The Rupert Museum is showing JH Pierneef's works. Sean O'Toole remembers the controversial artist
JH Pierneef, the masterful Pretoria-born landscape painter who died 53 years ago, didn't care much for portraying weather in his epic, sometimes invented, scenes of rural loneliness. Trees stand erect and unbent. His seas are still. Smoke drifts languidly on a breeze over the Rand Mine industrial compound in one of his famous station panels.
Commissioned in 1929 and installed in Johannesburg's new central railway station in 1932, Pierneef's 32 station panels are widely regarded as seminal works in South African art. The painter's only concession to the volatility of nature in the series, which is on view at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch until April 2011, are his vast cumulonimbus clouds. They hang over his many blue and grey mountains like a pregnant threat.
A contemporary of Edward Hopper, the American master of lonely, both men possessed a way of silencing the noise and tumult of the 20th century. At a time of rapid urbanisation and labour strife, Pierneef - like Hopper - rendered the world as quiet, unhurried, awkwardly still and, well, lifeless. I love both of them for it, but sometimes doubt their indifference to the happy-sad everyday of human life.
Esmé Berman, a Joburg art historian, isn't convinced by my summary. "Weather is a sum of temporary conditions - it is virtually a metaphor for inconstancy," she says. "Emphasis on that aspect of the natural scene would have been in total conflict with Pierneef's vision. The very essence of the South African landscape, as he perceived it, was the sense of permanence, of immutability."
Berman, who is working on a new book that includes a chapter on Pierneef, also doesn't find the stillness of his scenes awkward. Human presence, she says, would "detract from the monumental grandeur of the landscapes". Which is not to say that she doesn't also wonder about the "persisting absence" of human subjects in this "famously congenial" painter's scenes.
It is an absence that has both pleased and irked the many people who have looked at Pierneef's panels in the past. Elisabeth Bradley, heir to Albert Wessels's Toyota business empire, is of the former group. Bradley recalls seeing the station panels in their original niches, before their removal from the station in 1971 and eventual permanent loan by the Transnet Foundation to the Rupert Art Foundation in 2002.
"I was very struck by them," says Bradley, whose mother was the poet Elisabeth Eybers. "I was a child at the time, but they made a deep impression on me."
Bradley admires Pierneef's style and owns three of his paintings. She acquired her first Pierneef in 1995, by which time his legend had already received a considerable pummelling.
In 1988, artist William Kentridge published an essay in which he unpicked Pierneef's "vision of pure nature", pointing out how such scenes emerged only after "puffs of gunsmoke" had silenced debate over who controlled the land. "These paintings," wrote Kentridge, including Pierneef in his sweep, "of landscape in a state of grace, are documents of disremembering".
Pretoria art scholar Nic Coetzee pretty much said the same thing four years later. "Pierneef's landscapes are clearly an outsider's view of the land, a view of the land that was de-historicised, de-humanised, drained of compassion. It is a view that is informed by a sterile religious mysticism."
Berman, who until recently was unaware of Coetzee's famous essay, says that "the revisionist perception of Pierneef's ideological standpoint tends to distort, or to veer away from, the contemporaneous reality. Influential Henk Pierneef certainly was. A political firebrand he certainly was not!"
It is a view supported by Stephan Welz. A founding member of the new auction house Strauss & Co, his business partners include Elisabeth Bradley. In September, Welz opened the Rupert Museum's Pierneef exhibition with a 3500-word speech. Delivered to what one visitor described as "an almost exclusively white mink-and-manure Afrikaner set", Welz's speech is remarkable. Die Burger newspaper also thought so, reprinting it in its entirety and in its original English form.
Well-researched, impassioned, ranging, defensive, Welz's speech weighed in against the negative stereotyping Pierneef has endured in recent years. A brief recap:
In 1989, artist Wayne Barker painted a likeness of Pierneef's Apies River station panel, which he then destroyed in a performance of sorts at a black working men's bar in downtown Joburg. "His paintings were easy to copy, because of their Tintin-comic vibe," Barker told Art South Africa magazine last year.
In 2000, Cheryl Carolus, then high commissioner in London, motivated that Pierneef's panels inside South Africa House on Trafalgar Square, completed in 1935, be covered over. Carolus likened Pierneef's portrayals of black South Africans to "little more than monkeys". And four years ago, Michael MacGarry, Zander Blom and Jan-Henri Booyens (collectively known as Avant Car Guard) photographed themselves dancing on Pierneef's grave in Pretoria.
Welz used his speech as an opportunity to hit back.
That Pierneef, a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond until 1946, has become the target of "political football", as one interviewee put it to me, is self-evident. What is perhaps less acknowledged is his ability to weather storms, some quite literal.
For all his disinterest in weather conditions, Pierneef's first one-man exhibition in 1913 was damaged when a hailstorm swept across Pretoria. More recently, in July 2008, two months before an enormous Pierneef oil depicting a baobab tree sold to an anonymous buyer for £826400, a Tshwane metro bus crashed into the Church Street Cemetery. Pierneef survived the onslaught, a tree stopping the bus just metres from his grave.
The nature of the anti-Pierneef lobby is also overstated. Pierneef continues to inspire. Artists like Carl Becker and Monique Pelser are currently exploring the landscapes of his station panels with paintbrush and camera. For his part, Barker has described Pierneef as "the first South African pop artist".
Hayden Proud, a curator at the South African National Gallery, concurs with Barker to the extent that Pierneef was and still is "popular", but unlike Vladimir Tretchikoff, for example, exhibits "none of that cloying sentimentality". This might explain why, in spite of a change in government, when last Welz visited Mahlamba Ndlopfu, the presidential home in Pretoria, Pierneef was still prominently displayed. Ditto in the President's office at the Union Buildings.
Perhaps it is Pierneef's nativist sense of place that will ensure the old painter's reputation in the years ahead. While his appeal is still tethered to rich Afrikaans business people who "feel unapologetic about collecting their heritage", to quote dealer Michael Stevenson, his collector base is widening.
"People who collect art are more open-minded," art dealer Monna Mokoena told me two years ago. "They go beyond racial issues. I have clients who are not white, who collect Pierneef, and white counterparts who collect Sekoto, who wouldn't touch Pierneef."