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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

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Despite the charm of the house, I headed back onto the highway with a vague sense of loss. My conversation with Hans wasn’t all that optimistic, to tell you the truth. He doesn’t share his grandfather’s sense of permanence. He feels his children’s future may lie elsewhere, perhaps out of Africa. And then, cutting into the lane in front of me, my subject appeared. It was a little dented and moving quite fast.

White taxi 23 x 20 cm, watercolour

The minibus is not known for its respect for the rules of the road. To your average whitey, the minibus represents the End of The World As We Know It. Over the years, I’ve rendered a few of them. Initially it was a way of neutralising an irritant. (Painting can do this, for the artist and the viewer.) Later it became another little pathway to acceptance. In the Fordsburg studio though, the din from the hooting taxi could stretch your tolerance. Torrents of abuse would flow from the balcony onto Main Street. Sometimes the artists were known to flick paint from their brushes onto the offenders below.

The artist's revenge: Gridlocked by paint

Once, sketching at a taxi rank in the Jo’burg CBD, a man stood behind me and watched me draw. “Eish! You can say that is dangerous!” said he. I never worked out if he meant the drawing or the taxi. But I like the idea of a dangerous drawing. And the thing is, now that these dangerous little vehicles are being replaced by those lumbering high roofed ones, they’ve acquired a certain sentimental value. They’re becoming relics, symbols of an era. Rather like a Pierneef painting.

The first taxi painting - 1991, oil on board

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.

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.

A little trip up to Jo’burg is one of the reasons why I haven’t been posting. The other is that while I was there I got a rash from hell that drove me to distraction. Apparently it’s common practice for bloggers to post their rashes, but I’ll spare you that. In Jo’burg I met a photographer called Monique Pelser, and she too has been photographing the Pierneef sites. Which goes to prove that if you have an idea, you can be sure someone else is having it at exactly the same time. Monique tells me the Pierneef museum is moving to Stellenbosch. I’m trying to confirm.

If you are ever in Graaff Reinet, the taxidermist across the way from the Pierneef Museum is worth a look. They keep the main door closed though, as if to discourage casual enquiries or bunny huggers:

standing room only

I also encountered this bloke, who makes finely crafted greeting cards out of beads and wire.

He has a congratulatory sales technique: “Well done, I’m proud of you,” he says when you buy a card. He asked me “Are you the Big Man, the one who is going to place a Big Order?” No, actually china I’m looking for the Big Man myself .

Valley of Desolation oil on canvas 20x20cm

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

The Valley of Desolation. I’ve been here before, and not quite figured out where our man painted it from. The original seems to have been done from the bottom of the valley, but there’s no easy way down there.

Did Pierneef really trundle all the way to the bottom? He was more inclined to stop the car on the side of the road, in my experience. Surely I won’t have to drag my creaking old bones down there? Maybe he was slightly down from the top? I keep on up to the top and, heading off the designated footpaths, try to get lower down. Earlier, there were some fuckwits on a team building exercise, but they’ve moved off. It’s a weekday. It’s dead quiet. I’ve got the whole frightening vast clump of stones to myself.

no time for a dizzy spell

It’s a warm, still winter’s day, a kind of perfection for the outdoor painter, and I start drawing right away. But I’ve taken too long to get here, and I’m not really in the right place. There are non specific little fears niggling around  my brain, the kind of stuff that gets thrown up when you can’t help noticing your own insignificance in the face of geological time and measure. Absurdly, I try to downscale all of this onto an A4 sketch pad. And I make a note underneath. It says: ” certain primordial fears; fear of heights; fear of dehydration, fear of dying alone, etc….”

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.)

Three years ago I looked on the North side of the Swartberg Pass for the Pierneef site – nothing doing. Its definitely on the south, or Oudtshoorn, side. I take a farm road. No traffic, no cell reception, not much of a road. Probably pretty much how it was for Pierneef in the 30’s.

eensaamheid in die klein karoo

You take it slowly on a dirt road, and that makes you look at where you are. I’m looking at some pretty big mountains, feeling suitably insignificant. I’m sure I’ll find the site near the bottom of the pass, but I don’t. I do a watercolour and carry on up. There’s nothing that looks vaguely like the place I’m looking for, but the Pass is stunning, something new around every corner. Quite near the top I have something to eat and do another watercolour, then head to the top. There’s a fierce wind , so I stay in the car and do a third little watercolour sketch.

view from 'die top'

OK. I’ve got a page of watercolours but no idea where the site is. Perhaps he made it up?

From De Rust you cross Spookdrif, Skansdrif, Damdrif, Boesmansdrif, Skelmkloofdrif, Aalwyndrif, Nooiensboomdrif and there it is, Dubbele Drif se draai:

jh pierneef. Meiringspoort

Following the curve of the road, this is the right place. It seems as if the river’s on the right, but if you look closely its running onto the road from the left. The river now runs under the road. And that large boulder is indeed there. Because of the new bridge, I can’t get as close as he was, so the cliffs seem less towering. The light coming in from the east tells me he was here early on a summer morning. At this time of year it only gets a touch of late afternoon light.

Dubbele d se draai, 2010

I’m glad that the decision about what to paint in the Poort has already been made for me, because there’s a bewildering majesty to this place and I wouldn’t know where to start. But that thing I said about the silence isn’t strictly true. There are quite a few big trucks winding through here. And some of them like to hoot at the weird oke in the hat painting next to the road, which makes me jump.

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

 

Not Valentines day, but Nineteenth Century Romanticism. The Romantic painters responded to the industrial age by looking for the sublime in Nature, a quest that was both aesthetic and spiritual. And even well into the C19th, when the Impressionists were drenching themselves in sunlight, the gloomy Northern Romantic tradition continued. (It’s been argued that Pierneef belongs to this current in European painting.)

I chose to show the harbour buildings overwhelmed by the magnitude of an Atlantic storm: A very Romantic idea.

 

Old Harbour, Hermanus.

 

Oil on canvas.60cm x 170cm.2009

Pierneef’s woodcut of the Hermanus old harbour. His graphic output – woodcuts and linocuts – was huge, and all of it of very high quality.

 

old harbour, woodcut. c1931

 

See my post Down South (below) for a look at his painting of the same. It still looks like this – except for the boats which were washed away in a storm in 2008. And even though the camera tells us the buildings are much smaller, this is far more ‘realistic’. Perhaps it reinforces what we choose to remember? Or reassures us that we are imposing ourselves on Nature?

What emerged out of that was the recolouration I’d been hoping for (you don’t quite know what it is, but you recognise it when you see it.) I also lost some lekker paintings within paintings

 

lost Picasso sculpture

 

Then there was the small matter of The Sea, the dreaded sea. After numerous false starts I remembered Anton Chapman‘s advice about putting down a base of deep red. He has painted a lot of sea and knows his stuff. A layer of Venetian Red and some editing decisions later:

 

Red Sea

 

And after quite a bit more tweaking:

 

Cape Town Personae

 

The beast is laid to rest at last.

I don’t know what the hell happened to that last post! It’s Sunday night and I’m getting irritated, so here’s a quick look anyway at the full painting, at the point where it gets really interesting.

 

the long shot

 

I finally figured that JHP was down by the docks – at something called Berth A. After wheedling my way past security, I felt sure this was the site: a view across the water of Lion’s Head with some industrial buildings in the foreground. Back in the studio I started rendering the panorama in a fairly loose but literal kind of way, laying in the details happily unaware that I was about to ambushed by a whole range of dubious characters….

 

Lion's Head (detail)

 

Two little views of the Leeu se Kop, the one in the Bo Kaap in February, sweating in the afternoon sun. The other done in March on a nondescript Saturday afternoon. Edward Hopper – a superb watercolourist – was fond of taking a watercolour from behind the frame of the windscreen.

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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