Our Land | Ons Land
The Johannesburg Station Panels revisited
Paintings by Carl Becker | Photographs by Monique Pelser
University of Stellenbosch Art Gallery |14 April to 12 May 2012
cnr Dorp and Bird Street – Stellenbosch – 021 808 3524/3489
Show statement – Carl Becker:
Chasing the light
In 2006 I was living in Johannesburg, working in Fordsburg and painting the city. The robust environment carried a certain charge, but often the noise and urgency felt chaotic and I was getting tired of living on the edge. On a visit to the Pierneef museum in Graaf Reinet I stood before those big paintings with their monumental forms and subdued hues and realized here was the stasis I craved. I wanted to be in them. For some time I had wanted to reinvent myself as a landscape painter, and here was a way in. The Panels not only offered the allure of the road trip, but also laid down my subject matter for me. And there was something chimerical about this quest: did these idealized images ever exist, or were they fictions to start with?
Seen as a whole, the Station Panels are an imposing body of work. With the broad mandate to paint “places of scenic beauty or historical interest,” Pierneef travelled throughout South Africa, choosing his sites. With the sketches and watercolours made there, he produced 28 canvases within three years, ready for the opening of the new Johannesburg Station in 1932. Here they hung in the concourse, inviting weary commuters to visit the far flung corners of the old Union of South Africa. The bucolic splendour of these uninhabited landscapes gives us a sense of belonging, of home even. But in the intervening 80 years, myriad forms of human busyness were bound to have left their mark. I was looking forward to the search for the remains.
On the master’s turf
I knew, of course, that Pierneef’s work was contested terrain. Several of my contemporaries had gone after him, some reverently, others intent on destruction. And yet Pierneef was in my blood. Two of his woodcuts hanging in my aunt’s farmhouse outside Pretoria were some of the first original landscapes I’d seen. Their graceful and simplified forms seemed to offer a way of depicting the land that was both real and possible. Like it or not, Pierneef is entrenched in the psyche of many artists of my generation. He casts a shadow that demands we take him into account on our way to becoming ourselves.
Land and landscape resonates within us and helps define who we are. Notions of ‘nationality’ – and of home – are sustained by it. But our sense of home is not quite as settled as we would like. We’re given to believe that we all want a modern constitutional democracy with an ever expanding middle class, but we don’t agree on how to get there. On any given day, the newspapers and airwaves are awash with the evidence. On a daily diet of political graft and creeping dysfunction, I was starting to feel more and more uneasy about ‘home’. I had been one of the last whiteys to emigrate from that once bohemian enclave of Yeoville. I was under no illusions as to how quickly ‘home’ can be estranged. I needed to check up on the landscape. I needed to know if it was still there.
I travelled with one eye on the present, but also with a vaguely archeological intent – ferreting through the present moment for hints of the past. I worked outside when I could, drawing and painting in watercolour. There’s a kind of freedom to be had in these old fashioned media – a simplicity and directness you don’t get with digital technology and its endless choices. Outside, you often attract the scrutiny of strangers; suddenly you are under pressure to perform. Or you may go completely unnoticed. The process is difficult – the light is always changing, one is too hot, one is too cold, one is bothered by flies. One cannot find a vantage point in the shade. One is running out of time. But one is always immersed, exposed to a richness and reward. I kept these visual notes as a kind of diary, but back in the studio I was working from photographs too, hoping that the magic of the brushmark would transform often banal imagery into something worth looking at.
The snapshot gives us speed and the frozen moment, but time spent in the landscape offers up hidden subtleties. As I worked at the sites, I noticed obscure little fabrications in the original Pierneefs. In some images, he incorporated different perspectives and even different times of day. Early morning light falls on Rustenburg Kloof, for example, beneath the massed cumulus clouds of a highveld afternoon. As he simplified and flattened he seized on what was crucial in a landscape. He captured the neutral grey greens of fynbos, the umbers and mauves of the karoo, and the chrome greens of burnt bushveld grass in spring. Those colours were either the result of a photographic memory or great faith in his in situ watercolours.
If necessary, Pierneef would shift a mountain to make it conform to his geometric matrix. He was a liar, but I’ve learned that the camera, commonly assumed to tell the ‘truth,’ merely gives us one more rendering of it. These days, I’m inclined to accept the veracity of Pierneef’s confections. His paintings are complex constructions that trigger our recollections of place. They give us the illusion, and we take it. His distortions and simplifications concur with memory in a way that the camera lens, which tends to treat all visual data equally, doesn’t.
A highway runs through it
I never expected to find the idyllic scenes depicted in the Station Panels. If they had ever existed, they would be greatly changed by development, I reasoned. There’s a kind of naïve optimism about the Panels. That sentiment was bound to be obsolete, smothered by the volcanic ash of political and social upheaval.
I didn’t need to look hard for the symbols of a changed political order. The proud acacia in the centre of Rustenburg Kloof is gone: instead there is a small derelict building, perhaps from the 1960s. Once a change room for picnicking white people, it now stands abandoned. The bungalows, in a similar style, were occupied by conferencing union members – the logos on their T shirts uncannily like Afrikaans worker unions of the 1930’s. At the plesieroord in Parys, camping berths with their crumbling braais stand empty except for the occasional transient. The place could do with a lick of paint, but that would not lift the melancholia. Come sundown the manne are still to be found at the riverside, clutching quarts of Black Label around a fire. They are black and listening to kwaito while the Vaal gurgles gently by. The Volk have surrendered the public spaces and withdrawn to the privacy of their game lodges.
In Louis Trichardt, Gerhard Moerdijk’s superb church still stands immaculate. Alongside it is an ugly facebrick building, signaling an aesthetic numbness. Beneath the surface, old hostilities are still at play in the tussle over the town’s name change to Makhado, whose son’s army was defeated by a boer commando that camped on the very site where the church was built. The road snaking through Meiringspoort has been rebuilt several times, and in between the long haul trucks, a density of heat and silence can still impose itself. On the gravel of the Swartberg Pass I narrowly missed cyclists coming down at speed. The once daunting road has been reduced to an afternoon’s time trial.
In the Valley of Desolation, those eternal dolerite columns that Pierneef gives us as proof of an Almighty are now overflown by paragliders: nature as sport rather than church. In the 1930s, driving from Pretoria to Musina took two days. Now it takes four hours. Our sense of scale has changed and with that we have lost our awe.
Beer cans in the river
The world of the Station Panels is safe, almost domesticated. Broken branches are clues to the destructiveness of Nature, but even that is on hold. Sites of conflict, like Majuba or Louis Trichardt, lie before us bathed in light like 17th century Dutch paintings. You may regard these empty landscapes with their rolling fields as the product of a proprietary, colonialist gaze. But time has changed the meaning of both the paintings and the sites themselves. What once was monumental is now vulnerable. The tide of nationalism that held Pierneef close has long since receded. What are we to make of these messages from a lost world?
Working at the sites made me realize Pierneef’s fidelity to his source material. The specificity of plantlife, of cracks in rockfaces, is not the product of a man intent on ideological pursuits. It is the work of someone who believes in the redemptive power of nature. I came to the conclusion that what he had in front of him in the 1930s was a Nirvana of sorts, and it might be more rewarding to see Pierneef not as a manipulator, but as a truth teller. Perhaps the story of these paintings is one of a vision betrayed, both in our dealings with the land and the people on it. Afrikaner Nationalism was spawned by a need to escape the Anglo Saxon reach. Within that, there was a strand that sought a genuine African identity. For Pierneef, this meant study of the art of both San and Bantu people. Close to the Hartbeespoort Dam site is the home of Pierneef’s contemporary Gustav Preller. The modest thatch and stone dwelling blends seamlessly into the surrounding bush. Would Pierneef and Preller have dreamt that the trajectory of Afrikaner Nationalism ends in the imposing towers of the Pelindaba nuclear facility, a stone’s throw away?
Our 21st century sensibility is used to seeing the beer can in the river. We are wary of glossing over such things in the quest for beauty. We are rightly suspicious of Pierneef’s billowing clouds with their promise of rain and renewal. The detritus of progress intrudes on the original sites, yet they are capable of preposterous beauty. The sublime moment can still be had, but those monumental forms and big spaces are shrinking down, reduced by the human figure that was once so absent.
To see Monique Pelser’s work click HERE
From Lion’s Head to Meiringspoort: The Cape Pierneef sites
Paintings by Carl Becker | 8-22 September 2011
Everard Read – Cape Town – 3 Portswood Road, V&A Waterfront | 021 418 4527
Walk-about with the artist Saturday 17 September 2011 at 11am
RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to join in