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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

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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