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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.

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.

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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