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A little trip up to Jo’burg is one of the reasons why I haven’t been posting. The other is that while I was there I got a rash from hell that drove me to distraction. Apparently it’s common practice for bloggers to post their rashes, but I’ll spare you that. In Jo’burg I met a photographer called Monique Pelser, and she too has been photographing the Pierneef sites. Which goes to prove that if you have an idea, you can be sure someone else is having it at exactly the same time. Monique tells me the Pierneef museum is moving to Stellenbosch. I’m trying to confirm.

If you are ever in Graaff Reinet, the taxidermist across the way from the Pierneef Museum is worth a look. They keep the main door closed though, as if to discourage casual enquiries or bunny huggers:

standing room only

I also encountered this bloke, who makes finely crafted greeting cards out of beads and wire.

He has a congratulatory sales technique: “Well done, I’m proud of you,” he says when you buy a card. He asked me “Are you the Big Man, the one who is going to place a Big Order?” No, actually china I’m looking for the Big Man myself .

Valley of Desolation oil on canvas 20x20cm

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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

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

I’m leaving the volstruisdorpie for Graaf Reinet to check out the Pierneef Museum and the Valley of Desolation.  Its about 270 kms, which could take 3 hours, or maybe the whole day.  The road to Willowmore takes me through some wide open country with hills and aloes in bright sunlight.

No one else on the road….

ah...kudu country!

You go through the mountains at Buyspoort and you’re out of the Klein Karoo. As the landscape simplifies, the man-made mark on it seems more distinct. In Willowmore, a carefully put together but symbolically obscure piece:

draai of braai

But as I get into the Great Karoo I start to notice an array of enigmatic structures and curiosities that look like the interventions of a contemporary artist…

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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