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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

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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