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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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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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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!

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.”



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.

So in 1870, John Ruskin was installed as Oxford University’s first Fine Arts Professor. Thus was born the modern art institution, where the production of theory is at least as important as knowing the craft of artmaking. And Ruskin wasn’t short of ideas. Or ambition. His inaugural lecture was a call to arms:

“We are undegenerate in race. We have the firmness to govern and the grace to obey. Will you youths of England make your country … a mistress of learning and the Arts? This is what England must do or perish: she must found colonies as fast and far as she is able … seizing every fruitful piece of waste ground she can set her foot on, and there teaching these her colonists that … their first aim is to advance the power of England by land and sea.”

In the audience that day was the young Cecil Rhodes, and we all know how keenly he took up the project:

hier kom Cecil!

Ruskin also thought it important for the youngsters of the chosen race to do a bit of physical work, so he set his students to digging roads. Cecil, who was frail, did not partake, but toiling along with the rest was an icy young man called Alfred Milner. Later on, he got rid of Paul Kruger’s rustic Republic and dragged the Transvaal into the modern age.

With cane in hand. Mr Milner

So what has this to do with Pierneef, I hear you ask? Well, the Boer War was a cataclysm for the Afrikaner people.  Aside from creating a bitter sense of loss, it unified the Volk and gave them heroes.  Those are crucial ingredients for the birth of Nationalism. And Afrikaner Nationalism is a subject that often crops up when Oom Henk is mentioned.

O Hel!


"Traveller looking over a sea of fog"


German painter Casper Friedrich (1774 -1840), was a contemporary of JMW Turner and friend of Goethe. His solitary figures peer into the landscape, inviting us into their world of melancholia and awe. Rather than painting traditional religious subjects, Friedrich depicts the encounter with landscape. It’s no accident that these works emerged as Europe industrialised and the Church weakened. They compensated for the loss of both Nature and God. I don’t know if the godless philosopher Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) ever saw Friedrich’s work, but the solitary mountain wanderer would surely have approved of it.

In the Jura region of France, another lone mountain man and painter was jotting down his sensations: “The clear green streams wind along their well-known beds; and under the dark quietness of the undisturbed pines there spring up such company of  joyful flowers as I know not the like of among all the blessings of the earth”.  John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) was England’s most influential Victorian art critic. He churned out volumes of impenetrable but poetic writing. He hated the demolition of old buildings. He disliked mountaineers. He didn’t like the march of Progress.

But the flower lover was no hippy: “My continual aim has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others … and to show also the advisability of appointing such persons to guide, lead, or even to compel and subdue their inferiors, according to their better knowledge and wiser will.”


Ruskin as an Imperialist. Oil on canvas(2005)


The idea of the Pastoral in painting goes all the way back to the Greeks. There’s a lineage that can be traced to Classical painters like Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665).  You can also regard the pastoral as a sub-tendency of Romanticism. Where the grand romantics like Turner looked for sensations of awe and splendour, the pastoral artist looks to nature for solace and comfort. (English painter John Constable is a good example)

The vastness of the American wilderness was fertile territory for painters of the 19th century. Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) was the first to establish pure landscape as a genre in American painting.

Thomas Cole. The oxbow. 1836

“Not in action, but in repose, is the loftiest element of the sublime…” said Cole, and this sense of repose permeates many romantic landscapes. By the 1920s, American art was starting to assimilate European trends. But the ‘Regionalists‘ like Thomas Benton and Iowa painters Grant Wood (of American Gothic fame) and Marvin D Cone continued the rustic tradition.

Marvin D Cone. Pageantry. 1928

Working far away from the centres of the art universe, like Paris, they looked close to home for inspiration. They rejected the idea of the avante garde, and many actively tried to bridge the gap that had been opened up between painter and public. These regionalists, and others like the Canadian Group of Seven, seem to be Pierneef’s true soulmates. Stylistically, they had taken on the simpifications of Art Deco, but their work looks to the land (and the heavens) for salvation.

J H Pierneef. Hartbeespoortdam.c 1930

sources: G van der Waal Braaksma “Pierneef die Kunstenaar”, Paul Johnson, “Art – A New History”, Oxford companion to Art.

Back down the N9, through Aberdeen and heading for the coast. I stop to take a look at one of those karoo dammetjies, the kind that Kobus Kloppers paints so beautifully:

bel vir kobus

Left at Uniondale and to Knysna via the fabled Prince Alfred pass. Another one of Uberpassbuilder Thomas Bain’s creations, the pass was built in 1867 and is 80k of dirt snaking through the majestic Outeniqua Mountains. I don’t know if Oom Henk took this path on his way to paint the Knysna Heads, but he should have. It’s wild, in an Alpine kind of way. Very…um….German.

Germanicus Africana

Pierneef was the son of a Dutch immigrant to Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic. He spent some of his school years in Holland, and visited Europe again in 1925. He was influenced by Art Nouveau and there are links to Piet Mondrian in the flatness and simplification of planes (and the obsessive renderings of trees). You can place him in the tradition of Northern European Romanicism. While the Francophone painters of the South sought to capture the passing moment, the depressed Northern painters looked to the landscape for something lasting and transcendental. This often involved intense almost scientific study of botany and geology.

Mondrian 'The Blue Tree" 1910

Pierneef, Boomstudies, Waterberg. 1915

After an hour of driving in honeyed afternoon light, you get into the belt of Knysna forest and the tall trees loom. I’m dozing now, tired out by all this beauty. Right at the end of the pass, some wit has left a message:

ja boet, loer is my job

By the mid 1700’s, European landscape painting had fixed pictorial conventions. The aspirant painter would find an appropriate setting, preferably a vista framed by tall trees in the foreground, and get to work. Art critic Robert Hughes has shown how early Australian artists struggled to adapt this scheme to their new world, creating an idealised landscape instead.

Thomas Watling: A direct north general view of Sydney Cove (1794)

In the Cape, Table Mountain and the lush greens of the surrounding forests were certainly “expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture” (W Gilpin, 1792). But as explorers moved inland, they had no aesthetic language for the endless ochre expanse of the Karoo.(They also didn’t have a tar road stretching before them.)

Alongside these notions of the picturesque, there was also the idea of the Sublime. British philosopher Edmund Burke’s “Enquiry into the Origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” (1757) hugely influenced C18th English aesthetic thinking. Burke tried to understand the urge to experience the untamed and awe inspiring aspects of nature, qualities that were sought by the future generation of Romantic painters and poets. According to him, “dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form the grander passions than those which are more clear and determinate.” Poor old boy, he never went to the Karoo and felt his soul expand.

flat as sublime

Coasting up the N2 near Riviersonderend

semi abandoned farmhouse

SA painter Walter Meyer put a lot of chickens in the pot painting this kind of thing.  I can’t help thinking about stopping off to do a quick watercolour. But then I start thinking about the great American watercolourist Andrew Wyeth and his meticulous and chilling images of the deserted heartland (see Christina’s World 1948). Nah. Imagine having the ghost of Wyeth leering over your shoulder while you work. I’m having enough trouble dealing with Henk Pierneef, and he was a genial kind of a guy.

huisie in Suurbraak

Not Valentines day, but Nineteenth Century Romanticism. The Romantic painters responded to the industrial age by looking for the sublime in Nature, a quest that was both aesthetic and spiritual. And even well into the C19th, when the Impressionists were drenching themselves in sunlight, the gloomy Northern Romantic tradition continued. (It’s been argued that Pierneef belongs to this current in European painting.)

I chose to show the harbour buildings overwhelmed by the magnitude of an Atlantic storm: A very Romantic idea.


Old Harbour, Hermanus.


Oil on canvas.60cm x 170cm.2009

Two little views of the Leeu se Kop, the one in the Bo Kaap in February, sweating in the afternoon sun. The other done in March on a nondescript Saturday afternoon. Edward Hopper – a superb watercolourist – was fond of taking a watercolour from behind the frame of the windscreen.

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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