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JH Pierneef, Mont au Sources. c 1931

JH Pierneef, Mont au Sources. c 1931

Mont aux Sources. Not the usual view of the famed Amphitheatre, but a view taken from deep down in the Thukela Gorge. On the map, an 8 to 10k roundabout walk from Tendele bungalows. On a fine morning, I strode out manfully. OK, I set out, slowly. For the last two decades, I’ve been bizarrely plagued by chronic fatigue syndrome. Walking -as we normally know it- has been a bit of a challenge, and this was a big walk in my book. But I figured if I walked really slowly I could do it. In my bag, I had an A4 size sketchbook, pencils, a watercolour kit, digital camera, phone, water, boerewors, a boiled egg, salt, and some cherries from Ficksburg. I also had a sachet of D- Ribose, a magic sugar that is supposed to support the mitochondria, those little energy factories in our cells.

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The landscape is splendid, invigorating. It’s no co-incidence that landscape painting took off in the late 1700s just as people were losing their religion. For the new agnostics, the spiritual path went to Nature rather than the Church. Landscape painting will, at some stage, make you ponder forces larger than yourself. Aside from the sheer scale of things, there’s non- human time. Away from our usual distractions, a day can be a very long thing as the sun works its way over the 150 million -year -old cliffs. Even in Pierneef’s time, Nature was seen as eternal, proof of an Almighty. But in the 21st century, this is a fragile remnant, a world threatened by us in all sorts of ways.

Along the way I met plenty of pale skinned European hikers, sunning themselves in the African Alps. One of them was a German called Mark Muller who offered to send me a pic if he found the Pierneef site.

Greetings from the North!

Greetings from the North!

I ambled on, making sketches along the way. But two and half hours in, there were still plenty of hills to walk around before the fabled Gorge. I turned back, knowing that I was frustratingly close but also with relief. I was getting way out of my league. A week later, I got this photo from Mr Muller. See how those hills on the right match the original Pierneef?  Yes, this was the site. Now I’ll have to get back there somehow. Anybody got any steroids?

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The oil painting is “Good day Monsieur Courbet.” by Gustave Courbet. (1854)

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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carlbecker.art@gmail.com

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