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how the hell did they do that?

how the hell did they do that?

A long slow road from Hermanus to Joburg, via the Drakensberg, that was my plan. After a week of solitary Pierneef pursuits in the Berg, Joburg was booming, noisy and fast. It was also beautiful and evocative in many ways, and I resolved to get round to some unfinished painterly business concerning my home town. But I didn’t linger. Once I’d navigated my way past this obstacle, the open road beckoned.

Obscurely, I scrambled up a bridge over the N1 near Sebokeng, where I came across these laaities. The wannabee rapper’s T shirt says “attitude”, but methinks the introverted one has more.

DSCF5164 (640x480)

Early December, with the heat rising and big Pierniefian clouds promising rain. Way past Bloemfontein, I took the off ramp to Edenburg, a town one never goes to. You arrive through an avenue of tired bluegums. Fields of shattered glass sparkle in the late afternoon sun. A low budget all year round Christmas decoration, if you will. The petrol attendant was an optimist. ” This is a nice quiet town,” he told me. And indeed it was, in the way patients on life support are. Here were the usual symptoms of the plague afflicting so many of our dorpies: barricaded shops,  broken roads, sad okes sitting on the pavement hoping for work.

phone Walter Meyer!

phone Walter Meyer!

The houses here have seen better days, and all they’re good for now is broken- hearted country songs or a Walter Meyer painting. Artists have been painting the karoo dorpie for a long time, but most have recorded its charm. It was Meyer’s stroke of genius to identify an aesthetic that wasn’t charming, but desolate, surreal and alienating, and to register all of that in paint.

I crept out of town towards Trompsburg.  Things are slightly better there. Clusters of new buildings rise up in the veld, including a brand new hospital. Clearly, Edenburg is run by crooked bastards, while Trompsburg has vestiges of civic pride. The difference may be just one or two upstanding individuals.

stilte op die vlaktes

stilte op die vlaktes

There was hardly anyone else on the small road running parallel to the N1. The light was beautiful and I stopped the car and had a look around. Here is this other South Africa, and you don’t have to drive to the Kalahari to find it – it’s just a hop away from the usual overheated routes. There is a big melancholic quiet punctuated by birdcalls and perhaps the odd bellowing cow. It is in this encounter that the idea of landscape painting as a trans-personal, transcendant argument begins.

Coasting up the N2 near Riviersonderend

semi abandoned farmhouse

SA painter Walter Meyer put a lot of chickens in the pot painting this kind of thing.  I can’t help thinking about stopping off to do a quick watercolour. But then I start thinking about the great American watercolourist Andrew Wyeth and his meticulous and chilling images of the deserted heartland (see Christina’s World 1948). Nah. Imagine having the ghost of Wyeth leering over your shoulder while you work. I’m having enough trouble dealing with Henk Pierneef, and he was a genial kind of a guy.

huisie in Suurbraak

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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