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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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
c1931

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

Wat kyk JY?

Wat kyk JY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boeredisney in Parys

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

Not a painting in sight

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

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

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

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

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'n hele klomp kleintjies

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

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

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

behind the scenes

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

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

Cad Red

Mr Miles

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

the tonal woodcut

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

the moment captured

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

Mr Jonker

In an artworld full of hype and commercialism, the B’bos Art Route offers a glimpse into a rare authenticity. These artists are committed to place and practice – and their homes and families are evidence that they are thriving. Vorentoe, B’bos kêrels!

Early Autumn is harvest time in the Western Cape. We set off to the Solms-Delta Oesfees in Franschhoek. We went around the big mountains with young Lulu on the back seat. As we pulled into the Tokara wine estate for a snack, Lulu spewed up her breakfast. Hoping to find a dustbin nearby, I headed off past the well heeled diners on the patio, carrying a Checkers packet full of dog vomit. There was no dustbin outside or in the hyper chic interior. I ordered a muffin from the sleek haired waitress, unable to ask for assistance. Clutching a heated muffin and the Checkers bag I wandered back outside to Cathy and Lulu, who were huddled amongst the olive trees, near our battered old Polo. Talk about lowering the tone, ekse.

In Franschhoek we stayed with our painter friend Kerri Evans. She first showed at the Everard Read in Jo’burg about 15 years ago, when she was living in India.  Her portraits of Indian people were beautifully rendered, exotic and very appealing. The Johannesburgers voted with their cheque books and Evans was on her way.

Le atelier de Evans

Evans has concentrated on portraiture and the figure. What draws you into her work is the sheer painterliness of it. One knows, looking at an Evans portrait, that this is a likeness – often meticulously rendered – but at the same time there’s a looseness, a revelling in the brushwork and the sheer possibilities of paint. The human figure and face are a pretext, a point of departure for Evans’ real concerns, which are not unlike those of abstract painters. In abstract painting, the ‘subject’ of the work is often the process of painting itself. Scrutinise an Evans painting and you will see any number of glazes, blurrings and overpaintings: you will be looking at a record of how the thing was arrived at.

Whereas a lot of us painters make use of a grid or an overhead projector to transfer our original image onto the canvas, Evans does no preliminary drawing. Using flat brushes, the forms are laid in loosely in thin washes: after many alterations and additions the image is arrived at. For those who think Evans is a methodical kind of painter who knows a trick or two about covering her tracks, the reverse is true. She says she starts every painting not knowing how she did the last one and if she can do it again. Evans has never been comfortable working on canvas – she prefers the super smooth surface of prepared masonite and has recently discovered working onto unprimed metal sheets – a highly stable surface if ever there was one.

what, no canvas?

There is an awful lot of bad painting in the world, a lot of it given more importance than it deserves. Evans works in the long tradition of figurative painting. But within those confines, she is pushing back boundaries. Her work deserves to last.

A little to the West of the platinum boomtown is the fabled Rustenburg Kloof. This is a popular picnic site and Plesieroord, where the lawns around the 60’s style bungalows are well watered and trimmed. Knowing the site from my own reworkings of the original Pierneef, I found the exact spot right away. Of all 28 Station Panels, Rustenburg Kloof may just be the best. The Pierneefian formula of a melancholic landscape underneath huge building clouds can get too obvious at times, but here it is very strong.

J H Pierneef. Rustenburg Kloof. Oil on canvas.140x126cm

Careful, mathematical composition is a hallmark of the panels. They’re also very strongly circular – the arch of the clouds finds an echo in the ochre earth. The circle is reinforced by the use of tone – so we are drawn to the centre by that very light Naples yellow behind the thorn tree. Also, the cliff seems immense behind the contours of the central dark areas – there’s no middle ground to give us a sense of its scale.

this be the place

That bit of tarmac covers a small bridge running over the river, barely discernable in the original on the left. The tree to the left may or may not have been there 80 years ago. Either way, he chose to put in a thorn tree instead. In the late morning light, it looks good but ordinary compared to the high drama of the Pierneef. The afternoon light above the rockface makes it look craggy and pitted – nothing like that smooth expanse of rock in the painting. The Pierneef is based on an early morning light. And you wouldn’t see those clouds early in the day. Aha, another of Oom Henk’s little manipulations.

We take it for granted that the camera shows us what is “real”. But it only captures a moment. Pierneef gives us a highly stylised version of the world, but it conveys a reality far truer to our memory and our emotional recall of the South African landscape.

watercolour. 20 x 25 cm

Back up to the Valley the next day, but this time I stay further back in order to get the long view. You can park here and walk up to view Spandau Kop. To the right is the Valley. You also may find paragliders launching themselves into the afternoon thermals.

"yee ha!"

There’s a kind of a contrast between Pierneef’s foreboding stone columns and the jauntines with which they throw themselves into the air. Pierneef’s painting demands that we regard God’s handiwork with reverence and awe. We are put in our place by the monumentality of the forms. And here we are in the 21st century, treating nature as our playground. But this has none of the intrusiveness of, say, quadbiking – there’s a graceful loop through the air. The view from up there must be awesome. I’d love to do it.

JHPierneef. Graaff Reinet. 140x 148. oil on canvas

Walking a bit off the road and a bit closer, I seem to be in the right place. The shadows on the original painting tell us there was an afternoon light falling on those stone pillarsMy little watercolour also picks up on that yellowish sky. Pierneef obviously had a lot of confidence in his working drawings as well as his colour notes. Again, they seem very accurate. And he’s made a very good  job of imposing order on that chaotic jumble of rocks and vegetation at the bottom of the valley. As the shadows lengthen, I suddenly notice the expanse of space to my left. It’s vast, but stitching together a number of photographs, it’s paintable. That’s my version of the Valley of Desolation

'Valley of Desolation" 30 x 100cm oil on canvas

As you head up Graaf Reinet’s main road, there’s an impressive church but the one we want is just before you get to it, in a lane on the right. In there are the reasons for my journey. Completed in 1931, they hung in the concourse of the brand new Jo’burg station. They were meant to encourage the railway commuter to buy the long distance ticket and see the scenic virtues of South Africa.  They got dirty and after some restoration by the artist went to the Jo’burg Art Gallery. And then in 2002 they were installed in the Pierneef Museum in Graaf Reinet, under the care of the Rupert Art Foundation.

die Pierneef kerk

There are 28 landscapes and four small vertical panels of indigenous trees. I’ve spent a bit of time in here and every time I see the work again I marvel at the achievement. This isn’t the Sistine Chapel, but it is a remarkable body of work for two reasons: It was completed in a three year timespan, travels included, and without the aid of colour photography as a reference. [Us modern painters are hopelessly dependant on our digital cameras. Oom Henk worked up his paintings from dozens of sketches and watercolours.]  Secondly, the aesthetic of Pierneef was developed in virtual isolation. Most major modern artists and styles emerged out of some sort of collective effort. Pierneef ‘s response to the landscape didn’t build on an existing local tradition. It seems to have come out of nowhere.

the inner sanctum

Over the mountains to De Rust tomorrow to pay my respects to famille Niebuhr. Then into nearby Meiringspoort, watercolours at the ready.

 

the C19th digicam

 

Don’t worry, I’ve got another block of Quinacridone Red (top right).

If I find an internet cafe in De Rust, dear Reader, I shall make a posting or two. Otherwise see you in about twelve days time….

I leave you in the good hands of this fellow traveler

 

Croc man and curio. gouache on paper.

 

What emerged out of that was the recolouration I’d been hoping for (you don’t quite know what it is, but you recognise it when you see it.) I also lost some lekker paintings within paintings

 

lost Picasso sculpture

 

Then there was the small matter of The Sea, the dreaded sea. After numerous false starts I remembered Anton Chapman‘s advice about putting down a base of deep red. He has painted a lot of sea and knows his stuff. A layer of Venetian Red and some editing decisions later:

 

Red Sea

 

And after quite a bit more tweaking:

 

Cape Town Personae

 

The beast is laid to rest at last.

OK hopefully now these okes will not disappear into hyperspace when I press the ‘Post’ button …

 

really a nice bloke at heart

 

 

me too

 

I liked these guys

and now they at least

have a virtual

if not a paint life!

 

Painterly discontent.  Unhappiness with the colouration as well as an inability to resolve the compositional challenges leads our humble painter over the edge!

I don’t know what the hell happened to that last post! It’s Sunday night and I’m getting irritated, so here’s a quick look anyway at the full painting, at the point where it gets really interesting.

 

the long shot

 

Well here they are – and some got away from the painting and now only have a virtual life!

 

aging groover quits town 2 This is what's known as becoming a victim of your imagination. Suddenly the painting could go in any direction (as well as downhill): the long shot.

 

I finally figured that JHP was down by the docks – at something called Berth A. After wheedling my way past security, I felt sure this was the site: a view across the water of Lion’s Head with some industrial buildings in the foreground. Back in the studio I started rendering the panorama in a fairly loose but literal kind of way, laying in the details happily unaware that I was about to ambushed by a whole range of dubious characters….

 

Lion's Head (detail)

 

Hermanus – my home town for the last two years – is the southernmost site.

Two things strike me about about this panel: He made the buildings look a lot larger than they are, and the total absence of the human figure. In those days the harbour was a hive of fishing activity. The photographic museum nearby has great pics from those days of trophy fishermen alongside their monsters from the deep. Now, sadly, you’d be hard pressed to find fish in Walker Bay. Except of course for whales. Which aren’t supposed to be fish….

 

Hermanus

 

Cape summer hues:  Those what-colour-is-that grey greens of the Cape mountains in summer. And the ubiquitous mauve. Pierneef got those mountains in the background dead right.

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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