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.
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.
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!