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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

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Pelser in action

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

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

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

the pencil has the last word

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.

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

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

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

the reverse angle c 1930

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

not a lot

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

Damaraland Dave on the 27th floor

On Monday I took it as my Human Right to search for a Pierneef site, and went through to Stellenbosch. I was here about a year ago and after a cursory drive through the town, I took the road up the Jonkershoek valley, for that is where “Die Pieke” are.

Stellenbosch. JH Pierneef 140x126cm

Freed slaves were farming here in the early 1700s. Later, the valley was found to be good for grapes. Vineyards lay alongside the road in the late summer heat. I scanned the valley for suitable dwellings, keeping an eye out for cyclists. I took the turnoff to Lanzerac Estate. Before me stretched vast lawns and a graceful old homestead, with well heeled diners to the left and Dylan Lewis cheetahs guarding the doorway.

close but no cigar

Given that uncle P often manipulated his subject matter for compositional ends, this seems like a good bet. The buildings may have been modified since the 30s, but that gable is just way too ornate. I headed on up the road to the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve and a fine old fashioned tearoom where the cyclists stretch their legs. I took a turn to the right into a place called Assegaaibos. Here was the gabled homestead hemmed in by a low wall and big oak trees. The peaks towered behind, and there were even low sheds nearby. But it just wasn’t laid out quite the way the painting says it should be. Does this house exist, or is this another of Oom Henk’s confections? The quest continues…. 

J H Pierneef. Klipriviersberg, Alberton 140x126cm

Pierneef’s Alberton station panel. You can see this majestic house from the N12, the highway skirting Joburg’s southern extremities. Getting close to it is a different story. I lurched through a wasteland of barricaded nouveau Tuscan townhouses for at least an hour before finding the secret entrance into the lost world.

not this way

nor this

At the bottom of the koppies were signs of an ancient civilisation – one that had tilled the soil and ridden the horse.

I made my way past many outbuildings to the great house. There I was lucky to meet the lord of the manor, a certain Hans Meyer. Hans’ grandfather once owned vast land here – hence the nearby town of Meyerton, south on the R59. The house, built in 1881, was one of the finest in the old Transvaal. Here, despite being rudely engulfed by highways, Hans continues the tradition of farming and horse breeding.

casa Meyer

The Meyer patriarch put down some serious roots here. The metalwork was imported from England. Hans told me that Pierneef and his grandfather were friends. He would have stopped off here on his way to Henley-on-Klip and the Vaal river. He probably walked up the koppies in front of the farm to get his vantage point.  The highway is there now. I doubt if those tall trees that frame his painting ever existed – they’re put there to lead the eye into the perfect world beyond.

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

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.

INBOX:

OUTBOX:

20x20cm Oil on canvas panels

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

So there’s no site. But I’ve got a tea date with George and Sheila Coutouvidis and I start the downhill glide. Its 20 kilometres of downhill all the way to Prince Albert.  I took the bicycle ride down a few years ago. You pay a guy in PA to take you up in his shiny Toyota. {Make sure your bike brakes are in good working order.}

This is what I’m looking for:

"Swartberg Pass" J H Pierneef c 1930

It’s not one of his best panels.  We get a sense of the size of the mountains, but there’s no drama here somehow. There’s a lack of illumination, no light source. The key to finding the site is the road of course. It curves around two hills, and there’s a hint of a river just off to the right. I’m halfway down the pass already and I happen to glance to my right and there it is:

at last!

I stop the car and let out a yell (as one does when finding a Pierneef site.) I’m in exactly the right spot. It’s about 3.30pm and there’s no direct sunlight anymore. That explains the lack of light too. Fantastic. But now I’ve got to go and have tea with George and Sheila. (Double click the pic and you should be able to see the second curve of the road clearly.)

From De Rust you cross Spookdrif, Skansdrif, Damdrif, Boesmansdrif, Skelmkloofdrif, Aalwyndrif, Nooiensboomdrif and there it is, Dubbele Drif se draai:

jh pierneef. Meiringspoort

Following the curve of the road, this is the right place. It seems as if the river’s on the right, but if you look closely its running onto the road from the left. The river now runs under the road. And that large boulder is indeed there. Because of the new bridge, I can’t get as close as he was, so the cliffs seem less towering. The light coming in from the east tells me he was here early on a summer morning. At this time of year it only gets a touch of late afternoon light.

Dubbele d se draai, 2010

I’m glad that the decision about what to paint in the Poort has already been made for me, because there’s a bewildering majesty to this place and I wouldn’t know where to start. But that thing I said about the silence isn’t strictly true. There are quite a few big trucks winding through here. And some of them like to hoot at the weird oke in the hat painting next to the road, which makes me jump.

With our blogger’s computer ostensibly fixed, some pics of the recce to Stellenbosch. What I was looking for:

 

Stellenbosch station panel

 

Driving into the town from the south the mountains were curiously shy, even absent. I ended up in the dorp itself, dodging Sunday morning churchgoers and Dylan Lewis cheetahs. Eventually I sniffed out the yellow leafed road to Jonkershoek. That’s where the mountain is:

 

the purple mountain

 

I kept on up the valley and at the end there were many cyclists and a nature reserve. I was too close to the mountain by now, but did this watercolour anyway. Its not very good but hell it was lekker up there in the Autumn sunlight.

 

retro - moderno - H20

 

Since our man often combined different views in a single image, (like the exaggerated buildings in the Hermanus panel) I figured in the Lion’s Head panel he’d done the same. So I started close to it and worked my way backwards to the water and the Postmodern malaise down by the docks….

 

Lion's Head (with a Damien Hirst dot)

 

 

scratching around...

 

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.

For a few years now I’ve been on a mission to find and document the original sites of Pierneef’s station Panels. The paintings, done in the early 1930’s originally hung in the Joburg Station but are now housed in the Pierneef Museum in Graaf Reinet. There are 28 landscapes. Pierneef was in his early 40’s when he did them and they represent a highpoint in his career – the point where subject matter, content and style coalesce into something really strong. They secured his place as SA’s leading painter and ensured a widespread popularity.

Today we tend still to look at them and sense that they convey the essence of the landscape. By revisiting the sites, I’m trying to find out what’s left of them – how much remains after 80 years of development? Does Pierneef’s sense of those places still exist? Are they really as grand as he made them or was he a hopeless Romantic?

HOW TO DO IT?

It took me a while to figure out that I would do work that relates to the site itself and then work that relates to Pierneef’s original paintings. When I get to a site, I do watercolours and drawings as an initial response. Later in the studio I work up paintings from photographs. But there’s also a set of works that responds to Pierneef’s paintings. These usually take the form of a modified Pierneef – the original injected with some image that seems appropriate to the place.

RUSTENBURG KLOOF

The first place I went to, about 2 hours NW of Jo’burg. Easy enough to find – it’s on the map. It’s a ‘plesieroord’ with well tended lawns and bungalows. The cliff face stares right out at you and looking at Pierneef’s original painting, it was easy to figure out exactly where he was when he did the initial studies. (He did hundreds of preparatory drawings.)

This is Pierneef’s original Rustenburg Kloof Panel:

 

Rustenburg Kloof. Oil on Canvas. 141cmx126cm

 

This is my oil painting of the site:

 

Rustenburg Kloof. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm.

 

And this is the modified version:

 

Biker 3, watercolour 17.5 x 13.5 cm

 

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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carlbecker.art@gmail.com

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