The only driving I’ve done for the past year of Covid restrictions is up and down the main road of the dorp of Hermanus, at a sedate 60km/h. Now I’m suddenly in traffic, and I need to shake this geriatric mode and get up to speed. Back when I worked in Fordsburg, Rosebank was about as far north as I ventured. But now I’m on this endless thing called Beyers Naude road (or the M5,) wending my way past shopping malls and car dealerships, dodging potholes and taxis.

It’s nondescriptland, a hodge-podge of familiar brands and flailing smaller enterprises. Middle America perhaps, except for a slew of orange-overalled men in orange hard hats at the intersections, handing out flyers for an insurance company. The main arterials to the north of Joburg are strangely interchangeable to me: the same featureless urban sprawl that eventually peters out in a squatter camp or a wedding venue, a scrapyard, a nursery of sorts. It occurs to me that I actually met Beyers Naude once, back in the 1980s. He was a dissident Afrikaner who’d fled the fold of the Broederbond and the grand Apartheid delusion. As a result, he’d been “banned,” which meant he was virtually under house arrest and visitors were restricted. We went to speak to him about a subversive project we were planning, and I have this fleeting image of old “Oom Bey” sitting in his garden in one of the suburbs near here, a calm and dignified presence despite the scrutiny of the “system.”

The road heads North West, and I’m aiming for Muldersdrift. On both sides of the road, the forest of suburbia spreads out forever. The streets are named after heroes of the Volk like Boer General Christian de Wet, and less heroic chaps like Jim Fouche (anyone remember him?) and John Vorster. Now I have another recollection: A National Party election rally in the 1970s, with the Prime Minister himself as the headline attraction. I had to see for myself, so there I stood, aged nineteen, at the back of a large marquee while BJ Vorster thundered on into the microphone. My mustachioed white compatriots roared in approval, but I thought the whole thing was totally uncool. Which is why I ended up in Oom Beyers’ camp, I suppose.

I see that some of the streets have been named after artists. The sculptors Anreith and Van Wouw are immortalised in the curbstones of Linden, and I think surely there must be a Pierneef Street. But there isn’t. Not far away though, there’s something called Pierneef Park. He had a whole suburb named after him! I’m keen to see what that looks like, but not today, so I get back onto Beyers. Crossing the NI western bypass, I glimpse the new corporate HQ of FNB/Wesbank, risen from the veld like some gleaming intergalactic starship of capitalism. Then more Afrikaner suburbia thinning out as we go, and then Lagos – like stuff, skirting the edges of the Zandspruit shackland. Minibus taxis gathered on the side of the road, makeshift workshops, street vendors braaing mielies. A universe of stuff to draw. Not a white face to be seen here, and not too many wearing the mask either.

Onward, past the Happy Island Waterworld, past the one-man hamburger hut, past the Khoi Empire. Finally, crossing over the highway to Pretoria, I get a sense of the open country. I turn off onto a small tarred road past the old Muldersdrift Clinic. There’s a curious mix of vegetation here – we’re just getting into “bushveld”, so there’s a hint of grassland with arbitrary aliens like poplars and pine trees. Mixed into that are what’s left of some distant plot -dweller’s schemes, the purpose now obscure.

A kilometre of small tar road and I’m at the gate of Watermark Farm, home of the writer and equestrian Anne Biccard. Once inside, there’s the reassuring sound of gravel crunching underwheel, and a wonderland of indigenous trees: paperbarks, acacias, fever trees. There’s a big sky overhead and huge cumulus clouds building for an afternoon storm. There’s just something about the Highveld in summer that speaks to me like nothing else. A quick cup of tea, and I’m reaching for my pencil and sketchpad…

Stony Point, Betty’s Bay, that’s where you’ll find the African Penguin. I went there not so long ago to check up on them. Like Panda bears and Zebras, penguins are cute, in a cartoony way. They’re clearly awkward on land, and we have no idea how quick and mobile they are in the water, so we’re stuck with this cartoon of them. Cape Nature has constructed a long walkway along the edges of the colony, and as you and your fellow penguin – tourists enter the domain, you steadily lose the cartoon. For starters, they don’t interact with us: they’re just not interested in us. And then there’s the guano-smell of the colony; a very un-cartoony smell, the smell of something wild and other.

I’m not interested in you

I was there on a sunlit day in November, but there was a cold breeze coming off the vast Atlantic. Stony point is far South and as I strolled past the bleached boulders and the solitary darters, I felt like I might be getting to the edge of the known world. From the information boards I learnt that African Penguin numbers have declined over the last century from 3 million to around 36 000. So here it is again, the depressing story of Nature in the 21st century. They are running out of food, and needless to say, we’re the reason for that. We’re chowing their pilchards and anchovies. These are the hangers – on, the remnants of a crime nobody really noticed.

The king of Stony point

I knew a linocut was called for, one that depicts the penguin as a defiant and hardy critter. As it turns out, I was finishing my linocut when I heard Lewis Pugh being interviewed on Michelle Constant’s SAFM show. Perhaps Mr Pugh will be the shining knight the African Penguin desperately needs. The first and most important move to save these guys is to establish a no-take fishing zone within a 20km radius of a colony. That seems like a pretty simple thing to do, right? Lewis said he’d written several times to Minister of Environmental affairs Barbara Creecy, but has yet to receive a reply. Ag come on Minister, asseblief tog….

Lewis Pugh’s December 2nd article in the Daily Maverick:

An autumn day in the Overberg. I’m off to Kleinmond and Betty’s Bay to draw, but, despite the sunlight, things are hazy and I decide instead to go inland. I take the road up the Hemel en Aarde Valley. We wind gently upwards past fabled wine estates. I have my sketching stuff with me, and of course the company of the intrepid Africanis, ears straight up, watching for baboons and guinea- fowl. At the top of the valley there’s a dirt road with a sign saying Karwyderskraal. I take a left there. I noodle on down the road, eating the dust of urgent Toyota bakkies. Where are they going in such a rush? They have business on those wine estates. Or maybe they’re Karwydering things. I take a right up a pine tree avenue, the De Bos dam down below. I’m seeing a lot of stuff, but its just not composing itself. Out of the car, there’s a chill wind, and I can’t get the car facing the right direction. I close the door on my thumb. I feel badly dressed, cranky, and out of sorts. I need new shoes. The clock is ticking.

Back on the dam wall, I pull up alongside a large SUV, and we peek over the edge. Two men and a woman. Swimmers, one in a wet suit and two soaking in the morning light. Snatches of talk drift up, and there are tales of Iron Men and other endurances. I confess, dear reader, that for a moment, I envy their youth and their strength.


After a while the woman comes up the embankment and she pats Lulu and tells me, by way of explanation, that they are Training. Three people in their productive prime whiling away a Tuesday morning sloshing around the De Bos dam. Training,eh? No wonder the economy’s gone to pot. Straightening my shoulders, I said to her “I am doing Aesthetic Research.” Nah, I didn’t say that. “I’m just knocking around” is what I told her.

We dawdle up the valley until we get to the Teslaarsdal road. At last, the dirt road I’m looking for! A kilometer down the road, I pull up and start a drawing. It is noon now and warming, and I’ve stopped the nonsense of looking for picturesque things to draw. There’s a craggy outcrop to my left, but I’m looking instead at some bland fields and a grey nondescript hill. After a while a car pulls up next to me, and dispenses a man and woman, who thank the driver for the lift. They wander off towards Teslaarsdal with nothing on the horizon. The man in the car next to me struggles for a while to start the engine, and I ignore him steadfastly. Eventually it splutters to life, and away he goes. It’s hot now and I need suntan lotion. I find some in the console of the car. It is cheap green allegedly zinc -based stuff targeted at surfers. Why did I buy it? I apply it first to the back of my neck, then to my arm. My forearm is now bright green and sticky as if dipped in nuclear slime. Yay!


A few kilometres towards Teslaarsdal I see the man and woman trundling along the road. I stop to give them a ride. “Muli bwanji!” I say as they get into the car. The Malawian greeting is met with great surprise and mirth. Perhaps its just my bad pronounciation. I drop them at a farm gate further on down the road. Eventually I get to the metropolis of Teslaarsdal. Nothing more, perhaps, than a gradual expansion of smallholdings and two new (and ugly) facebrick shops. It merits another visit but for now I have one more drawing to do, so we get back onto the dirt, trustfully following signposts that give no indication of distance.

I go on through the agricultural wasteland. It is difficult to think of it as anything else. Rather like the world evoked by Andrew Wyeth’s great painting ” Christina’s world,” except more so.


This is the world us bread -eaters have made. Scrubland – once the home of many small mammals and the raptors that lived off them –  makes way for wheat; our carb-craving knows no end. Outside of the odd sheep, there really is very little life here, although farmers are encouraging the blue cranes endemic to the area. And I saw a heron. And five egrets.

Its getting on, shadows are lengthening and the light yellowing. Despite these morbid thoughts, it looks beautiful. I stop the car on a hill and do my last drawing of the day, overlooking a cluster of bluegums and gentle hills marked through with giant scribbles and scrawls. And then its back around the Kleinrivier mountains to the suburban seaside.



It was 1994, in Yeoville. Across from the Checkers in Raleigh road, there was an old railway coach that went as a diner. I was in there, having coffee with James Philips. It was noon. His hair was long and somewhat unkempt and he smelled of nicotine. He was excited. “Carl, this new shit we’re doing is radical, broer; horn arrangements, weird time signatures, complicated shit!” He was telling me about the new Lurchers’ cd they were recording. And he said ” I’ve got an amazing painting that we’re going to be putting on the cover of the cd. It’s by Walter Meyer. Have your heard of him? ” No I hadn’t.

The cd was called Sunny Skies, a caustic jab at the popular “Braaivleis, sunny skies and Chevrolet” adverts that had been aimed at the myopic white tribe in the 1980s. Meyer’s painting was of an eerily barren 70s East Rand-type house about to be swamped by the mother of all thunderstorms.

lurchers sunny skies

There was a rapport between James’ music and Walter’s painting . Here were two dissenting white men, each blessed with unique gifts in their own fields, calling the last round on the culture they grew up in. At Meyer’s first one man show in Joburg, at Ricky Burnett’s Newtown Gallery,  the Lurchers played live to mark the event. Not that Meyer needed the extra noise. His paintings – and there were a lot of them coming at you – were like a well- timed punch in the gut. This was the South African hinterland at the end of Apartheid : desolate small town houses, deserted main roads, broken farm buildings.  Things that we’d all seen were suddenly there in a way that was both familiar and utterly new. Meyer had a way of transforming the photographs he worked from. This was “realism,” but the brushwork – intense and absolutely assured – took the images well beyond the photograph. Here, in grungy downtown Joburg, was a major painter announcing his arrival.

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Goedemoed, Kalahari,1995. Oil on canvas 48 x 58cm


Innovators see what everyone else sees but doesn’t really notice. They figure out how to paint it. A glare of light on the Karoo ground at noon, the relentless sun casting deep shadow. Nondescript railway sidings in the veld. How a few scraggly palms planted in hope come to signal despair. These subjects were a far cry from the concerns of traditional landscape painters. Meyer looked unsparingly on the mark of man on the landscape and what he saw was definitely not a Chevrolet commercial. In Pierneef, nature is mostly nurturing and benign: Man succeeds against the odds and a feelgood order prevails. There is nostalgia in both Meyer and Pierneef, but in Meyer there is little consolation. Instead, we sense loss, alienation and the downright strangeness of the world.

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Jagersfontein, 1997, oil on canvas 84 x 100cm

Walter was a man for heat, arid vistas and big skies. He didn’t, like many of us, live in suburbia and make occasional forays into the platteland. He lived it. He also, to be sure, knew degrees of anguish – a man of few words, unable to keep off the booze, the hangover a constant companion. A mark of an artist must surely be his or her influence on their peers. Just as it is difficult to bypass Pierneef, the aspiring landscape painter should now address the work of Meyer. He was the kingpin in a moment of South African painting in which I would include such luminaries as Anton Karstel, Johan Louw, Kobus Kloppers and Clare Menck for starters. He will be missed. Hamba kahle, WM.

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I spent the first half of the year in fruitful quest of the landscape. Then I embarked on a bumbling attempt at house renovations, skewered by the Hermanus municipal plans department. I dabbled a bit with watercolours. There were pleasant afternoons spent thus, outdoors, in winter sunlight, looking at the cold Atlantic ocean. But I soon gave up on that too. Then I chanced upon a little box of vintage drawing nibs that I’d bought twenty years ago at Cornelissen and Son, the legendary London art supplies shop.


The delicate old nibs have arcane inscriptions on them, like Globe Pen, Birmingham,England, 5 , or C Brandauer and Co. Oriental Pen, No. 3 or Goode and Co, no 801, London. Used with Rowney Kandahar Indian Ink, these proved to be the thing I was looking for. Ink is emphatic and non-negotiable, no rubbing out. The mark is made, and there it is. Of course, the safe thing is to do it in pencil first, and then ink over it, making corrections as you go and rubbing out any traces of pencil that remain. But the daring thing to do is to charge one’s pen and leap right into it, and this is largely how the recent drawings have proceeded, a combination of observed and imaginary images.


Now, as Norman Mailer once noted, dredging through the swamp of one’s mind can be a risky business. You’re painfully aware of your skills (which may be inadequate,) and your ideas (which may be silly.)  It’s a bit of a roller -coaster: Burning buses one day, a vase of flowers the next. Take the detail below. First the Zulu gogo appeared, and  later, having watched a clip of a student talking about a Zulu tradition of sending parcels of lightning to foes, I added the mini lightning bolt.


Sometimes there are little dead ends, and it may be a week or so until one knows what to add next. The solution can turn up in the shape of a newspaper picture, or something in an old book, a conversation, a distant memory. The noise of the present can find itself on the same page as the deeply recessed past. There’s no shortage of stuff that may have inflicted itself on the artist’s psyche: Picasso’s sketchbooks, Van Gogh’s reed drawings done in France. Before that, the comics section of the Sunday Express, especially Prince Valiant. All those World War two comic books (Achtung, schweinhund!)  Also the illustrated books I grew up with – Like Struwelpeter, Kalulu the Hare, Barbara Tyrell’s Tribal Peoples, and Harry Wolhuter’s Memories of a Game Ranger (with illustrations by C.T. Astley-Maberly.) So I’ll leave you with this , from the Memories of a Game Ranger, depicting the part where Harry Wolhuter gets dragged off by a lion. How gruesome, how exciting! Only ink can do it!






Kimberley. Not really known as an art epicentre. But wait, in the middle of town there’s the William Humphreys Gallery, one of the country’s finest public art institutions. Your blogger was there in July, showing off his latest work, and I tell you it was good. Under the hand of curator Ann Pretorius, the gallery has assembled a superb permanent collection. There’s a tea- room in a garden which is home to quite a few feral cats, as well as a statue of Queen Victoria. She stares determinedly at the palisade fence, a grandiose relic of a grandiose time. The passing students of Sol Plaatjie university pay Her not the slightest notice.

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a tot of Laudanum, anyone?

Approaching Kimberley from the south, you drive through bushveld with many beautiful thorn trees and historic battle sites. After just a little bit of semi- industrial stuff, you’re right in the town. A town that has a lot of history etched into it. This is where South Africa met Modernity. A vast onrushing money -grabbing multinational mob was unleashed right here on the arid plains, and the old pastoral country was dead and buried. Some of that mob did very well for themselves, leaving us some splendid homes to look at, like these in Carrington road.

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What is it about these houses? I think they’re marvellous, perfect in every way. So much better than the concrete bunkers favoured by today’s well-to-do. Glance downwards, and the paving stones are carved granite. There they are in the picture above. Hand carved granite paving stones! Not messing around then, your colonial-era road builders.They were in it for the long haul,  thinking Remain,  definitely. Near the CBD,  I found this architectural oddity:

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It comes complete with a trashed -out parking lot, and where are the windows? What would a future civilisation make of this edifice? Will they think it a temple to strange gods, the gods of small bright stones? A place where pale-skinned initiates peered for hours at the stones, in rooms without north-facing windows?

After the exhibition opening, we went to the Kimberley Club for a late and large supper. There are ghosts of a former world here, notably bad-hearted Cecil Rhodes. He lurks in the garden, warily keeping an eye on the door. These days, no doubt, new elites are hatching schemes and cutting deals at the same old bar, whiskies in hand. Coming out of the Club, I took a wrong turn and briefly went on a late-night drive through the CBD. For a little while I was lost and suddenly alone in the empty litter -strewn streets. I confess, a primal child- like tightening in the chest crept up on me. Then I came across a gang of black  men repairing the road outside the town hall.

Which way to Du ToitsPan road? I asked.

Ons praat nie Engels nie, praat Afrikaans! said they.

I passed a shebeen along the way. Loud and clear, the sounds of Elvis’s Blue Suede Shoes belted forth out of the darkness. I’m still trying to figure that out, that burst of rockabilly music where I never thought I’d find it.



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Rand Gold Mine , 90x80cm, oil on canvas,2013

A long time ago, when Hermann Niebuhr came back to Joburg, we made some excursions down Main Reef road, looking for clues to the spirit of Jozi. On the East Rand, close to the fabled Snake Road mine dump, we found some derelict buildings. In the detritus were many small plastic signs that had once steered mineworkers around the equipment that gets the shiny stuff out of the ground. And one of the signs we took back to Lilian Road bore the simple inscription “propane on”.

Over the course of many workshops held on the stoep of Lilian Rd, “propane on” became a key idea in the mythology of how an exhibition comes together. Further workshops revealed that the stages are: 1. Churning or scratching around. 2. Finding your Line and Length. 3  Propane On, and 4. Brushes Down.

I reached Brushes Down last Friday at 6.30pm. I’ve been at the landscape business again, from early January, working towards a June 1 show at the William Humphreys Gallery in Kimberley. It’s a grand moment, make no mistake, but one still has a lot things to do. Like taking stuff to the framers, touching up nicks and scratches on old frames, listing and photographing work, and varnishing the paintings I did two years ago. I like W& N Satin varnish, by the way, and the best thing to apply that with is the Roberson Priming Brush, purchased in London by Marjorie MacLean. It has a copper ferrule and a handle made out of laminated wood, and it lasts forever.

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Made in France, nogal

There was a lot of work involving crates. The unpacking and re-packing thereof. My rudimentary carpentry skills were called into service (ah, what a fine invention is the electric screwdriver!) I’ve sent 62 pieces off to the North West, and it was a moment of pure delight when finally the laden truck trundled off down the road. I shall soon be bringing up the rear, with a few stragglers in the back of the Nissan. Onward to Kimberley!

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Sometimes a crate notion…..



The oke from Auckland has been doing a residency out at the Wildgarten studio for the last month or so. He got off the plane with a suitcase filled mainly with oil paint. Then he drove out to Wildgarten in the maroon 1996 Jetta and set up shop. Its been two years since his last visit and he’s busy putting out new work to sustain his ties to the Borman Gallery in Cape Town.

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I visited Chapman at the studio a few days later. He was waiting for fresh canvases to arrive, but had launched fearlessly into a number of old ones. These have been standing against the wall waiting for another turn. They already have a certain character and history as objects. The roll of 1970’s Belgian linen purchased in Auckland, worked on in De Rust in 2012,and abandoned. That tricky bit of buckling canvas that won’t get straightened out. The edges, streaked with small accretions of paint that give us clues, like the rings of a tree. The work looked promising after the opening salvos. However, one knows that Chapman’s process is no straight road. He’ll take the canvas in all sorts of directions before settling on something he trusts. There’ll be any number of re-workings, the paint coming off and going on in successive bouts of arrival and subversion.

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Chapman knows a lot more than most about the behaviour of pigments, their drying times, their opacity or transparency, how they brush out, and so.(The American manufacturer Williamsburg is a favourite.) He’s particular about brushes, too, sometimes re -engineering them for specific tasks. The favourite ones are cherished and used until long after their sell-by date. I came across this trusty old steed in its dying throes:

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One could argue that the square-type paintings that have occupied Chapman for the past few years are a vehicle for journeys into pigment and colour that are unhindered by the need to make representations of things. We refer to them as “abstract”, but what does that mean? It still implies an abstraction of things, whereas “non representational” seems a better label, if you must. Personally, I don’t need to hang words onto these works. A look around the studio tells you that this is an artist who is very in love with paint and what it can do. (He will enthuse about the butteriness of Flake White, the need for a true Cerulean Blue, or the transparency of Williamsburg’s Ardois Grey.)

Colour in the new paintings is restrained. They don’t shout at you. They draw you in in a matter-of-fact kind of way. So, is there more to this than meets the eye? Well, yes. There’s the life of the painter to consider, the sense of craft, the sense of a lineage. In some esoteric way these all flit in and out of a painter’s consciousness and onto the canvas. Of the many painters we’ve talked about over the last few weeks, Chapman holds a special regard for the sage of Italian still life, Giorgio Morandi. Among the living, he likes Peter Doig and the New York abstract painter Amy Sillman. The work of those artists might help to map out points of reference for these paintings. But so might the taste of a good Chenin Blanc after a hard day’s slog. Or a long leisurely stroll through the mountains with an Africanis by your side.

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Dear Reader

Latterly, you may have noticed a great scarcity of reports from this absent blogger. The Pierneef project is still simmering, I’ve just got the flame turned down for a bit. In early November, I ventured once more to the Drakensberg, making a day trip into Lesotho on the way. Those Maloti mountains are lovely, but the Pierneef site remains elusive. I came back with about 500 photographs and have no inclination to work my through them, let alone actually write about the adventure. Instead, I find myself drawn to the smell of freshly – cut linoleum and printing ink. Ah, the pleasures of the linocut! So old – fashioned and challenging in its simplicity! Without further ado then, loyal subscribers, here is this year’s Christmas card.

Great good greetings to all of you, and have a fab 2016!

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I visited Richard Smith in his studio on a balmy Spring day last week. Smith has been living in Onrus, near Hermanus, for more than a decade. He works at home, upstairs, and has a view of a pleasing expanse of lawn hemmed in by big bluegum trees. His wife Li, also a painter, has her studio downstairs and they share the space with a dog and two tabby cats. The studio is neatly kept. Smith is an organised kind of a painter – one has the sense here of well-established systems, of working to deadline. He is preparing work for his November show at Ebony, in Cape Town, and going into the critical last 6 weeks. There are canvases on easels, more canvases hanging from the eves, and one lying flat on the floor, which he approaches keenly. “Look at this – I’m very excited about some of the things happening here. ” He points to an area where he’s dragged a big house-painting brush through wet oil paint, leaving a multi-coloured smear in the centre of the canvas.

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He leaps to another canvas leaning on an easel. “This one’s showing potential.” There’s a figure, loosely tacked in with a brush, on a pinkish background, offset by a fierce cadmium yellow.”This one still needs something, I’m going to put it away for a while and then look at it again.” He points to another large canvas – a nude male figure leans on a pedestal in a nascent cityscape. “I killed that one,” he says, exasperated. “It’s overworked. It’s dead!” There’s a subtle difference between the two, but, compared to the pink canvas, the nude somehow lacks urgency. The element of self-surprise – even puzzlement – is Smith’s bread and butter. “Yes,” he says, ” the painterly process is all important. It’s about doing something that isn’t preconceived. I want to find colours I haven’t seen before.” He scrutinizes more of the canvases close up. “These backgrounds are very light, perhaps too light.” There are expanses of light greys, some pink-hued, others blue-grey, made up of interlocking brushstrokes of varying thickness. Daubs and dabs of colour enliven the surface and there are remnants or beginnings of subtle line drawings that have been engraved into the paint. It is from these accretions of paint that ideas emerge, and the content of the painting begins to reveal itself. The areas where paint collides are like fields of energy from which ideas sprout. They blossom or are ploughed back into the field to emerge later.

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We don’t talk much about the content of the painting, as if the question is somehow invasive. At times, Smith will even deny that he’s responsible for imagery. He points to a fish flipping its way onto a canvas. “Look at that fish, I don’t know how it got there or what it’s going to do.” Fair enough, the likes of Picasso and T S Eliot were similarly reluctant to expound on their imagery. Many painters view painting as an autonomous language – to think that painting can be explained in terms other than its own is to miss the point. And these paintings, which you could call “figurative,” are deeply attached to a tenet of much abstract painting: that the act of painting is itself the content of the painting. This way of working is as much a journey into uncharted realms as it is a desire on Smith’s part to subvert his exceptional ability to articulate objects and ideas. He is that rare artist who can draw – on command – what he pleases: A rhino, a dog, a Greek temple, whatever. The current procedure subverts the temptation to easily knock out pictures. The intent is to avoid formulas. ” Lots of artists who are commercially successful get stuck in a formulaic way of doing things. When that happens, you’re dead.” But he acknowledges that professional painters are subject to the whims and fancies of market forces. And despite the dogged example of thwarted early modernists like Cezanne, most painters have pretty fragile egos. “Frankly,” says Smith, “we actually do need the recognition that sales give us.”

Death of Sardanapalus (detail)

Death of Sardanapalus (detail)

Smith admires R B Kitaj, as well as the Portuguese artist Paula Rego, both consumate draftspeople with a potent ability to express complex and mysterious stories. And he has a favourite painting: Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapulus, that great heaving drama of sex and death. Although Smith is not given to angst, there are some heavier, somber paintings emerging.

Smith’s new show is titled ” Music and no music.” Smith certainly plays music, and he listens widely to music while painting. The sound of painting is the sound of a bristle brush on canvas, footsteps going back and forth, sharp intakes of air, sighs of despondency. But that’s not what he’s talking about. The music is the sound of serendipity, the state of joyous flow that brings things into being.”How important is Art, really?,” he asks “there’s this whole world of galleries, international art fairs and so on, all manufacturing importance, telling us how important Art is, but at the end of the day, a lot of it is fashion and propaganda.” Smith has got beyond all that now – it doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is to make the music.

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c  Carl Becker  September 2015

This is Pierneef’s Station Panel called Rand Gold Mine. We believe it is the old City Deep mine (Thanks, NJ Coetzee) I’ve tried unsuccessfully to locate this, but that’s not why I was in Joburg. It was for the opening of ” A Space for Landscape” – the Pierneef show at the Standard Bank Gallery in town. Meticulously and thoughtfully curated by Wilhelm van Rensburg, it is a must-see. But don’t go into town anywhere near rush hour. People arrived late for the opening, in a slightly shattered state, having churned their way through the gridlocked cbd traffic. Stephan Welz and his wife, trapped in their car, were the subjects of an attempted robbery. In a rare case of instant Karma, the robber was immediately thumped down and handcuffed by alert security manne. Fear and loathing, stupidity and heroism – ah yes, the Joburg story.

The famous view

The famous view from Lilian Rd studios

I had an exhibition at Hodgins House, Sarah Ballam’s art space in Parktown. (It went well, thanks mense.) With that behind me, I went for a curry on the balcony of the old Lilian Rd studio in Fordsburg.On the way through Mayfair I saw women in burkhas, semi-derelict shops, down and out men eating crusts of bread, elegantly-dressed Somalis. There was the familiar honk of urine outside the studio entrance, the usual smell of oil and cooking rotis wafting up from Mohammadis down below. Lou Almon and I sat on the stoep eating our felafel and gingerly tasting a pulped avocado and date drink. (Why the hell did I order that?) Minibuses in the street and pigeons dotting the sky.The city looked good in the midwinter light. Fred de Vries, the writer, once asked us ” Is this place on its way up or on its way down?” The question remains, in ever widening circles. Joburg. South Africa. Up one moment, down the next. Going sideways. My sense of Joburg – and this is just a view from the leafy suburbs – is that, like the winter shadows, things are getting starker: more crime, more desperation, the gulf between the haves and the rest ever-widening. But there are wonders of modernity to counter the darkness – the Gautrain, the neon hoopla of the Sandton skyline, new stuff, money.

On my out of the studio I met my mate Multi, a security bloke who has his beat nearby. While we were talking, a large and very at-home looking rat picked its way through the junk across the road. “You could shoot that with your gun, Multi” I said. His eyes lit up at the thought. ” Yes, I could, one time! Dead!” He pronounces this like there was a T after the “d”, which underscores the termination of the matter. And then again, gleefully, “DeadT!”

I visited my friend Brian Green in Forest Town  From his stoep you look out over a fine old Joburg garden to the northern suburbs. There are big trees, a pool, and the odd chicken scratching underneath hedges. Brian is one of the good guys. He’s worked out how to turn around urban spaces like 44 Stanley Avenue and make them into going concerns. He’s also collected a good deal of art over the years, and I managed to finally take a digital image of a painting of mine. Its called “Dump Bacchanal” and is a shambolic view of the sad and happy highveld, circa 1997. Not the kind of ending, I guess, that orderley Henk Pierneef would have wanted to see.

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Pierneef’s version of Table Mountain. Puzzling, this. For a while I thought it was the mountain from the Somerset West side (in the pre-Khayalithsa,era of course.) I made discreet appeals for help and my Capetonian friends directed me to the other side. The view is of the mountain from Signal Hill, more or less at the base of Lion’s Head. Pierneef was up to his tricks here again, cannily hiding the left side of the mountain beneath cloud, and obfuscating the receding Apostles on the right. Faced with the often-depicted panorama, he’s zoomed in to make it look like a free-standing peak.

JH Pierneef .Table Mountain. Oil on canvas, c1932

JH Pierneef .Table Mountain. Oil on canvas, c1932

Standing at the site, this is what you see:

The wide angle shot

The wide angle shot

And if you zero in you get this:

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Now what about those hulking great pine trees? A little bit further up the Signal Hill drive, I found them:

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I reckon these pines, the ones in the Pierneef, once extended closer to Table Mountain and have since been cut back or burnt. And of course there’s the cable car enclosure – an extra bit of concrete peak – when did that get built?

I revisited the site on a hot afternoon last week and scrambling over the edge and down a steep slope settled down to a watercolour. I was in another little world here, sitting on a bed of pine needles with the muted sounds of the city below on the left, and a cooling breeze coming over the hill from Camp’s Bay. There were occasional voices of walkers or cars on the road above me to remind me of the parallel world that I’d briefly left behind. And also subliminal fears, like what would happen if I was fallen upon by a crazed Tik- head? These things have happened on the mountain. All I had for self-defence was a blade I use to sharpen my pencils. Mind you, that could do some damage if it it hits the jugular…ag no man, just look at the mountain! Or think of Turner in Venice in 1840, making the world’s most serene and beautiful watercolours, prowling the streets armed with a dagger to fight off the Venetian tsotsis. (Fortunately he never had to.)

At one point, a German couple appeared above me. The man came down a bit, slipping on the pine needles. He scrambled about in the undergrowth, with the woman shouting instructions from above…”ja, das ist schon, nein, das ist nich schon” and so on. I have no idea what they were looking for, but the Teutonic soundtrack was somehow dead right for the Alpine vista. The watercolour came out ok, and I gathered my things together and headed down the hill for a cup of late afternoon tea.


Summer at the Southern tip of Africa. January already gone and one scratches around for direction. The garage is filled with boxes of books and five crates of my paintings, recently returned from Durban. Oh yes, there’s no shortage of things to do, but urgency melts away under the glorious sun. So here’s a fitting little summer poem from that melancholy Englishman Philip Larkin.

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Long lion days

Start with white haze.

By midday you meet

A hammer of heat –

Whatever was sown

Now fully grown,

Whatever conceived

Now fully leaved,

Abounding, ablaze –

O long lion days!

The dirt road to Sutherland, that cold karoo dorpie deep in the interior. I’m driving an antiquated Land Cruiser, all the way to Joburg. Its a slow old beast, rattling and whining like a Bedford truck, but the high-up view is great, and rolling along at 65kph on the dirt is what it lives for.

DSCF6012 (640x480)  Strictly speaking, this has nothing to do with Pierneef. I’m doing this for a friend, and I’m indulging my need for big skies and min mense. The chosen route goes from Hermanus to Sutherland via Ceres, and then across the plains to Fraserburg, then Loxton, Victoria West and on to the N12 to Kimberley. Obscure, yes, but this was once the most direct route to Kimberley, favoured by transport riders taking provisions up to the diamond diggings. I’m also testing my theory that the experience of the Sublime – the sense of awe when confronted by an Alpine vista – is also absolutely to be had from Flatness. There’s that, and there’s the general idea of an end-of-year journey, a time to let stuff percolate. People do drugs, yoga, meditation or whatever to get a sense of perspective, but a road trip is the business in my book.

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DSCF6025 (640x480)The inscriptions on the landscape left by hardy pioneering types have gravitas and tell of long struggles

against the odds. There are small drifts and passes too, getting higher up, and unusual, specific plant forms.

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I was looking at one of these when I heard the dreaded bubbling sound coming from deep within the heart of the beast. Yip, she was boiling. Sunday afternoon, no-one on the road, no cell phone reception, 80ks from Sutherland. I was strangely unconcerned. I had water and food. Oh ja, and pencil and paper. I got a chair out of the back of the car and settled down to my first drawing of the trip. Pierneef would have approved, I’m sure. After a while an old Toyota bakkie came along. Inside it was a man called Anton and his sleepy wife. He said he was a foreman at the nearest farm and was a Kavango from northern Namibia. We drove back to the farm and flushed out the radiator. “You’re gonna make it to Sutherland now, “said Anton, and although I knew he hadn’t fixed the problem I was desperate to believe him.

The Kavango cowboy

The Kavango cowboy

Before you get onto the Sutherland plateau there is 15 ks of uphill starting with the aptly -named Verlorenkloof. I got a long way up that never-ending slope before the needle started spiking again. There I was, with the bonnet open and the day drawing to a close when the next Samaritan appeared. Another farmer and his wife in an old white Toyota bakkie. Staying in the car, with just a hint of a smile on his face, he made the diagnosis: ” Hy kook seker, ne?” Then told me to put the heater on full blast, and it had the magical effect of bringing the needle down straight away. ” Vat it maar kalm,” he said, ” ek volg jou agterna.”

I was impressed, relieved and grateful, and with a magenta light hitting the karoo scrub, I drove into the wide streets of Sutherland. Day One in the Cruiser: I’d met some interesting people and seen some pretty good stuff. And I had a couple of drawings under the belt too. What more can an oke ask for?

Ah, the plateau at last!

Ah, the plateau at last!






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

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




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. (

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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