Mr Smith and friends

Down here in the deep South I met an artist called Richard Smith. We found that we both owned Martin acoustic guitars, and we started playing together and called ourselves The Pencilmen , for obvious reasons. Back in the days, Smith had been a cartoonist of some standing, working for the Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Times. Sometime in the 1980s though, the smell of linseed oil proved irresistable, and he picked up the brush. He walked out of the graphic world into a richly coloured canvas, where he made landscapes with densely applied impasto. At the Cite in Paris, Smith took stock and his work shifted, resulting in large charcoal drawings of heads, beautifully done.

In between exploring obscure Bob Dylan songs, Smith has been trying to reconnect with his lost, somewhat repressed inner cartoonist. The big portraits often depicted people in dreamlike states. A grid was supermiposed, and on this grid were placed small icons – bits of torn up paintings, coloured dots,  airborne birds. This moved the head back from the picture plane, as if foregrounding fragments of the inner space of the subject. Given the size of these works, the effect was often imposing and even sombre. But Smith has a sense of humour that will not be denied. He started drawing on large grids, this time wihout the monumental heads. The new drawings are a rogues gallery of characters and situations from a lifetime of observation, rendered by a master of the craft.

Understanding Philip Guston. Oil on board.30x30cm

And out of the drawings there is a series of small oils. They have the  inventiveness of a Philip Guston or Robert Hodgins, where the paint itself guides the painter into obscure (and wicked) realms of memory and association. Rediscovering his levity has led Smith into a seam that promises great riches. Go and see his show. It is at Artspace, 142 Jan Smuts Ave, Joburg. Until 7 June.

Yes, my friends. The show at Stellenbosch opened two weeks ago. We had a good turnout and some sales. Sean o’ Toole gave us a charming opening. He read from his short story about an artist searching for Pierneef sites. The ghost of Pierneef appears to scoff at the idea, to scoff at his own paintings even. I enjoyed that. Several times, alone, quasi lost and staying in dubious lodgings, I too have felt the sniggering of Oom Henk over my shoulder.

the marathon, day 2

Hanging this show was gruelling, with a lot of archaic twiddling of fishing line and a good deal of hammering. It took Monique and I, ably assisted by one Anton Chapman, a full four days to get it looking right. After the flutter of the opening I went through to Stellies several more times and then tuned out. With my frozen shoulder hurting like hell, and clutching a copy of James Whyle’s The Book of War, we headed to the nether reaches of the Overberg.

On the pont at Malgas

Two days under the big sky at De Hoop was good medicine, but I still needed to get further away. We went across the pont at Malgas and on dirt through stony farmland to Witsand. There were jackal buzzards and blue cranes. The farmhouses were neat and well kept. Aside from a crazed Telkom van narrowly missing us at high speed, there was no one about. We could have been in the 1970s. We went on past Vermaaklikheid to the remote outpost of Puntjie, which has cottages dating from the 1890s. The fynbos was broken by tall aloes as we ascended the last hill and got to a firmly locked farm gate. Clever bastards, keeping Nirvana to themselves. Cathy and I took a picnic lunch of bread, cheese and cold wors and then turned back home…

the mythical kingdom of Puntjie

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

November 2011. I’m on my way to find the mythical forest of Houtbos. That’s a long way north of Hermanus, and a lot empty space ahead.

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I stopped over in that little known centre of culinary excellence called Hopetown. Following a tip-off from the locals, I went looking for supper at the cafe at the BP garage, where they were well stocked in vetkoek, cold hard boiled eggs and pink viennas. But I chose one of these for R12. It was superb.

What to eat in Hopetown

In the morning I went through grasslands and thorn trees to Kimberley. I have an obscure route through the mieliefields and dorpies to Gauteng. Beyond Boshoff, I start hitting potholes, about 200 kilometres worth of them. I have to watch the road carefully now, and can’t look away as much as I like to. Resenting this, I start thinking bad thoughts about our democracy. I’m going to Parys, the first stopoff on my way to finding several sites I haven’t been to yet. The Jeep suspension is getting hammered, but at least I have Pierneefian trees to make me feel better…

Ah, so much better than fynbos!

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

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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Home, oil on linen 23 x 30 cm

1. It is 1998. The painter is on a dusty Karoo road. He is driving an old kombi, the map book lying open on the floor behind him. There is a boy with a dog on the road. The painter gives them a lift to a farm many kilometres away. Later, at home in Jo’burg, the map book falls open. On a page, there is a paw print left in dried blood. The painter remembers the dog.

2. The painter is on the road between Whittlesea and Aberdeen. The trivia of everyday life starts to dissipate and he feels his soul expanding into those large spaces. It is 10.30 am, the time he usually takes his dog for a small walk around the corner. He pictures the dog at home, curled up and alone.

3. The painter has a dog at last. He is visited by a friend, a prolific artist and painter of many dog portraits, including Paris Hilton’s dog, no less. He comments on the fine form of the beast and takes a photograph. He says she would make a fine subject for a painting. In order to avoid the ignominy of having his dog painted by another artist, the painter makes a work of her.

4. Pierneef’s home in Pretoria. Called Elangeni (place of the sun), it was built in the late 30s using stone and thatch from the area. Sad to say, the pic was taken after Pierneef’s death and so we don’t know who that mutt on the left belonged to. But I have no doubt he would have approved of the Africanis on the basis of its indigenous aesthetic appeal.

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.

'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

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

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!
In country music there is always someone walking the line, as my friend Richard Smith observed. Bob Dylan wrote a song about it and so of course did Johnny Cash. The line your blogger is walking right now runs from his studio straight through to September 8th, the date of his first Cape Town exhibition. The travels with Pierneef are now mainly in the confines of the studio as the brush meanders back and forth covering its tracks and time skids away. Small sketches proliferate in an attempt to pin down ideas for paintings. They help to quell the rising tide of panic.
 Note for a Hermanus site painting

I’m doing a biggish oil of the Hermanus site – it consists of seven small images. After three days I had three small images in place. Like a happy construction manager I was even figuring how many more hours it would be before the painting was done. But by day four, things suddenly started to look wrong. The canvas was cluttered and kind of formulaic in its intention. The thing that Hemingway called the “crap detector” was starting to ring, and I had to press  the Delete button. Day one, two and three’s efforts were painted over.  Day four’s too. It wasn’t their fault. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I’m giving one of them a second life:

 the virtual fishing party

The saying “to walk the line” originates in the American Midwest. In the days of railway construction, parched and hungry construction workers would walk the line for miles, checking that all the beams were in place. Ahem. Your crap detector should be warming up now. I have no idea where it comes from. But it’s a good way of describing the need to make aesthetic or other judgement calls. And I’ll let you know how the big one turns out…

looking for the line...

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.

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…. 

Us artists are a cannibalistic lot.  The myth of the lone creator rules, but the truth is we are constantly nibbling away at each other’s work, taking up bits and pieces that suit our needs. We even have a word for this polite thieving between artists – it’s called “referencing.”  Referencing is complimentary: I like your idea, your brushstroke, your colouration so much that I am unable to stop myself trying to emulate it. Our peers may be hard to resist, but there is also the weight of tradition. Hundreds of years of brilliant painters to look at, all better than you. No wonder young Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache and goatee on the Mona Lisa.

In our little South African artworld, the equivalent gesture of punk outrage must surely be Wayne Barker‘s Pierneef paintings. Back in the late 1980s, Barker, fueled by alcohol and seething with righteous anger at the apartheid system, set about defiling Pierneef.  He took the hallowed landscapes and inserted into them all manner of subversive imagery. Fuck you, Apartheid overlords with your nostalgic ideas of the land! Fuck you, artists who cosy up to the Nats!

Barker’s work attacked the comfortable notion that landscape painting exists outside of politics and history. (The good theorists of the left, who had long deplored the absence of any reference to the Relations of Production in Pierneef’s work, were happy.)

Like so many before and since, here was a young artist taking aim at the establishment. But the thing about the artworld is its ability to incorporate the new pretender as well as the old Master. One may have thought 27.04.94 signaled the start of a clean out of the old white icons, an ushering in of the new. And yet, after a brief pause, the market in Pierneefs continued to rise. He is bought, studied, preserved and debated. And quite a few of us painters can’t stay away.

Your blogger, dear reader, is still marooned in the land of wordlessness. Fortunately some watercolours have been coming out of the studio. Here are the four new ones, to be exhibited at Bamboo in Melville this weekend.

Our Land 2 23x20cm

Our Land 23x20cm

Le Dejeuner Sur...... 21x21cm

Dealmakers 23x20cm

Ja. Sunday morning and I’m off to take a pic of the summer morning light on the old harbour in Hermanus.  The shadows in Pierneef’s painting of the harbour tell us that is when he did his sketches. It’s a beautiful day and there are bright yellow kayaks paddling across a placid sea.

spot the kayak

What is on my mind, however, is that I need to do a blog posting, and I’m expecting a call any moment from my blog coach, who lashes me if I don’t do a weekly posting. What should I write about? My recent sortie to Cape Town and the elusive Cape sites? The almost-getting-to-find the Stellenbosch site? A detour into Bellville and its period piece houses? Or should I write about an old trip to Louis Trichardt? Which way to jump?

meanwhile in Bellville...

Coach, I need a bit more time to think about this. A bit of time on the couch with the Sunday papers might help to ease the blogger’s block.

the blogger,blocked

That there is my new best friend, Lulu. Hoping the old bastard will go for a walk.

Despite the charm of the house, I headed back onto the highway with a vague sense of loss. My conversation with Hans wasn’t all that optimistic, to tell you the truth. He doesn’t share his grandfather’s sense of permanence. He feels his children’s future may lie elsewhere, perhaps out of Africa. And then, cutting into the lane in front of me, my subject appeared. It was a little dented and moving quite fast.

White taxi 23 x 20 cm, watercolour

The minibus is not known for its respect for the rules of the road. To your average whitey, the minibus represents the End of The World As We Know It. Over the years, I’ve rendered a few of them. Initially it was a way of neutralising an irritant. (Painting can do this, for the artist and the viewer.) Later it became another little pathway to acceptance. In the Fordsburg studio though, the din from the hooting taxi could stretch your tolerance. Torrents of abuse would flow from the balcony onto Main Street. Sometimes the artists were known to flick paint from their brushes onto the offenders below.

The artist's revenge: Gridlocked by paint

Once, sketching at a taxi rank in the Jo’burg CBD, a man stood behind me and watched me draw. “Eish! You can say that is dangerous!” said he. I never worked out if he meant the drawing or the taxi. But I like the idea of a dangerous drawing. And the thing is, now that these dangerous little vehicles are being replaced by those lumbering high roofed ones, they’ve acquired a certain sentimental value. They’re becoming relics, symbols of an era. Rather like a Pierneef painting.

The first taxi painting - 1991, oil on board

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.

I took a spin to Camps Bay to look at Rose Korber‘s annual Summer Salon, an event that has been on the Cape Town art calender for the past 19 years. At Rose’s fine Camps Bay home you’ll see works by some of our trusty old campaigners (Kentridge, Nhlengethwa, Hodgins, Bell) as well as some newer kids on the block. I admit to a certain bias in favour of my guitar compadre Richard Smith, his quadrangle of works had a certain authority:

Smith interrupted by Willie Bester

The walls are packed with work, and if you’re looking for the crisp clean lines of the modern gallery, this isn’t it. What you find here are unexpected gems, and a mix of new and older work: A set of six Hanneke Benadé pastels, a 1997 Simon Stone, a fine little Debbie Bell lithograph. The Prime Minister of South African art was also strongly represented: sets of “Nose” etchings and a very fine set of new “West Coast” etchings.

Detail, Simon Stone "sinkers"

From Mr Stone’s obsessive sinker – painting days. The thing about these paintings for me is the crazed commitment to the act of observation where the painter sets out to prove the idea that painting can transform the most mundane of things. And succeeds.

"Skinner" - Hanneke Benadé

I can never stop myself going up close to look at Benadé’s pastels. They’re so bloody immaculate! With a medium that lends itself to bright saturated hues (brilliantly used by Zwelethu Mtethwa), Benadé has moved over the years to making rich, meditative works that seem close to Seventeenth Century Dutch painting. In the stairwell there were some oils by Colbert Mashile, a young and promising painter of enigmas whom I like.

By the way, Rose told me that sales could have been better. What’s going on here, all you investment bankers? The days of stock markets are over – your money will probably outperform in art – and it’ll be a lot safer! Koop kuns mense!

The year rolls gently to a close. Your blogger has been laid up with a touch of summer influenza. Not an altogether unpleasant experience, dozing off while outside the wind brings in some overdue rain.

I’ve been ploughing through Denys Reitz’s superb trilogy, Adrift on the Open Veld. Commando is the classic memoir of the Boer War. And his subsequent soldierings through East and West Africa and the First World War are a vivid account of hell, breezed through in high spirits. Later, as a Member of Parliament, Reitz travelled widely in SA and there were frequent political meetings on the platteland. These often ended  – or began – in fisticuffs, heckling and chair throwing, such was the enmity between Jan Smuts’ followers and General Hertzog’s fervent Afrikaner Nationalists. Does this ring any bells, COPE, ANCYL etc?  Finding the present reflected in the past is comforting. In this case at least, we continue a proud tradition of misbehaviour.

As the nation prostrates itself beneath the sun, we get a break from the deal makers and turf pissers who so vocally thrust themselves into our psychic space. You know the ones. There’s a brief lull as they emerge from their tinted German sedans to sun themselves. Enjoy it while you can, for they shall be back…

tuscan townhouses anyone?

Of course, finding these sites means I can see what Pierneef had in front of him. But I also have the chance to see the 360 degree view, to see what got left out. On my right at Rustenburg Kloof there are modest kuierplekkies. They look like they’re from the late fifties or early 60s.

kuierplekkie met besige grassnymannetjies

There are also facebrick dwellings from the 70s or 80s, ok, but not very attractive. I notice they’re occupied not by your customary paleskinned weekenders, but by black okes wearing bright yellow T-shirts with trade union logos. The kind of people the white braaivles people used to put in jail. Straight ahead, in exactly the spot where Pierneef put that grand thorn tree, there is a little building. It looks like a change room perhaps.

spot the symbol

They are also in a kind of a sixties style, but they’re crumbling.  A bit like the Pelindaba parking lot. The young patriots that used to come out here to hike and swim in the river have all grown and up and gone to work in Canada. But these aren’t the first regime changes these cliffs have seen. In his memoirs of the Boer War, Jan Smuts writes eloquently of the Magaliesberg, of the carnage and change that war brought to these valleys. He recalls how the original inhabitants, called the Magatse, were ruthlessly slaughtered by Mzilikazi’s  invading hordes and concludes: “Truly the spirit that broods over Magaliesberg is one of profound pathos and melancholy….I had borne in upon me as never before that haunting melancholy of nature, that subtle appeal to be at rest and cease from the futility of striving.”

Rustenburg kloof. oil on canvas.50x60cm

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 Hartbeespoort Dam Station Panel.

I found this site easily enough. It’s on the R514 as you head towards the dam. The day I was there (for I am not there now, dear reader) was the end of a long weekend and the whole of fun seeking Gauteng was roaring back to Egoli with boats, bikes, caravans and jetskis in tow. Nevertheless, I put on the suntan lotion and got down to work. The noise coming up from the road started pissing me off after a while, but in the stolen quiet moments I realised The Thing, and that is that what Henk had before him was Nirvana, no less, and that we, in our headlong rush toward comfort, acquisition and consumption, are screwing it up. Behind the rash of Tuscan townhouses that ring the Dam, the water glows an eerie green. Cyanobacteria – a malevolent and toxic algae – flourishes in this sewage laden water. You wouldn’t really want to go waterskiing there.

"Hartbeespoortdam" oil on canvas. 30 x 100cm

It was in a nearby hotel that Pierneef was to meet his second wife. It’s been noted that around that time, too, his work and career began to flourish. The stabilising influence of a good woman on the daydreaming artist, no doubt.

The redoubtable Mrs P

I met a woman last year who had rented one of the rondavels at the Pierneef’s Pretoria home in the 1940s. The young couple admired Pierneef’s work, and, at one of his home exhibitions, scraped together the money to buy one of his watercolours.  But, announcing that “Henk’s paintings must only hang in the finest homes in Pretoria,” Mrs P cancelled the sale. Eina.

Over the hill and through the deserted Pelindaba parking lot.

Nature creeping into the cracks in the tarmac left by retreating Nuclear geeks. In his book “Of warriors, lovers and prophets,” Max du Preez tells us that the name Pelindaba means the debate (or problem) is finished. An atom bomb would be a good way of closing an argument, it’s true. But for now the argument is kind of shut down while we work on new Nationalisms and new debates. Across the Hartebeespoort Dam wall there are a whole lot of interesting businesses on the go. Next to the curio, fruit and sunglass vendors, large African animals proliferate.

try sawing off this horn

Kind of better than a stuffed rhino, I guess. Nevertheless there is something a bit post nuclear meltdown about these beasties. I put them into a modified version of Pierneef’s Hartebeespoort Dam painting and called it “Pelindabadiere.”

"pelindabdiere" Gouache. 20 x25 cm

Pierneef parking out on the stoep with Gustav Preller, sometime in the 30’s. I stopped off at Preller house on the way to find the Hartbeespoort Dam site. Preller, a pioneer of Afrikaans, edited Ons Vaderland and wrote a book on Piet Retief and other volumes on the Voortrekkers. His house is on a sunlit koppie with views of the Magaliesberg to the North. The use of nearby stone, slate and thatch makes a dwelling that perfectly fits its surroundings.

preller se plek

The place is a bit run down and there’s no-one else around. Around the back there’s a courtyard and some rondavels.

It was in one of these that the poet and naturalist Eugene Marais, worn down by decades of morphine addiction, spent his last days. The scale, shape and colour of the dwellings is deep South African, the work of people  in touch with their landscape. There’s a modesty of scale here that reflects early Afrikaner Nationalism, if you like. And just over the hill is the nuclear research facility of Pelindaba – the love child of a rampant lust for power.

Rustenburg Rhino. Watercolour. 23x 20cm

Once a year, former academic Leon Strydom hitches a trailer to his Citroen panel van and sets off to visit artist’s studios all over the country. Leon owns the Strydom Gallery in George. Although George isn’t exactly known as an art buyer’s destination, artists tend to respond to Mr Strydom’s dedication and he comes back from his travels with a load of work that makes up his annual Summer Show. So this week I got sidetracked into a flurry of paper staining and made some work for him, even though I should be putting them in the box marked “Solo show, Stellenbosch University Art Gallery, May 2011”  Which is sooner than anybody thinks!

An Eland in the Poort. Watercolour. 23 x20cm

The young Pierneef. A romantic and a dreamer, by the look of things. An earnest young artist who admired  – even copied – the rock paintings of the Bushmen. Who felt the art of the Ndebele and the San would be a good starting point for the evolution of an authentic South African art. At the same time, he took in modern European art movements. Back from Paris and Holland in 1925, he knew he could be a vanguard South African painter. But his 1927 show in Jo’burg, full of startling geometric abstractions, didn’t sell a thing. Earning a living from his brush, and with no other means of support, he retreated. His next show in Pretoria, of more moderate work, was a sell out. In 1929 the Johannesburg Station commission was given to him. That was followed by a commission to do murals in South Africa House in London. He was now the Establishment man. His shows were consistently successful.  No bohemian or avante garde outrage here. The public liked what they saw and voted with their chequebooks. “Jy moet saamry op die wa met jou volk,” said Pierneef.  In a sense, he also taught people to see the landscape. And laid down a template for the following generation of painters. He identified with a group of people who became very powerful in his lifetime.  Does that make his art – his vision – a Nationalist vision?

sources: Nel, Pierneef, Sy lewe en sy werk.

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)

 

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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