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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

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

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

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…. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

So there’s no site. But I’ve got a tea date with George and Sheila Coutouvidis and I start the downhill glide. Its 20 kilometres of downhill all the way to Prince Albert.  I took the bicycle ride down a few years ago. You pay a guy in PA to take you up in his shiny Toyota. {Make sure your bike brakes are in good working order.}

This is what I’m looking for:

"Swartberg Pass" J H Pierneef c 1930

It’s not one of his best panels.  We get a sense of the size of the mountains, but there’s no drama here somehow. There’s a lack of illumination, no light source. The key to finding the site is the road of course. It curves around two hills, and there’s a hint of a river just off to the right. I’m halfway down the pass already and I happen to glance to my right and there it is:

at last!

I stop the car and let out a yell (as one does when finding a Pierneef site.) I’m in exactly the right spot. It’s about 3.30pm and there’s no direct sunlight anymore. That explains the lack of light too. Fantastic. But now I’ve got to go and have tea with George and Sheila. (Double click the pic and you should be able to see the second curve of the road clearly.)

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

 

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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