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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

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

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

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

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

flat as sublime

Three years ago I looked on the North side of the Swartberg Pass for the Pierneef site – nothing doing. Its definitely on the south, or Oudtshoorn, side. I take a farm road. No traffic, no cell reception, not much of a road. Probably pretty much how it was for Pierneef in the 30’s.

eensaamheid in die klein karoo

You take it slowly on a dirt road, and that makes you look at where you are. I’m looking at some pretty big mountains, feeling suitably insignificant. I’m sure I’ll find the site near the bottom of the pass, but I don’t. I do a watercolour and carry on up. There’s nothing that looks vaguely like the place I’m looking for, but the Pass is stunning, something new around every corner. Quite near the top I have something to eat and do another watercolour, then head to the top. There’s a fierce wind , so I stay in the car and do a third little watercolour sketch.

view from 'die top'

OK. I’ve got a page of watercolours but no idea where the site is. Perhaps he made it up?

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.

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.

 

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

 

Pierneef’s woodcut of the Hermanus old harbour. His graphic output – woodcuts and linocuts – was huge, and all of it of very high quality.

 

old harbour, woodcut. c1931

 

See my post Down South (below) for a look at his painting of the same. It still looks like this – except for the boats which were washed away in a storm in 2008. And even though the camera tells us the buildings are much smaller, this is far more ‘realistic’. Perhaps it reinforces what we choose to remember? Or reassures us that we are imposing ourselves on Nature?

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.

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

 

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)

 

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

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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