush in hand since early January,veering all over the place. The recently visited KZN Pierneef sites demand attention. Also, there’s the series of small portraits of writers and artists. I’m doodling with the pencil, digging up old photographs and reading, skipping around. I do drawings of Jan Rabie, the Sestiger with the sonbrille. I also delve into Nigel Penn’s “The Forgotten Frontier.”  Christopher Hope’s “My mother’s Lovers”  triggers a lot of memories of my home town. I’m thinking about big summer clouds and lush, alien gardens surrounded by surveillance cameras. I start work on two canvases, with Carol Lee’s “Vista” show in mind. Quite quickly, I lay down the bones for two related works: Green and Blue vistas. They both come out of recent travels. If ever there was a vista, the Drakensberg Amphitheatre is it. Appropriately, the work has Pierneefian overtones, but the real subject is the human “landscape” surrounding the Amphitheatre.

I start work on the blue vista – a blue version of the the Joburg skyline. I don’t know why, its just the idea of a blue city (and all that it implies). I use a photo of the city taken on the M2, the western side. I do small pencil drawings. The painting won’t look like the pencil drawing –  that’s just a trick to get me started. I map out a grid, which helps me transfer the detail of the photo to the canvas, but I don’t bother drawing in the outlines. I go straight in with a flat brush, using a lot of cobalt blue, some burnt sienna and titanium white, correcting as I go.

the first draft

the first draft

I’m taking factual information – the backdrop of the  city –  and I’m adding imaginative, narrative elements. I’ve started with the idea of a central female figure, but the pink face, the duck man and the photographer have cropped up as I went along, sparking new associations and meanings. I work some more details into the background and after a day or two I realize the pink face has to go. Then the photographer. Then I rework the figure on the left, as well as completely re-doing the central figure. A touch of cerulean blue in the background, a bit of subdued red, a few tonal changes, and there, its done. The rural woman  has come to town. The place of glamour and dirt, of re-invention and blue moments. The man trudges to town from China City adorned with gaudy plastic ducks. He sells them on the other side of town, where they float briefly in suburban swimming pools. He sees the girl. Perhaps if he sells enough he might buy some new clothes and she would notice him? But she has other things in mind. Is that the story? Maybe.

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“This world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows, son. This world is a very mean and nasty place.”

-Rocky Balboa-

70s modernism. What goes around....

70s modernism. What goes around….

Braamfontein was once the epitome of Joburg modernity: a dense cluster of high rise offices, all in the service of the 9 to 5 working week. Abustle during the days, the streets were empty at night, save for the odd drunken student stumbling back from the Devonshire Tavern. There was the folk club where I saw Colin Shamley, circa 1975.  Above the entrance someone had posted an ironic sign saying “non blacks only.” I worked in a Braamfontein office in the early 80s, but not in a nine to five way. We were trying to get rid of the mean bastards who had put the petty apartheid signs up in the first place. In the 1990s, as the Joburg CBD went down the toilet, Braamfontein followed.

Large TO LET signs cluttered the skyline, and things were looking bad. Then they built the Mandela Bridge, and a few brave souls ventured back. I took a peek into Braamies in early December and was astonished to find a whole new world of trendiness had opened up, just like that. On a Saturday afternoon in Juta Street cool young people shopped and hung out around the street sculptures. There was a bicycle shop, several art galleries, designer clothing outlets and a camera shop.( Film, not digital.) In the Michael Stevenson gallery on the corner, Jane Alexander was exhibiting.

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In the 80s, when Jane Alexander was at Wits, I used to see her walking through Braamfontein. She wore black, was always on her own, and looked intense. It made sense then that the “Butcher Boys,”one of the most potent artworks of the 80s, had come out of that person. And so here was Jane, back in Braamfontein. There were two pieces on show. In the ironically titled “Survey: Cape of Good Hope,” you are drawn into a series of very good documentary photographs of the dreary, dangerous underbelly of the Cape. But as the images come onto the screen, you realize that among the gulls circling over rubbish dumps, Alexander has randomly inserted her own creatures. This immediately subverts the realm of the documentary photograph, as well as our expectations of what it should be. These human /animal hybrids seem to belong here, claiming their own trashed-out landscapes.

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A second room in the gallery is occupied by a work called “Infantry with Beast”: 27 marching, regimented creatures, eyes right. They have the surrealist trick of defying our habitual cognitive folders. What are they? Looking into those eyes, we meet a very archaic tradition that goes back to the primitive therianthropes of cave art. Walt Disney was a great manipulator of this imaginative vein of course, but where Walt gave us sunshine and rainbows, Alexander gives us the mean and nasty place. An Alexander sculpture sold on auction recently for a record R5. 5 million. The market got it right this time: Alexander’s work deserves to be right at the apex.

The milestone. That round white concrete thing squatting next to the road. A remnant of a bygone era, the pre-signpost era, the era of coach and rider. If the milestone does have a function, hardly anyone these days knows what it is. The numbers on it never seem to tally. Joburg writer Ivan Vladislavic, on his daily walks through town, discovers many of these mysterious remnants. They speak to us of hidden histories.  A Japanese writer calls this category of thing a “tomason”and obsessively notes the locations of hundreds of them.

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Back in the days when Kobus Kloppers traveled the dusty roads of the interior, he did some fine drawings of milestones. Perhaps with Kobus’ drawings in mind, I found myself staring fondly at the milestone above, on the R62 near Barrydale. Sometimes we notice things because artists paint them. A feedback loop of attention is put in place. New vistas open up, and commonplace things are suddenly elevated. Oscar Wilde claimed that Londoners had never actually seen their fog until Monet painted it swirling over Waterloo bridge. Now that the milestone had me thinking about it,  I finally – after 37 years of driving – figured out how it works: Should you see the stone to your left, it tells you how far you are from the last town. One on the right tells you how far away the next town is. The milestone – or kilometer stone – still has a function! Who knows, there may even be a small roads department team out there right now maintaining the milestones, checking that the distances are correct, getting ready to lay down another wash of white paint.

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The milestone makes good as a metaphor too. From infancy to senescence the road of life is marked with them. Mandela’s death, of course, was a major symbolic milestone. On the road near Graaff Reinet I picked up a few of the memorial day speeches on the radio. I got verbose dignitaries in adjectival over -reach, trying to grasp the man’s greatness. In effect, they were highlighting the gap between then and now. This half mast flag on a karoo farm was so much more eloquent than all the overblown waffle. Here was proof of Madiba’s reach, a homage to a high road which we may never find our way back to.

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how the hell did they do that?

how the hell did they do that?

A long slow road from Hermanus to Joburg, via the Drakensberg, that was my plan. After a week of solitary Pierneef pursuits in the Berg, Joburg was booming, noisy and fast. It was also beautiful and evocative in many ways, and I resolved to get round to some unfinished painterly business concerning my home town. But I didn’t linger. Once I’d navigated my way past this obstacle, the open road beckoned.

Obscurely, I scrambled up a bridge over the N1 near Sebokeng, where I came across these laaities. The wannabee rapper’s T shirt says “attitude”, but methinks the introverted one has more.

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Early December, with the heat rising and big Pierniefian clouds promising rain. Way past Bloemfontein, I took the off ramp to Edenburg, a town one never goes to. You arrive through an avenue of tired bluegums. Fields of shattered glass sparkle in the late afternoon sun. A low budget all year round Christmas decoration, if you will. The petrol attendant was an optimist. ” This is a nice quiet town,” he told me. And indeed it was, in the way patients on life support are. Here were the usual symptoms of the plague afflicting so many of our dorpies: barricaded shops,  broken roads, sad okes sitting on the pavement hoping for work.

phone Walter Meyer!

phone Walter Meyer!

The houses here have seen better days, and all they’re good for now is broken- hearted country songs or a Walter Meyer painting. Artists have been painting the karoo dorpie for a long time, but most have recorded its charm. It was Meyer’s stroke of genius to identify an aesthetic that wasn’t charming, but desolate, surreal and alienating, and to register all of that in paint.

I crept out of town towards Trompsburg.  Things are slightly better there. Clusters of new buildings rise up in the veld, including a brand new hospital. Clearly, Edenburg is run by crooked bastards, while Trompsburg has vestiges of civic pride. The difference may be just one or two upstanding individuals.

stilte op die vlaktes

stilte op die vlaktes

There was hardly anyone else on the small road running parallel to the N1. The light was beautiful and I stopped the car and had a look around. Here is this other South Africa, and you don’t have to drive to the Kalahari to find it – it’s just a hop away from the usual overheated routes. There is a big melancholic quiet punctuated by birdcalls and perhaps the odd bellowing cow. It is in this encounter that the idea of landscape painting as a trans-personal, transcendant argument begins.

readly for the mountains?

ready for the mountains?

Since February I’ve been working near Stanford on a smallholding called Wildgarten. I share a studio here with my old comrade Anton Chapman, who is taking a sabbatical from his life in Kiwiland. We work in shifts. Chapman is at his post early in the morning. I breeze in at lunchtime, cook Basmati and lentils, and push through till the evening. A vast oak tree dwarfs the house, and a pleasing expanse of lawn ends in the mauve and grey green Kleinrivier mountains. From the window we see drongos, sugarbirds, and statuesque grey herons. A pair of Egyptian geese have settled in.

Summer comes slowly to the deep south. After a wet winter there is  every possible permutation of green you can think of.  Here we are, well into our fifties, coming in every day and doing what counts most. Strange, then, that we’re often grumpy, even morose. Our shoulders are knackered, and our eyes aren’t what they used to be. Our heels hurt when we stand at our easels. We have deadlines and our bank balances are a joke. And then there’s the painting.

not another burst of colour!

not another burst of colour!

I’m doing a series of things on SA painters and writers. They’re supposed to be playful and discursive drawings; a relief after the very focused oils I did for the Bloem show. But I can’t get any traction. I seem to have run out of ideas. Soon these drawings will be on display and the world will know I’m a tired old fraud with nothing left to say. The history of art is full of creative struggles, and littered with those defeated by the difficulties: Van Gogh, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, the list goes on. And don’t get me wrong- I don’t like the idea that you should suffer to make art. Not one bit. I want it to be easy. But it seems inevitable that, if you’re going to make something worthwhile, there will be blood. False starts, self doubt and wrong turnings are the order of the day. Here is Bertha Everard, pioneer SA landscapist, in 1917:

” I do wish my picture pleased me more. It is in a most depressing state. Poor technically (I always find that difficult to endure, it touches my pride), unconvincing in line and sickly in colour…..”

A few days later :

” I didn’t work yesterday because I was too hopelessly depressed in every way. The beautiful sunny day failed to rouse me. I worked hard but only succeeded in making matters worse. Looking at it today I cannot find one piece of really able painting…..dreadful.”

Bob Dylan’s statement that behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain rings true. All the better then to be in this landscape that generously keeps offering new possibilities.

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(Quote from Frieda Harmsen, The Women of Bonnefoi)

The words “We want our land back” spray-painted on a wall in Worcester directed my attention to the matter at hand: I was on the road to hang our show called “Ons Land |Our Land.” Photographer Monique Pelser and I have a visual conversation about the land; how ‘old’ and ‘new’ media vary and concur in their representations of it. I spent the night in Hanover, and in the morning light I skirted the edge of town where dirt roads lure you into the interior. A road like this is hard to resist, but I had a date in Bloemfontein, so I headed back to the dreaded N1. For the first time, I noticed Ngunis on the arid land and the hardy beasts looked good to me.

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When approached by a person with a camera, a cow tends to offer the rear end. But if you sit among them with a pencil and sketchbook, their curiosity gets the better of them and they come up really close. Cows prefer representation by traditional media, clearly.

Monique and I got the show laid out and it was up on the walls in super quick time. The team at the Oliewenhuis were a pleasure to work with and we were treated like kings, housed and fed on the estate, our media and transport costs subsidised. All of this goes via the conduit of the National Museum in Bloemfontein, which is funded by the department of Arts and Culture. Think about that (rather than Nkandla) when filling in your IRP6 forms, fellow taxpayers. Professor Tony Ulyatt gave us a smart and insightful opening talk; asking questions like “What do we mean when we say OUR land, and who, exactly are WE to claim it?” You only have to drive past a cemetery to understand that the idea of us owning the land is illusory.

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I postponed the search for the Maluti site and got on the road home. On the N1 I noticed grimy people, absolute down and outers, tramping along, eyes fixed on the side of the road, voices in their heads driving them on. How do they survive out here without food and water? There were many stoppages for roadworks, much jostling for position amongst big trucks, and some pretty bad driving. I saw burnt out car wrecks, vervet monkeys, and crows circling overhead. Plastic bags dotted the scrublands where secretary birds once roamed.

Coming around a long slow uphill curve, there was a truck pulling off to the left of the road. As I drove past, I noticed a small troop of baboons on the right, and in my rear view mirror I saw them dashing across the road towards the stationary truck. I thought perhaps the truck driver had a thing for the baboons, that perhaps once a week he stopped at that nondescript place and had his lunch and fed the baboons, which broke the tedium and loneliness of the long haul south. And then I thought he was feeding them because he wanted to kill one to sell to a sangoma for muti. Strange thoughts one has on the open road. Strange land.

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At the Oliewenhuis there’s a massive Pierneef painting of Rustenburg Kloof. It is bigger than the Station Panels, and going by the technique, probably precedes them. An elaborate gold frame with an undated plaque on it tells us this was a commission from the City of Bloemfontein.

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This rendering of the Kloof is very close to the Station Panel version (see “Rustig in Rustenburg” and “A backward glance.”) It is less simplified than the Panels. It may have been done in the studio from the same sketch. Pierneef did many versions of Rustenburg Kloof, and some are clearly plein air works. There’s the famous pic of young Pierneef in his grass- walled atelier; on the easel is a painting of Rustenburg Kloof and leaning against the rail a shotgun: more Hemingway than Monet. ( You couldn’t just nip up the road to MacDonalds back then). There were also daring (for their time) versions of the Kloof done in his experimental phase after his 1925 visit to Europe. This one is at the La Motte estate in Franschoek

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Last November Hermann Niebuhr and I paid the Kloof a visit; my fourth. Having worked our way through the traffic snarl ups and stocked with boerewors, we booked into one of the chalets there. The resort is well looked after. There was a constant hum of lawn mowers. Next door to us were two contract workers, their eyes glued to DSTV. The previously tatty chalets at the end have been recolonised by the Volk. We took a stroll up the Kloof, still waiting for the first summer rains. We found two dassies engaged in a bloody fight for supremacy. Oblivious to our presence, the two flailed about in the stagnant rockpools. A little metaphor for the gruesome scenes playing out at nearby Marikana.

In Pierneef’s Kloof, you can discern a stream in the left front, around where the darker toned foreground ends.That stream was there on my last visit, but someone has decided to make a water feature of it. Now the area around the central tree in Pierneef’s work is a dam. (Damn!) I can’t tell if it’s an improvement or just another case of bulldozing our history away. Next morning I was up at dawn and with the No 8 Sable brush in hand I finally saw the first light hitting that big rock face. I could hear the sounds of early morning traffic as booming Rustenburg creeps toward the Kloof. Wonder how long it’ll be before Mac Donalds does build a drive thru here?

Rustenburg Kloof, November 2012

Rustenburg Kloof, November 2012

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Bloemfontein by Thomas Baines. (Note the biltong above the tent)

Last November I stopped off in Bloem on my way up to Fordsburg. I met the curator of the Oliewenhuis Art Gallery, Ester le Roux, to discuss the upcoming show. For those of you who think there’s nothing more to Bloem than the Shell Ultra City, I suggest you head for the Oliewenhuis and cast your eye over their very good collection of South African paintings. You can have an alfresco lunch too whilst admiring the fine lines of the stately old building.

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A truly impressive expanse of lawn rolls out to the surrounding koppies. And yes, there are many wild olive trees here: hence the name. William Mollison designed this Neo Cape Dutch beauty in 1941 and it later became the abode of the State Presidents of the Republic when in Bloem. In that Rubicon year of 1985, when I was propping up the bar at Jamesons in downtown Joburg, PW Botha handed it over to the National Museum to be used as an art gallery. That was the best thing the unlikeable old Krokodil ever did.

Monique Pelser and I open our show here on the 3rd of October. It’s an extended version of the show we did in Stellenbosch last year. Ah, the waxing and waning of the Pierneef project. I’ve been to 20 of the 28 sites so far and I guess it won’t be over until I’ve been to all of them. I’ve taken to revisiting sites: Rustenburg Kloof four times since 2007. Ditto Meiringspoort. There may be something pathological going on here, but I often don’t spend enough time at a site, or can’t find it. In 2011, I  drove halfway around Lesotho looking for the Maluti mountain site, without success. “Malutis, Basutoland” is the Station Panel site nearest Bloemfontein. I’m going to have another crack at this riddle at the end of the month, just before the show. Malutis, anyone?

JH Pierneef,  Malutis, Basutoland. c1932

JH Pierneef, Malutis, Basutoland. c1932

 

 

I

Our tale takes place at end of a long summer. The aging artist is in Mpumalanga, near the hillside town of Waterval Boven, looking for the waterfall pictured belowIMG_20130607_0002 (897x1024) (2)

Boven is your proverbial one horse town. It awaits gentrification. Shabby old buildings in need of a lick of paint rub shouders with new, hopeful ones like the Madonsela Library. We had coffee in a rustic establishment overlooking the grasslands on the edge of town. It is owned by Michael Tellinger, who believes he has found evidence of an ancient civilisation in the vicinity. New Age pilgrims to the African Stonehenge hold trance parties there. The nature reserve around the Waterfalls is a popular rockclimbing site, and so the town lives on as a getaway. But in Pierneef’s day, the centre of town was the extensive railway siding, built by Paul Kruger in his quest to build a line to Delagoa Bay, away from the meddling hands of the British.

Just down the road from the town, we could see the falls, but  accessing them was a problem. The official  entry to the nature reserve wasn’t exactly inviting

Is this where I get my ticket?

Is this where I get my ticket?

Puzzled, we headed back to the town where we spoke to a rockclimber who advised us on a roundabout route. Now we had the right approach to the beast, but there were still challenges

why didn't I bring the Jeep?

why didn’t I bring the Jeep?

We drove our little rented Polo as far as we could then headed into the thick grass, all the while keeping a wary eye out for wild beasts or two legged predators. We made our way through fragrant grasses in the balmy heat with only the sound of birdsong to bother us. Here men had toiled mightily to lay the tracks alongside us, many of them falling to fever. And then we saw the mighty Elands river plunging over the rocks.

white waters ahoy!

white waters ahoy!

We were tantalisingly close to ground zero, to the exact spot. We just needed to be a lot lower down. And here, at the end of summer. the way down was overgrown by a mass of dense shrubbery. Perhaps this explains why, of all the panels, this one, with its ochre grasses, depicts a winter scene. Had agile Pierneef, aged 43, and younger and more determined than your aging scribe, slithered down that slope knowing that the most dramatic composition was there to be had? Or had he got at it from the other side, easily crossing the low winter waters? We spent a couple of hours perched on the edge, drawing and chewing over these questions. We noticed too, that the waterfall has considerably widened since Pierneef painted it; in the 1940s a weir was built at the top of the falls to widen them. And then we turned back, elated at having found the place, and as so often happens, a little frustrated too. We were so very very close….

Watercolours from the edge

Watercolours from the edge

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This is one of my favourite paintings. Its called “The peace of Winter” and it’s by Bertha Everard King. If you’ve ever been in the Mpumalanga highlands in winter before the grass burns, you’ll get it. Cold, crystalline nights and glorious warm still days. Bertha trained as a concert pianist, then studied at the Slade art school in London. She came out to SA in 1903, and taught  for a while. In 1905 ,aged 32, she  married a farmer. The farm was called Bonnefoi, and it was on the great escarpment where the northern Drakensberg drops down to the lowveld. In this corner of Africa, she found her life-long subject. Like many landscape painters, hers was a long identification with the land, a slow distillation of its essence. In the Oliewenhuis Museum in Bloemfontein, I came upon another gem of hers

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This one’s called Winter in the Lowveld. Her later work has hints of Post Impressionism about it –  in 1921 she relocated to Paris for a five year painting sabbatical .You have to know what you’re doing to render those shadows on the hills – those are very tricky half tones. Then there’s the touch of chrome yellow for that last shaft of sunlight slipping through on the right. And the splodges of ultramarine in the darkest recesses of the mountain. (Double click on the image to get the close up, dear reader). She worked a lot outdoors, and had a hut built at one of her favourite haunts overlooking her beloved Komati river. Bertha died on the farm in 1965, aged 92.

 Bertha’s sister Edith was a good watercolourist,and Bertha’s daughters Ruth and Rosamund are significant painters too. Collectively they’re known as the Everard Group, and the lineage continues today in the work of Natal – based Nichola Leigh. Bertha’s standing as one of the pioneers of SA painting is secure although perhaps slightly overlooked. Remarkably, the group never descends into self parody: each generation shows innovation and individuality. I am delighted to see that the descendants of Bertha have a website up and running with some evocative pictures of the farm in the early days. (www.everard-group.com)

Late summer in 1970. The Becker family is driving down south to Plettenberg Bay. The mountains are covered in pink heather as we catch our first glimpse of the sea. We peer over a bridge spanning a vast chasm. Far below us, raptors ride the thermals rising up from the Bloukrans river. In the Tsitsikamma forest we visit the Big Tree. Mysterious scents rise up from the forest floor. Somewhere close by, elephants pad about, us kids can feel it. Huge yellowoods tower over the canopy, trailing long billowing vines. Later, we get into the Fiat and drive down to Knysna. First stop, George Rex’s grave. The royal son (so the story went) who settled here in 1816. Then we wind our way up to The Heads. I run through the scented scrub, and suddenly I pull up short as the cliffs drop away into the vast ocean. And I haven’t been there since. So on a rainy day early this month I went back to this iconic South African tourist site to see what Pierneef saw.

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There were patches of drizzle from Oudsthoorn and I had the lights on over the Outeniqua Pass. George to Knysna takes longer than you think: most of it is an 80 kph speed zone: most of it is a suburb. Navigating through a maze of expensive SUVs, I made my to the Heads. The road angles up through expensive real estate, those ever creeping global bunkers that announce our worldly success. A light rain came and went. The large chunks of rock and forest looked sombre and foreboding. No chance of a painting session yet, so I called my old friend Chris du Plessis, the former owner of the world famous Xai Xai bar. Glamorously, we met in the parking lot of Fruit and Veg City, where we obtained two Paninis. We went up the road to Thesen Island, and sat in Chris’s Jeep eating our lunch. In front of us a raincoated fisherman cast out into the placid lagoon. Assorted sea vessels bobbed nearby, remote from their purpose as pleasure craft.

Back at the Heads the light was better and I got out the painting kit. A timber viewpoint juts out where Pierneef would have made his sketches, but I set up a bit higher up the road. After a while I was joined by a bloke from Pretoria called Wessel Loubser, who turned out to be an amateur watercolourist. That made two of us, so we talked about hot pressed vs cold pressed papers, and how to properly stretch them (dont oversoak before you tape it down!) Wessel got called away by his wife, and I was left alone with the urgency of getting it all down and the usual struggles with ineptitude. Frankly, I can do without the puzzle of rendering light falling on an expanse of water. For that, we modern watercolourists are forever taunted by the genius of good old JMW Turner’s Venice masterstrokes.

knysna heads watercolour

For over a  hundred  years, ships were piloted through these monuments of stone, and departed laden with forest plunder. All those yellowood roof beams and that stinkwood furniture! Oh well. The light was fading, and I would be going back in the dark. But I had what I wanted for now. Its just a note, but one day I’ll be back to see it as first light reddens the rocks, the way Pierneef saw it.

through the Doric columns to the land of Art

through the Doric columns to the land of Art

I took a drive up the R62 to De Rust with my old friend Anton Chapman.The klein karoo was bathed in a moody Autumn light. We had a box of framed watercolours on the back seat, destined for Diane McLean’s Portal gallery.  We were putting up a  group show called Spektrum, linked to the KKNK. Estelle Marais, Hermann Niebuhr and Sharle Mathews completed the line up.  The  work ranged from Diane’s highly finished still lives to Anton Chapman’s recent  meandering watercolours. Our common link is that we all – over a period of several decades – passed through the hallowed neo classical doorway of the Rhodes Art School. That’s it there above us, in case anyone’s feeling nostalgic. Ah yes, the great enlightenment project in the heart of Xhosa country. But lets not go there now. It took a day to hang the show and it looked fresh, varied and coherent.

Artist as curator backed by Niebuhr abstracts

Artist as curator backed by Niebuhr abstracts

The McLean still life

The McLean still life

With the show up and ready, we took a drive through to Oudtshoorn. You can see a lot of bad art at the KKNK, but in the Prince Vincent building there was  good stuff, ably overseen by Sandra Hanekom. Clare Menck’s ” Vanitas” show, with still lives by some of our best painters, was a highlight. There were also good shows by Ian Grose, Pauline Gutter, and Cobus van Bosch. I really enjoyed Olaf Bisschoff”s witty and subversive “Streeksbiblioteek”: old books given new life and meaning through paint.

The 33ks back to De Rust is ostrich farming territory. A lot of ostriches died in the recent bird flu scares. There are a lot less of them now and the farms are restocking. The landscape looked desolate and dramatic, full of boom and bust stories. Only the hardy ones stick it out here.

klein karoo farmhouse

klein karoo farmhouse

Mr Smith and friends

Down here in the deep South I met an artist called Richard Smith. We found that we both owned Martin acoustic guitars, and we started playing together and called ourselves The Pencilmen , for obvious reasons. Back in the days, Smith had been a cartoonist of some standing, working for the Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Times. Sometime in the 1980s though, the smell of linseed oil proved irresistable, and he picked up the brush. He walked out of the graphic world into a richly coloured canvas, where he made landscapes with densely applied impasto. At the Cite in Paris, Smith took stock and his work shifted, resulting in large charcoal drawings of heads, beautifully done.

In between exploring obscure Bob Dylan songs, Smith has been trying to reconnect with his lost, somewhat repressed inner cartoonist. The big portraits often depicted people in dreamlike states. A grid was supermiposed, and on this grid were placed small icons – bits of torn up paintings, coloured dots,  airborne birds. This moved the head back from the picture plane, as if foregrounding fragments of the inner space of the subject. Given the size of these works, the effect was often imposing and even sombre. But Smith has a sense of humour that will not be denied. He started drawing on large grids, this time wihout the monumental heads. The new drawings are a rogues gallery of characters and situations from a lifetime of observation, rendered by a master of the craft.

Understanding Philip Guston. Oil on board.30x30cm

And out of the drawings there is a series of small oils. They have the  inventiveness of a Philip Guston or Robert Hodgins, where the paint itself guides the painter into obscure (and wicked) realms of memory and association. Rediscovering his levity has led Smith into a seam that promises great riches. Go and see his show. It is at Artspace, 142 Jan Smuts Ave, Joburg. Until 7 June.

Yes, my friends. The show at Stellenbosch opened two weeks ago. We had a good turnout and some sales. Sean o’ Toole gave us a charming opening. He read from his short story about an artist searching for Pierneef sites. The ghost of Pierneef appears to scoff at the idea, to scoff at his own paintings even. I enjoyed that. Several times, alone, quasi lost and staying in dubious lodgings, I too have felt the sniggering of Oom Henk over my shoulder.

the marathon, day 2

Hanging this show was gruelling, with a lot of archaic twiddling of fishing line and a good deal of hammering. It took Monique and I, ably assisted by one Anton Chapman, a full four days to get it looking right. After the flutter of the opening I went through to Stellies several more times and then tuned out. With my frozen shoulder hurting like hell, and clutching a copy of James Whyle’s The Book of War, we headed to the nether reaches of the Overberg.

On the pont at Malgas

Two days under the big sky at De Hoop was good medicine, but I still needed to get further away. We went across the pont at Malgas and on dirt through stony farmland to Witsand. There were jackal buzzards and blue cranes. The farmhouses were neat and well kept. Aside from a crazed Telkom van narrowly missing us at high speed, there was no one about. We could have been in the 1970s. We went on past Vermaaklikheid to the remote outpost of Puntjie, which has cottages dating from the 1890s. The fynbos was broken by tall aloes as we ascended the last hill and got to a firmly locked farm gate. Clever bastards, keeping Nirvana to themselves. Cathy and I took a picnic lunch of bread, cheese and cold wors and then turned back home…

the mythical kingdom of Puntjie

And so to Parys, resting quietly on the banks of the mighty Vaal river. For those of you who always wondered, it was named by the town engineer, a survivor of the Franco Prussian war of 1870. The main road in Parys is gentrified, with eateries and antique shops dotted around. But the old CBD has succumbed to a severe dose of Potholemia. And there was a lot of rubbish strewn around the streets: a little bit of Lagos on the highveld. I headed for the river clutching the usual photostat from NJ Coetzee’s Pierneef book. Some locals were enjoying a late afternoon joint on the riverbank and were keen to talk, but I scurried off intent on my quest.

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Pierneef could have been anywhere here: the basic ingredients of river, rocks and willow trees are everywhere. Coetzee however has suggested the site is at a picnic spot to the North of the town, close to a weir on the river and near to the town’s railway station. I suspended the search till the next day, and settled into my B&B closely watch by a gang of vervet monkeys intent on raiding the outdoor kitchen. There was no running water in the room the next morning. I told the owner on my way out and he wearily suggested I wash my face in his swimming pool – water floweth along the riverbank but not too often in the town’s piping, it seems.

J H Pierneef, Vaal Rivier, Parys. Oil on canvas

Pierneef’s technique on the panels was simple and highly effective. Field sketches were blocked off and enlarged onto the canvas. Dark outlines of forms were then drawn in, followed by flat swathes of colour. A cartoonist would use exactly the same method, and sometimes Pierneef leans strongly into the land of his American contemporary Walt Disney. Indeed, I met a cowboy or two at the old Plesieroord, but they were more Cormac McCarthy than Disney, fishing for lunch whilst breakfasting on white rolls and beer.

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There were signs of a vanished civilisation here, one that has recently retreated. The many bungalows and braai spaces have fallen into disrepair. Strange structures adorn the riverbank, their purpose no longer clear. The volk have surrendered the public spaces and retreated to their game ranches. I ended up doing a watercolour downriver, but in the late afternoon I went back and there were the manne, sitting around a fire, clutching a quart of Black Label. They were blacker than before, and they were listening to kwaito music as the river flowed on by….

Boeredisney in Parys

November 2011. I’m on my way to find the mythical forest of Houtbos. That’s a long way north of Hermanus, and a lot empty space ahead.

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I stopped over in that little known centre of culinary excellence called Hopetown. Following a tip-off from the locals, I went looking for supper at the cafe at the BP garage, where they were well stocked in vetkoek, cold hard boiled eggs and pink viennas. But I chose one of these for R12. It was superb.

What to eat in Hopetown

In the morning I went through grasslands and thorn trees to Kimberley. I have an obscure route through the mieliefields and dorpies to Gauteng. Beyond Boshoff, I start hitting potholes, about 200 kilometres worth of them. I have to watch the road carefully now, and can’t look away as much as I like to. Resenting this, I start thinking bad thoughts about our democracy. I’m going to Parys, the first stopoff on my way to finding several sites I haven’t been to yet. The Jeep suspension is getting hammered, but at least I have Pierneefian trees to make me feel better…

Ah, so much better than fynbos!

Pelser in action

Yes, it is a mere 5 months since my last posting, dear reader. I had an acute dose of blogophobia, which persisted despite the mutterings of my irascible blog coach. It took a visit from Monique Pelser to shake me out of my lethargy. We met in 2009, and by a remarkable coincidence, found that we had both been to the Pierneef Museum in 2006 and decided to follow his footsteps. It’s unsettling when someone else has also had your big idea, but we opted for co-operation rather than competition and so Pelser and I are going to be exhibiting together at the Stellenbosch University Gallery in April. Between us we’ve been to 27 of the 28 Station Panel sites, so its going to be a comprehensive show, with the photographs and paintings suggesting different ways of interpreting the landscape. The old harbour in my home town of Hermanus is one of the Pierneef sites, and Monique came out to photograph it last week.

J H Pierneef, Hermanus 142 x 126 cm. Oil on canvas

You’ll notice how Pierneef enlarged the buildings. He took a close up view of them and pasted it onto the view of the mountains. You’d have to be suspended in mid air to get a photo of that. Monique’s solution to the multiple perspectives often found in the Station Panels has been to use two cameras angled away from each other to give us an extended view of the sites. Painting and drawing outside, Pierneef would have spent many hours there. Today we tend to point and click and be on our way. We experience the landscape in soundbites and as a result we miss a lot.  So Monique has chosen to immerse herself in the landscape. She sets up her cameras at dawn and, taking a picture every five minutes, stays at the site until sunset. These  “photo sketches” are then projected onto a screen, giving us a remarkable record of a site over a day. To be viewed properly, the viewer has to give up their time, as if the photographer is urging us to put our own frenetic lives on hold to consider something bigger than ourselves. We may just find it was worth the wait.

the pencil has the last word

A few of us painters have a little tradition of sending out an sms declaring that our brushes have been laid down ahead of an exhibition. Mine went out on Sunday at noon. After many months, and seemingly endless little touch ups and tweaks, I finally crawled across that finishing line. Through good fortune and doggedness, I did all I’d set out to do, and even had an extra, unexpected painting. I drove over the mountains on Monday with a carload of drying paintings. I kept the windows open to dilute the fumes coming off them. It felt good. After all this time, I’d finally cleared my desk.

Not a painting in sight

Later that day though I was busy doing a few nervy touch ups again. It’s a tense business. After all, the painting is only as good as its last brushstroke. Rather like bowling the last over of a cricket game; one false move and you’re out. “Finishing is everything”, said Lucian Freud. There is a wonderful account from the 1850s of  JM Turner finishing a  painting on Varnishing Day, the day before the exhibition opened:

“He was at work before I came, having set to at the earliest hour allowed. The picture was a mere dab of several colours, like chaos before the creation, little better than a bare canvas. Such a magician, performing his incantations in public, was an object of interest. Etty was working at his side and every now and then a word and a quiet laugh emanated and passed between the two great painters.

“For the three hours I was there, Turner never ceased to work or even once looked or turned from the wall on which his picture hung. A small box of colours, a few very small brushes, and a vial or two were at his feet, very inconveniently placed; but his short figure, stooping, enabled him to reach what he wanted. In one part of the mysterious proceedings Turner, who worked almost entirely with his palette knife, rolled a lump of half transparent stuff over his picture.

“Presently the work was finished: Turner gathered his tools together, put them into and shut up the box, and then, with his face still turned to the wall, went sideling off, without speaking a word to anybody, and when he came to the staircase hurried down as fast as he could.  Maclise, who stood near, remarked, “There, that’s masterly, he does not stop to look at his work: he knows it is done, and he is off.”

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Home, oil on linen 23 x 30 cm

1. It is 1998. The painter is on a dusty Karoo road. He is driving an old kombi, the map book lying open on the floor behind him. There is a boy with a dog on the road. The painter gives them a lift to a farm many kilometres away. Later, at home in Jo’burg, the map book falls open. On a page, there is a paw print left in dried blood. The painter remembers the dog.

2. The painter is on the road between Whittlesea and Aberdeen. The trivia of everyday life starts to dissipate and he feels his soul expanding into those large spaces. It is 10.30 am, the time he usually takes his dog for a small walk around the corner. He pictures the dog at home, curled up and alone.

3. The painter has a dog at last. He is visited by a friend, a prolific artist and painter of many dog portraits, including Paris Hilton’s dog, no less. He comments on the fine form of the beast and takes a photograph. He says she would make a fine subject for a painting. In order to avoid the ignominy of having his dog painted by another artist, the painter makes a work of her.

4. Pierneef’s home in Pretoria. Called Elangeni (place of the sun), it was built in the late 30s using stone and thatch from the area. Sad to say, the pic was taken after Pierneef’s death and so we don’t know who that mutt on the left belonged to. But I have no doubt he would have approved of the Africanis on the basis of its indigenous aesthetic appeal.

At ten to nine on Friday morning I dropped Cathy off at Cape Town airport (soon to be renamed Zille International I believe). It was raining and the highway into town was jammed. Nothing like sitting in traffic to heighten the sense of one’s life slipping meaninglessly away. At the Langa off ramp I turned around and headed for Stellenbosch instead.

One more quick look at those panels was what I had in mind. They’re still at the Rupert Museum. The Panels are superbly displayed, and it’s good to see them in this context. I’ve looked at these things a good deal in print and real life. I’ve made painted copies of them. But I keep noticing new things, and the obsession remains. The more you invest, the more difficult to let go. My visit had overtones of a pilgrimage: the painter kneels before the holy relic in the hope that great fortune will follow.

Henk at the Rupert

The Rupert Museum also has a standing collection of South African art. There are a lot of Irma Sterns. For reasons that aren’t quite clear to me, I’ve never really liked her paintings that much. Although lately I’m tending toward the idea that she’s actually rather good. As we all know, her work keeps fetching record prices on auction, and that tends to muddy the waters a bit. Are high prices the measure of an artist’s merit? Of course not. They just reflect a decision about which objects are safe investments. So who makes the decision? The chaps in the corporate boardrooms? The auction houses? Or that nefarious group of voices known only as the Art Police?  They patrol the fences of our little canon, deciding who gets invited to the high table of Art.

Irma Stern, Eternal Child

There are many gems in this collection, and a few duds. A lot of the work that mimics European stylistic developments just looks dated to me. Amongst all the mid-century modernism I was struck by this Nita Spilhaus landscape, fresh and unpretentious.

Nita Spilhaus, Tokai landscape

In my book,  there are two more women painters in drastic need of re-appraisal: Ruth Prowse and Dorothy Kay. I’ve never seen a bad painting by either of  them. But they stand in the giant shadow cast by Stern. Perhaps it’s time the Art Police got out their notebooks and had another look.

'n hele klomp kleintjies

The September exhibition date looms. Many of the chickens have come to roost at one end of the studio, quietly bothering me. The painter Simon Stone was once asked “when is a painting finished?” “When it stops irritating me ” was his answer. The business of finishing is just that, a slow burnishing away of faults.

The square ones at the top are 20cmx20cm – part of a set of twenty. The bottom row of paintings are an old standard size: 9×12 inches. They’re done on Belgian linen, made up in Jo’burg about seven years ago. At last, the right moment and the courage to paint on them!  Belgian linen is the holy grail of paint surfaces (particularly oil primed BL).

Mostly, when a work goes as “oil on canvas”, it  is something called “cotton duck”, an inexpensive and durable support, but not as smooth as BL. It’s only when you’re really making good money that you’ll be ordering Belgian linen from your canvas makers (as Robert Hodgins unfailingly did). Meanwhile I’ve had a bad run of it with canvas suppliers, so I’ve resorted to stretching a few of my own. For the first time in about 15 years.

behind the scenes

You need a stapler and, unless you have a particularly strong pair of thumbs, a purpose built canvas gripper. This is a good thing to do on a Saturday afternoon. I recommend the boeremusiek programme on RSG as audio accompaniment, but that is optional. The trick is to get it stretched tight, but not too tight. You should only take tea whilst doing this. Definitely no liquor. That will count against you when it comes to the folds on the corners.

With that behind me, I still had the problem of wanting more small Belgian linen canvases to work on. (You get addicted to the feeling of the brush gliding effortlessly over the surface, you understand.) My quest took me to The Italian Shop in Rondebosch. The proprietor, Angus Kennedy, is a mine of information and an hour later I left clutching the beautifully made up 9×12 linens as well as a whole lot of stuff I hadn’t really thought I’d be buying. Like this beautiful 60ml  tube of artist’s quality Cadmium Red from Maimeri. At R360 a tube, I rate this a buy. You can get through a lot of 9×12 size canvases before you squeeze out the last bit of this pigment.

Cad Red

OK. So its been a while since I posted anything. Needless to say, my blog coach and I are no longer on speaking terms. She fired me. I told her that the pre-exhibition painting frenzy is antithetical to the idea of putting yourself out there in words, but she was having none of that. It was a lie anyway: There hasn’t been any painting frenzy. Instead, your painter has been sinking in a quicksand of incessant domestic trivia while his career slowly goes down the plug. As an antidote, I headed for Cape Town to look once more for the elusive Lion’s Head site.

J H Pierneef. Lion's Head. Oil on canvas

My first search for this site took me near the waterfront, and I ended up in the offices of Transnet down by the docks. (Transnet, coincidentally, are the owners of the Station Panels.) A man told me that the reason I couldn’t find this site is that it no longer existed. In the 1930s this had been the Roggebaai Harbour, and it had been reclaimed in the 1940s. There is a picture of this view in reverse:

the reverse angle c 1930

Those boats and the warehouse roofs on the left clinch it as far as I am concerned. Pierneef must have taken his view of Lion’s Head from drawings done on the pier. Today this is in the vicinity of the Dias Circle, in Lower Heerengracht Road, near the monster called the Convention Centre.

not a lot

There isn’t a lot of Lion’s Head to be seen from this neck of the woods, and although I reckon one can conjure a meaningful painting from just about anything, this didn’t do it for me. I needed elevation, and so the next day after having breakfast with my old studio china Dave Rowett, we headed for a roof. I spent a lot of time painting from roofs in Jo’burg, but this was my first Cape Town roof. The Metropolitan building stood tall in the line of sight. The security guy let us in after a few questions. “Net nie spring nie kerels, dan is EK in die kak!” We went up to the 26th floor. It was the shortest day of the year, but balmy and cloudless. The profile of Lion’s Head seemed to perfectly match the original painting. Below us stretched a jumble of Post Modernist structures, but no trace of any of Henk’s buildings. We doodled on sketchpads whilst the panorama of Table Mountain lay resplendent before us. This job is hell, dear reader, but somebody has to do it.

Damaraland Dave on the 27th floor

Mr Miles

Deep in the hinterland of the Overberg there is a hamlet called Baardskeerdersbos. Every Autumn and Spring, the resident artists open their doors for the B’bos Art Route. The visitor will see a mixed bag of creativity, from woodworking to pottery and quilting. The kingpins, however, are Joshua Miles and Niël Jonker, and I always look forward to seeing what they’ve been up to. Joshua Miles is now recognised as one of our best exponents of the woodcut. His colour prints of landscape and pastoral life are alluring little gems. Recently he has moved to a more monochrome spectrum. The work seems to suggest a dialogue between a very old printmaking technique and its modern cousin, the digital image, where the old medium is simply far more intriguing than the new. (Pierneef, a brilliant printmaker, would have been interested.)

the tonal woodcut

B’bos has been in existence for many years, for no obvious reason as far as I can tell. In the late 1600s a party of sleeping explorers had their beards trimmed by scary looking spiders – hence the name. Since the artists moved in and yuppie art buyers followed, property prices have risen. There’s a division of sorts between the new and old inhabitants, who can still be seen around town on their donkey carts. They looked friendly, but I moved quickly on because as a teenager I saw Deliverance and I know how nasty those hillbillies can be .

the moment captured

Niël Jonker has been painting the Overberg region for a few years now. He paints outside, on the spot. This takes some courage. Once you’ve found your site and set up your kit, you find your subject changing with the light. You have to work fast, there are flies buzzing around you, it’s hot, and the wind keeps blowing sand into your palette. Strange then, that this difficult and noble business has come to be seen as the domain of the amateur. (What serious young art student would be caught en plein air with brush in hand? Uncool!) Mr Jonker, who makes a mean loaf of ciabatta bread, has recently turned his hand to sculpting. The bronzes in his garden suggest a significant talent there too.

Mr Jonker

In an artworld full of hype and commercialism, the B’bos Art Route offers a glimpse into a rare authenticity. These artists are committed to place and practice – and their homes and families are evidence that they are thriving. Vorentoe, B’bos kêrels!
In country music there is always someone walking the line, as my friend Richard Smith observed. Bob Dylan wrote a song about it and so of course did Johnny Cash. The line your blogger is walking right now runs from his studio straight through to September 8th, the date of his first Cape Town exhibition. The travels with Pierneef are now mainly in the confines of the studio as the brush meanders back and forth covering its tracks and time skids away. Small sketches proliferate in an attempt to pin down ideas for paintings. They help to quell the rising tide of panic.
 Note for a Hermanus site painting

I’m doing a biggish oil of the Hermanus site – it consists of seven small images. After three days I had three small images in place. Like a happy construction manager I was even figuring how many more hours it would be before the painting was done. But by day four, things suddenly started to look wrong. The canvas was cluttered and kind of formulaic in its intention. The thing that Hemingway called the “crap detector” was starting to ring, and I had to press  the Delete button. Day one, two and three’s efforts were painted over.  Day four’s too. It wasn’t their fault. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I’m giving one of them a second life:

 the virtual fishing party

The saying “to walk the line” originates in the American Midwest. In the days of railway construction, parched and hungry construction workers would walk the line for miles, checking that all the beams were in place. Ahem. Your crap detector should be warming up now. I have no idea where it comes from. But it’s a good way of describing the need to make aesthetic or other judgement calls. And I’ll let you know how the big one turns out…

looking for the line...

J H Pierneef’s Station Panels are cornerstones of South African landscape painting. They were placed in the old Johannesburg Station as adverts to travel the country.

But did these alluring places ever really exist? And how have they changed?

Taking up the invitation to travel 80 years later, Carl Becker set off to find out.

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