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The dirt road to Sutherland, that cold karoo dorpie deep in the interior. I’m driving an antiquated Land Cruiser, all the way to Joburg. Its a slow old beast, rattling and whining like a Bedford truck, but the high-up view is great, and rolling along at 65kph on the dirt is what it lives for.

DSCF6012 (640x480)  Strictly speaking, this has nothing to do with Pierneef. I’m doing this for a friend, and I’m indulging my need for big skies and min mense. The chosen route goes from Hermanus to Sutherland via Ceres, and then across the plains to Fraserburg, then Loxton, Victoria West and on to the N12 to Kimberley. Obscure, yes, but this was once the most direct route to Kimberley, favoured by transport riders taking provisions up to the diamond diggings. I’m also testing my theory that the experience of the Sublime – the sense of awe when confronted by an Alpine vista – is also absolutely to be had from Flatness. There’s that, and there’s the general idea of an end-of-year journey, a time to let stuff percolate. People do drugs, yoga, meditation or whatever to get a sense of perspective, but a road trip is the business in my book.

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DSCF6025 (640x480)The inscriptions on the landscape left by hardy pioneering types have gravitas and tell of long struggles

against the odds. There are small drifts and passes too, getting higher up, and unusual, specific plant forms.

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I was looking at one of these when I heard the dreaded bubbling sound coming from deep within the heart of the beast. Yip, she was boiling. Sunday afternoon, no-one on the road, no cell phone reception, 80ks from Sutherland. I was strangely unconcerned. I had water and food. Oh ja, and pencil and paper. I got a chair out of the back of the car and settled down to my first drawing of the trip. Pierneef would have approved, I’m sure. After a while an old Toyota bakkie came along. Inside it was a man called Anton and his sleepy wife. He said he was a foreman at the nearest farm and was a Kavango from northern Namibia. We drove back to the farm and flushed out the radiator. “You’re gonna make it to Sutherland now, “said Anton, and although I knew he hadn’t fixed the problem I was desperate to believe him.

The Kavango cowboy

The Kavango cowboy

Before you get onto the Sutherland plateau there is 15 ks of uphill starting with the aptly -named Verlorenkloof. I got a long way up that never-ending slope before the needle started spiking again. There I was, with the bonnet open and the day drawing to a close when the next Samaritan appeared. Another farmer and his wife in an old white Toyota bakkie. Staying in the car, with just a hint of a smile on his face, he made the diagnosis: ” Hy kook seker, ne?” Then told me to put the heater on full blast, and it had the magical effect of bringing the needle down straight away. ” Vat it maar kalm,” he said, ” ek volg jou agterna.”

I was impressed, relieved and grateful, and with a magenta light hitting the karoo scrub, I drove into the wide streets of Sutherland. Day One in the Cruiser: I’d met some interesting people and seen some pretty good stuff. And I had a couple of drawings under the belt too. What more can an oke ask for?

Ah, the plateau at last!

Ah, the plateau at last!






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.

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

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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