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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.

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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